Some years back, Heart of Phoenix learned the hard way that horse theft is almost always handled as a civil case. We learned this when an adopted horse was sold by the adopter just a few months after taking her to her farm.
A Heart of Phoenix contract is a lease agreement. Heart of Phoenix always retains ownership of rescued horses. This means, technically, sure. . .if you sell, give away or auction a HOP horse, you’ve committed a crime, but in the case of horses, it is not as simple as basic theft in almost all states in America.
A Civil case means law enforcement isn’t going to help you most of the time. It means you have to go to court via a law suit to PROVE your side.
This is SO important for You to understand before you board with a facility you do not know well, loan a horse to a person, lease out your horse, place a horse on an adoption agreement where you keep ownership for awhile or for good or before letting someone keep your horses for a short time if you’re relocating, for instance.
Possession is never more 9/10th than when someone has YOUR horse and will not return the horse, care for the horse or let you have your horse back. It is an even larger issue when they have sold or given away YOUR horse. Time starts to run out on finding your horse, and you’re tied up in a legal suit.
Fortunately, in our case, we had taken the time to have knowledgeable attorneys draw up the adoption agreement that Moon had gone under (the Mare in this story). This meant that while police would and could not really help us locate the mare and would not charge the adopter with theft, We could (and did) sue the adopter. We did recover a LARGE settlement because it was easily prove she had defaulted on the agreement. She faced wage garnishment and liens on her home had she failed to pay the settlement, as well. She ultimately paid the judgement in full. This case has served as an example to other rescues nationally, and it has set a precedent that shows dishonest people if they adopt from HOP and fail to honor the adoption agreement, there are and will always be steep consequences (Thankfully, it has NEVER happened only the one time).
This brings about another point vital to understand. . .
When someone buys your stolen animal, you could be looking at a second suit to recover the horse from the buyer if they will not turn the animal over, and you may have to purchase your own animal back unless you already have a judgement against the seller / original party, and even then, depending on if the animal is in another state, it may become very complex.
We are lucky that we tracked down the mare many states away within a few months and purchased her back. We didn’t want to wait for the suit we had to play out, as we might have lost track of the mare, and the amount we paid to purchase her back simply became part of the suit and judgement against the adopter, in the end.
Since this case, we have taken steps to make sure that our contract is even more rock solid, having a Judge and two additional attorneys improve it to the point, it is IRON CLAD. We also started freeze branding and so forth to ensure our horses are as safe as possible. You live and learn.
Unethical boarding barns, dishonest friends, leasees AND ADOPTERS sell or give away HORSES that do not belong to them more often than you might think.
How Can You Better Protect Your Horse?
- Make sure you have a signed agreement that is ROCK Solid and in Line with YOUR state’s laws. Be sure there is a clause that requires any potential suit to take place within YOUR STATE. You cannot write up anything in a contract that law enforcement are likely to assist you with, so you need to understand if the agreement is breached, you’re going to court. You contract is only going to help you ONCE YOU’RE in Court. A good contract can make a person more likely to honor it, though, out of concern for the consequences. If you gain a judgement, then law enforcement can assist you.
2. State the horses value in the contract.
3. Consider a liquidated damages clause in your contract, be it with a boarding barn, friend or person leasing or adopting a horse (if you’re retaining ownership for awhile or forever). This means there is a cash amount that YOU can recover above and beyond the value of your horse, if the other party defaults. This doesn’t get your horse back, but it DOES discourage the other party from risking this type of “civil” theft.
4. Clearly describe the horse in detail, even including images of the horse in the agreement. Make sure you have copies of coggins, photos of the horse with you, and also consider micro-chipping and freeze branding.
Be aware that once a horse leaves your property and care, ultimately, if the horse is sold or given away and you’re still the owner, YOU are looking at a Civil Case almost every single time. If you document everything, it is a case you will win, but that doesn’t always mean you find your missing horse, sadly.