Equestrian claims - A brief overview

April 4, 2019

Posted by: Victoria Oliver


Horse riding is a much loved past time enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people each year.  However it can be a dangerous activity.  Horses are animals and can be unpredictable.  An average adult who is sat on a horse will have several metres to fall, should they be unseated, and these falls can result in different types of injury, including spinal injury.

Here is some insight into the types of claims brought in recent years, as a result of horses and the decisions of the courts.

Equestrian claims brought under the Animals Act 1971

There are a number of laws which govern accidents involving horses but where someone has been injured directly as a result of a horse doing something such as kicking, biting or bucking then the most common law used is the Animals Act 1971.

The Animals Act 1971 governs both dangerous and non-dangerous animals so there are different rules which apply to, say, tigers as opposed to tortoises.  Unsurprisingly, horses are not classed as dangerous and therefore the following conditions need to be satisfied for someone to bring a claim in the event they are injured by a horse:

  1. Was the injury one which is likely to be severe?  For example would a horse bucking cause a serious injury?  The reasonable answer appears to be yes.
  2. Was the likelihood and severity of the damage due to characteristics which were not normally found in a horse, except at particular times or in particular circumstances?  For example a horse may be very docile on a day to day basis but if given the opportunity to run with a herd might adopt more aggressive characteristics.
  3. Did the keeper of the animal know about those characteristics?

Below are some examples of cases where the Animals Act 1971 has been applied:

DAVID LYNCH v ED WALKER RACING LTD (2017)

David Lynch was a stable boy employed by the Defendant.  He had been riding a two-year-old colt in a string of nine race horses along a track beside a road.  The horses became spooked by something which caused some of them to whip around.  David’s horse whipped left and then right, lost its footing and fell over.  David fell off the horse and hit his head, leaving him unconscious.  He brought a claim under the Animals Act 1971.  Following a trial of liability, the judge dismissed the claim on the basis of witness evidence which stated that it was rare to be injured as a result of a horse whipping around and that people rarely fell off a horse because it whipped.  The judge also found that any injury caused was unlikely to be severe.  The judge’s decision was upheld on appeal.

KATIE SMITH v ALLAN HARDING (2013)

Katie stabled horses and worked at a yard run by her friend.  Allan’s horse was stabled there for a short period of time to be schooled.  His horse had always behaved well for Allan and had never reacted badly when being groomed or clipped, although he had not been clipped around his head.  When Katie attempted to clip the horse, the horse reacted badly and knocked her over, injuring her.  It was argued that the owner of the stable had warned Katie not to clip the horse and other employees gave evidence to this effect.  Katie was unsuccessful in her claim for personal injury and the Court found that she had voluntarily accepted the risk that the horse might react badly.  Even if this hadn’t been the case, Katie’s claim would still have failed because she couldn’t prove to the court that Allan was aware that his horse might kick out when clipped.

AMANDA TAPP v (1) TRUSTEES OF THE BLUE CROSS SOCIETY (2) KERRY PALMER (2013)

Amanda’s horse was stabled in the same yard as Kerry’s horse. Amanda went to check on her horse and found Kerry’s horse loose in the yard by a hay barn, having escaped from an adjacent field.  As the horse passed by Amanda, it bit her on the right shoulder, failed to let go and pushed her into a stable door where she fell and the horse either kicked or stood on her.

The Court accepted that the horse was not a dangerous animal and had not exhibited exceptionally aggressive behaviour.  He was among horses who had escaped from a field and acquired a freedom they were unused to, with access to food, and had consequently adopted a herd mentality, triggering behaviour like biting that could arise in circumstances where horses were asserting their hierarchies.  Given a horse’s size, any bite was likely to be severe.  It was not in the horse’s ordinary behaviour to bite, although he had a history of nipping, but he might bite where the herd instinct arose, since biting was a feature of a horse asserting its superiority over other horses.  The Court also found that Amanda had not accepted the risk as she had merely entered the yard when the horses came over to her; she was not trying to engage with them.  In these circumstances, Amanda was successful in her claim.

Equestrian claims brought under the general law of negligence

Unsurprisingly but sadly, as horses are ridden on the road, at times they are involved in road traffic collisions.  In such cases the Animals Act 1971 may still apply but the general laws of negligence would also apply. 

MICHAELA DEVEREUX v (1) PETER HAYWARD (2) EQUALITY CLAIMS LTD (2011)

Michaela Devereux and her husband had been riding their horses on a road when, as they rounded a bend, they encountered Peter, who was driving his motorcycle towards them and carrying a pillion passenger.

The facts about what happened next were disputed but Michaela’s horse subsequently bolted and she was thrown to the ground and sustained severe injuries.

Michaela alleged that the excessive noise and speed of Peter’s motorcycle had caused her horse to turn away and as he did so, Peter lost control of his motorcycle which then caused Michaela’s horse to bolt.  Michaela claimed that Peter was negligent in failing to keep control of his motorcycle, partly due to his speed and that her horse bolted as a result and she was thrown off.

Peter’s position was that, upon seeing the horses, he had reduced the motorcycle’s noise level and coasted towards them, reducing his speed and keeping to his side of the road but that Michaela’s horse had suddenly reared up and turned to flee causing her to fall off.  Peter denied his motorcycle had collided with the horse and said that her fall had not been caused by his negligence.

The judge found that the accident was caused by Peter’s negligent failure to keep control of his motorcycle, partly due to his excessive speed when he saw and approached the horses.  He also made a finding that Michaela was not negligent in failing to move her horse off the carriageway and on to the verge as she heard or saw the motorcycle approaching.  Michaela was riding a horse she knew was stable and not easily spooked in traffic. She was entitled to assume that she would be able to safely proceed along the left side of the road as the motorcycle approached and passed, even though it had been making a loud noise.  She was also not negligent in failing to dismount or signal to Peter that her horse was particularly nervous or skittish.  By the time she fell, her horse had been startled by the motorcycle, of which Peter then lost control and it collided with her horse.  It was then too late for her to be expected to prevent her horse from bolting or for her to be found negligent for failing to control it and stay in the saddle.  Michaela was not partially negligent for the accident.

How do I know if I have an equestrian accident claim?

The injuries sustained from such accidents, especially spinal injuries, are often life-changing.  Of the four cases detailed above, two of the claimants were successful and two were not.  Equestrian claims are not always straightforward and every case will turn on its individual facts.  The court and legal teams will investigate whether the events which gave rise to an accident were reasonably foreseeable and what sort of risks the injured party had notice of or expectations about.  Quite often, opposing parties to a claim will have a different interpretation of the facts to one another and it will be for the courts to decide, on the balance of probabilities, which version of events is more likely to be true.  Expert evidence frequently assists the court in making these judgments.  If you have been injured as a result of an accident involving a horse you should seek specialist advice.

Victoria Oliver is a solicitor and associate in the Spinal Injuries team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you or a loved one have suffered a spinal injury as a result of result of an accident, someone else’s negligence or you are concerned about the treatment you have received contact Victoria in confidence on 020 8049 8030 or at victoriaoliver@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors from the Spinal Injury team will contact you.  Find out more about the Spinal Injury team.

Posted by: Victoria Oliver

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