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Computers and other new technology may be setting the agenda of many lawyers, but at least some Hudson Valley, New York, attorneys still have a horse-and-buggy practice, with a legal tool kit fashioned in the 19th century. Horses still are an important part of the region in the 21st century and generate a steady stream of legal work. “Equine law,” a catchall term for legal issues related to horses, encompasses numerous topics, including contracts and sales, negligence to both humans and animals, zoning disputes, insurance law, veterinary malpractice and the so-called “stableman’s lien.” Lawyers also represent trainers, riders and others before the professional bodies that govern races and competitions. A few years ago, motorists tried to sue a police department for failing to round up runaway horses before they caused an accident. Joanna Wahl Feffer of New York City, a former high-level competitor in equestrian events who devotes about 50 percent of her legal practice to cases involving horses, said that most of the work involves “regular everyday problems.” But before he or she can apply elementary legal concepts of contract or tort law, a lawyer must acquire an understanding of a sometimes insular world with its own language and ways of doing things. “I could give you a sentence, and you could not understand one word,” Feffer said. “You wouldn’t understand the standard of care.” The Cooperative Extension Service estimates that there are 15,000 horses in Orange County, New York. A breeding boom in the 1980s, when the county’s horse population trailed only Saratoga in New York, had some observers touting Orange County as a future rival to Kentucky. This has simmered down, but the recreational sector of the horse economy continues to grow even as new housing developments dot the landscape. HORSE COUNTRY Other counties in the region have large animal populations as well. Dutchess County, N.Y., has about 12,000 horses, and Northern Westchester, N.Y., in particular, is known for its tony horse farms (owned by the likes of Calvin Klein), expensive boarding and riding stables, and equestrian events. The American Horse Council estimates that there are about 150,000 horses in the state of New York, contributing $4.8 billion to the economy. That trails only California, Texas and Florida, and New York ranks fifth or sixth in horse population. Only a half-dozen or so New York lawyers list their names in the equine law section of the Martindale-Hubbell practice guide. There are more than 60 in Lexington, Ky., alone. However, if few New York lawyers devote as much of their practice to horses as Feffer, many small-town lawyers count a few horse owners and farms among their real estate and business clients. Rich individuals or syndicates who can afford the six-figure price tag for a promising thoroughbred often turn to their corporate attorneys. For many local attorneys, the work is a labor of love. Harry M. Stokes of Granite Springs in Westchester County, a 20-year veteran of IBM who became a lawyer, “got serious about horses when I had a kid” but soon found that riding was good exercise and very relaxing. A few years ago, while a lawyer at a New Haven firm doing medical malpractice and products liability, he took a riding vacation in Virginia. “The manager (of the horse farm) knew that I was an attorney and she mentioned the fact that, in her opinion, there was a need for attorneys who possessed a knowledge of horses and the horse industry,” said Stokes, who estimates that up to 30 percent of his practice is related to horse issues but who also represents the Mount Vernon School District and other clients. “She told me that they (horsemen) all have big egos, that they think they know the law, but they didn’t.” In fact, said Feffer, horse industry figures are becoming increasingly conscious that they are involved in a business that requires good legal representation. VETERINARIAN-LAWYER Brian McNamara, a Warwick, N.Y., veterinarian who recently graduated from Pace University Law School, was fascinated by animals as a child. He noted that just as many aviation lawyers wind up buying planes, so do many equine lawyers own horses. McNamara himself said he finds the law “more intellectually stimulating” than patching up injured horses, although he plans to continue working as a veterinarian while he builds a legal practice. He wants to specialize in criminal law, but has attended the University of Kentucky’s annual seminars in equine law and probably will represent some horse industry clients. “Trainers tend to get into a lot of trouble,” he said. Lawyers who are drawn to horses make friends among other riders, farm owners and trainers. Such contracts sometimes result in legal work. That has happened to attorney Marcia A. Jacobowitz of Walden, in Orange County, who has been riding since the age of 9 and groomed polo ponies while she was attending law school. Her thoroughbred, “French Kiss,” is the fifth horse she has owned; the first was a retired New York City police horse. Equine law is a small part of a busy business practice, but she has picked up several cases involving horse farms and is working on a syndication deal. Jacobowitz recently handled the suit of a Massachusetts man who leased a stallion named “Obligato” to an Orange County farm to be bred with the mares of other horsemen. Obligato spent the breeding seasons of 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 romancing charmers with names like “Sweet and Saxy,” “Give Me Serenity,” and “Zip to the North.” Obligato’s progeny performed well in New York races, but both owner and farm operator claimed the prize money the state makes available for such productive stallions. The lease agreement was only one paragraph long, not unusual in a business where large sums of money frequently are exchanged on only a handshake, and Jacobowitz says that state regulations were ambiguous. The two claimants ultimately split the prize money, with owner taking 60 percent and lessee 40 percent. EXPENSIVE HOBBY Jacobowitz tries to visit her horse at least four times a week at the farm where he is boarded. Keeping a horse can be expensive, around $500 a month in Orange County and from $900 to $1,500 in Westchester for housing alone. Few owners in the region can afford to keep their horses at home because zoning statutes mandate large parcels of land for the animals. Even so, the farms sometimes are not big enough to insulate them from the complaints of new neighbors. “Some people don’t like having horses next to them because they smell, and they attract flies,” said McNamara. Stokes said that generally is not a problem in Westchester horse country where realtors warn potential home purchasers that “there are horses all over the place.” Horse farms are a productive source of negligence litigation. Feffer represented a woman whose $250,000 horse stepped into a post hole at a New York farm. The woman had just purchased the animal, and had no insurance, but Feffer said she managed to recover the cost of her investment. John V. Fabiani Jr.of New York City recalls suing a Pennsylvania horse farm put out of business by a salmonella outbreak. He also has represented insurance companies in suits filed by boarders against Orange County horse farms. (Unlike some of his colleagues, Fabiani is not romantic about horses. He jokes that he “comes from a long line of unregenerate horse players.”) HUMAN VICTIMS TOO Sometimes, human beings, not horses, are the victims of the farms’ asserted negligence. Stokes recently represented a farm in the case of a worker who fell off the roof of a barn, the kind of accident that could happen on any construction site. In another case, a rider claimed her knee had been injured in mounting a horse. Stokes demonstrated that the accident could not have happened in the way she described. A few years ago, in a case that did not involve Stokes, an Ulster County trainer who was helping to move a horse to a farm in Dutchess County sued when the horse kicked him. The judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the trainer was aware that the horse was stressed out and that he had assumed the risk of injury. For years, the state Farm Bureau and New York Horse Council have been pushing for legislation to limit the liability of farm owners and horse show organizers for injury or death resulting from the “inherent risks of equine activities,” except where there has been gross negligence. So far, the farmers say they have been beaten back by the trial lawyers lobby. Stokes, who is a member of the Horse Council and consults with it on legal issues, said the insurance tab for New York stable businesses is twice the bill in other states that have enacted such “inherent risk” laws. It is virtually impossible to get insurance for trail ride operations in New York because the horses are not confined and thus regarded as more dangerous than they would be in a corral or arena. (The Legislature did take a stab at improving the safety of horse riding last year, tucking a requirement into the Vehicle and Traffic Law that horse-renting operations provide helmets for customers under the age of 14. Stokes said that many Western-style riders complain that the new rule interferes with their cowboy look.) DEADBEAT OWNERS Farms also must confront the problem of owners who don’t pay for the upkeep of their animals. “There are a lot of horse deadbeats,” says Marc Suffern, an Orange County lawyer and Greenville town justice who owns two horses and belongs to two hunt clubs. Here, however, the law gives farm owners a potent weapon: a lien on the animal for the cost of feed and services allows seizure after a simple posting and advertisement process. Like many of the laws governing horses, this one is “straight out of the 19th century,” said Suffern. (Veterinarians also can use the law for cats and dogs.) There is an active market in the region for horses, with animals changing hands for anywhere from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawyers advise purchasers to carefully investigate a horse’s physical condition, track record and past behavior and “temperment” before buying. Suffern, recalling a case in which he sued a dealer who falsely warranted a horse as “a sound-made hunter,” says that horse selling is “the most scoundrel-ridden profession I know.” Jacobowitz said that there are lots of things that sellers can do to make a horse look good to potential purchasers. For example, he can ride the horse hard before the purchaser’s inspection. The tired horse will give every appearance of being docile. Once the deal is closed and the horse gets his wind back, he may become more difficult to handle. Jacobowitz has some good friends who are horse dealers but said, nevertheless, that “they tend to be like used car salesmen. They are a breed apart.” But a horse is a living organism, not a car, and it sometimes is difficult to predict how one will act from one day to the next. Stokes said that a father will buy a horse for his daughter — and it usually is his daughter — so she can move up to a higher level of competition, only to see what appeared to be a well-trained animal pull up at a jump and throw the girl. There often is no written warranty, and it may be difficult to prove that any warranty was implied. “The man who sold the horse will say, ‘A horse thinks for himself. Just because he worked for me does not mean it will work for you.’ The father will say, ‘You knew why I wanted the animal.’ Then you have to bring in the expert to testify about how the horse acted before the sale.” Feffer said that buyers can sue sellers for fraud, breach of contract and deceptive practices, but the best way to ensure the rights of both buyer and seller is to have a well-written contract or a detailed bill of sale. However, such cautions often are ignored. “People become 12-year-olds when they are buying a horse,” said McNamara. “They’ll give $100,000 to a trainer they wouldn’t trust to drive their car down the street to the store.” Jeff Storey is a freelance writer and a law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

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