Q: I put up a hotwired paddock in my backyard (which is also surrounded by fence) in order to bring my horse from his stables to my home during the summer weekends. I have good riding trails where I live and would like him close by to ride. What would my liability be if he were to escape or injure someone?
A: Thanks for writing in with this question! There are few joys greater than having your own horse in your own back yard. However, when housing a horse on your property, there are two primary legal considerations: (1) how your property is zoned and (2) the potential increase in your personal liability.
I'll discuss zoning first. Nearly every county, city and municipality has zoning ordinances designed to make sure that landowner's use of their property is not dangerous or problematic to neighbors and others. Horses are typically considered to be livestock and thus in order to keep a horse in your back yard, your local zoning ordinances must permit you to have livestock on your property. Usually, areas that permit livestock also limit the number of animals per acre. To find out more about your local zoning ordinances and how your property is zoned, you can visit your city or county offices. Many city and county offices in California also have information available online, so you might want to surf the net first.
If your property is not zoned for livestock and you have a horse in your backyard, you will be in violation of your zoning ordinances. Penalties for zoning violations typically include fines and requiring the landowner to correct the problem. Zoning enforcement is typically a complaint-driven process, so your chances of receiving a citation increase dramatically if your neighbors are not tolerant of horses, all the more reason to practice good manure management and pest control.
Having a horse in your backyard also increases your potential personal liability. As a horse owner and landowner, if you are found to be negligent in keeping a horse on your property, you can be liable for damages and injury caused by your horse. For example, if your fencing is inadequate to keep your horse contained and your horse gets loose and is hit by a car, you could be liable for damages to the car and its occupants, however unfair that may sound. A local stable in the Bay Area was held liable in a car accident caused by loose horses. When the sheriff approached the stable to talk to the owner, he leaned on the wooden fence and it gave way - certainly not a good example of fencing designed to keep the occupants in! In this particular case, the stable also had a history of horses getting loose, which provided additional evidence of negligence.
In addition, horses are sometimes considered to be an "attractive nuisance," especially in areas where livestock is not common. Being an attractive nuisance means that the horse's mere presence on your property is likely to draw people onto your property, especially children. As a landowner with an attractive nuisance on your property, you should be aware that people may enter your property and try to pet your horse, feed him treats or otherwise put themselves in a potential position of danger. Consequently, you have a duty to try to keep people away from your horse, either with warning signs, fencing or both. If you invite guests on to your property, you have an even higher duty to safeguard them from harm, particularly if they have been invited on your property for business purposes.
You mention that you are planning to ride your horse on local riding trails. Im guessing that these trails do not lead right off of your property and that you will need to ride over land or along the road to get to them. Aside from the obvious safety issues, you should be aware that if you ride across someone else's land to reach public trails, you should obtain their permission to avoid trespassing. In riding across someone else's land, you are also potentially liable for any damage that you and your horse cause, even if it is unintentional and even if you have the land owner's permission to ride there. For example, if the land owner's dog bursts out of the bushes and spooks your horse, who then throws you and runs through the land owner's flower beds, you could be liable to the land owner for the damage to his flower beds. Many land owners are wary of their own potential liability for having riders on their property, so you may need to offer to give them a release of liability in exchange for permission to ride on their property.
Ordinary homeowners' insurance policies do not typically cover the value of livestock or liability resulting from livestock ownership, so you should consult your insurance company about your coverage. In evaluating your insurance needs, you may want to consider horse owner's liability insurance. For more information about shopping for equine insurance, see "Insurance" on the Equine Legal Solutions website.
Good luck, and happy trails to you.