Buying horses can be a fraught process unless you know what you’re doing. Michael McNally from Warners Solicitors explains how to protect yourself against the pitfalls.
If you buy a car or a house, the process will involve many formalities. If you are buying a horse, there will probably be few, if any, formalities. It’s hard to think of any other transaction where you can spend thousands of pounds or more simply on the basis of a verbal agreement. Nonetheless, this is still how most horses are bought and sold. This isn’t a problem until something goes wrong with your new horse. It is, unfortunately, all too common for the purchaser to complain to the seller that the horse has gone lame or is proving impossible to ride. So what rights does a purchaser have?
Although a contract can be verbal only, a written contract creates more certainty. If the seller breaches anything agreed, you may have a claim against him for breach of contract or misrepresentation. Did you buy the horse from a business or from a private seller? This is important because it is only when you have bought from a business that certain terms are implied into the contract by the Sale of Goods Act. Where a horse is sold by a business, it must match any description, it must be of satisfactory quality and it must be fit for purpose. If, therefore, your new horse is lame or misbehaving, these implied terms could give you a claim for breach of contract. It will help your case if you made it clear to the seller what you wanted to use the horse for and you were told that the horse would be suitable for that purpose. If the seller breaches an express or implied term, then you will have the right to sue for damages (compensation), and/or rescission (termination) of the contract and your legal costs.
Unfortunately, the seller’s answer may be that there was nothing wrong with the horse when he sold it. He may claim that it is entirely down to the way you’ve looked after the horse – or your lack of riding ability!
Of course, a horse may exploit any weaknesses in his new owner’s control and the transfer to a new home may cause behavioural problems. In this situation, obtain a report from an expert in equine behaviour, who can conclude whether there is something wrong with the horse. It may be, for example, that the horse was drugged before pre-purchase examination – or it could genuinely be the purchaser’s fault.
Unfortunately, if both parties obtain their own experts’ report, it may be that the case has to go to trial for the judge to determine whose witnesses and experts he prefers. All this is likely to be extremely expensive, as well as stressful and time consuming for those involved.
If, however, the seller is not a business but a private seller, then it is more difficult for the purchaser because the starting point is “caveat emptor” i.e. let the buyer beware. You will only have a claim if you can prove that he was in breach of something he said or wrote before you agreed to buy.
If the private seller gives no assurances, then you will have no claim against him if it subsequently turns out that the horse, for example, bucks – it is up to you to satisfy yourself during pre-purchase inspection. If, however, the horse is described in the advert as a “schoolmaster”, but persistently bucks, you should have a good claim for breach of contract or at least misrepresentation (which applies when something false the seller said induced you to buy). Of course, if the horse only behaved well during pre-purchase examination because it had been drugged, then you could almost certainly have a breach of contract or misrepresentation claim.
Ideally, you should have a five-stage vetting carried out on the horse before you buy. This should reveal not only any pre-existing medical problems, but also any behavioural problems. It your vet fails to spot anything, then you may have a claim against him for professional negligence!
Make sure you get answers to all you questions. If the seller won’t sign a contract, at the very least make notes of what you agree with the seller. Explain what you want to do with the horse and make sure the seller agrees that the horse is suitable. Ask if the seller is the true owner or only acting as agent: the law relating to agency is complex, but usually any claim will be against the true owner.
Make sure that you check all the horse’s documentation, such as the passport and details of breeding – particularly if you are buying a horse from abroad. Finally, be rational about the whole process – it’s easy to fall in love with a horse, but you will quickly fall out of love if he isn’t as advertised! Remember that there are plenty of horses out there – you will soon find the ideal match.
“First published in LocalRider Magazine, November 2014”.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.