Boarders come and boarders go, but sometimes they leave with unpaid bills. What is a trainer or barn owner to do when a boarder leaves with a large unpaid bill? Unfortunately, most barn owners and trainers do not have security deposits to cover departing boarders’ unpaid bills. Previously harmonious relationships breakdown and the boarder threatens to leave. Once the horse is out of the barn, it is too late to do anything but commence a prolonged legal battle to get paid. The barn owner or trainer has to spend money to go to court. The process of getting back the money rightfully owed is long, and the legal costs are often unrecoverable. Even if the boarding agreement has provisions for payment of legal fees in case the barn owner has to sue to enforce the agreement, resolution is prolonged and uncertain. What can the barn or property owner to do?

There is legal mechanism that can be used to help avoid prolonged protracted legal proceedings to recover unpaid board and training bills – the Horseman’s Lien. Almost every state has a “Liens for Care of Horses” statute that provides protection for the “keeper of a livery stable or boarding and exchange stable” (“barn owner”) from having an owner remove a horse from the property with an unpaid bill. These laws allow barn owners to place liens on all animals in their care and to keep them until the unpaid bills are paid.

While the law is simple, using it to prevent a defaulting horse owner from taking the horse from the property is not. It requires barn owners to take certain steps in order to be able to claim the protections available to them under the Horseman’s Lien statutes.

The scene typically plays out in the middle of the night or some other expected time when a van pulls up to the barn and the owner tries to load the horse and leave. The barn owner refuses to let the horse leave. A heated argument erupts. Soon either the horse owner or the barn owner calls the police. A patrolman, who likely has no knowledge of horses let alone the Horseman’s Lien statute, finds herself in the middle of an angry argument with some people trying to take the horse off the property and others trying to stop them. Without any idea about who’s right or who’s wrong or what should be done, the policeman has to make a decision to keep the peace – and the easiest way to do that is to let the owner of the horse take the horse and to tell the barn owner to take it up with the court. That is a perfectly logical way for the policeman to handle the situation – except that the law provides otherwise.

New Jersey’s Liens for the Care of Horses provides that the barn owners have a lien on all animals left in their care for the amount due for board and care and, “shall have the right, without process of law, to retain the same until the amount of the indebtedness is discharged.” A companion statute allows for the sale of the horse after 30 days pass from the date of enacting the lien, provided various safeguards are followed to ensure that there is proper notice and an opportunity for the horse owner to make payment. Other states provide similar protections for barn owners from non-paying boarders.

Of course, the barn owner doesn’t want another horse and just wants to get paid what is owed. She does not want to get involved in protracted legal proceedings or in a public auction and sale of the horse. However in order to be able to use the Horseman’s Lien effectively, the barn owner needs to take certain steps to keep the horse on the property the minute it appears that a boarder is contemplating leaving without paying bills.

The barn owner must provide notice of the outstanding bill to the boarder, preferably in a manner that documents its receipt. Next, the barn owner should contact the local police chief and arrange to stop by and bring a copy of the statute along with proof of the unpaid bill. The police department needs to be made aware that the horse owner may try to come and take the horse from the property and that the barn owner has a legal right to prevent the horse from being taken off the property. In some situations, it may also be advisable for the barn owner to have a veterinarian monitor the horse and document that the horse is being kept safe and in good condition pending resolution of the bill. Having done all of this, the barn owner may be able to prevent the horse from being taken from the property, provided the police are willing to enforce the law as it is written. It will be necessary at the moment of confrontation to make sure the police know that the law is on the barn owner’s side, that the horse is not in any danger and is being well cared for, that the horse will be released upon payment of the bill, and that the horse owner can bring the matter before the Court to dispute the bill or post a bond. The police office has two main concerns, keeping the peace and maintaining the welfare of the animal. The barn owner needs to anticipate and address those concerns.

If the barn owner is able to keep the horse in the barn, then it is likely that the bill will be paid expeditiously since the bill is almost always less than the value of the horse. Once the horse is out of the barn, recovering the money owed is difficult, prolonged and often a zero sum game.