Your club or association wants to organize a horse show. Or, your club wants to hold a clinic and invite a nationally known trainer to offer tips on training, showing, or horsemanship skills to members and guests, many who bring horses to the event. These events, your group believes, will boost publicity, increase membership, and generate extra money.

Things can go wrong, however. Is your club prepared for these:

  • While showing in an equitation class, a competitor gets kicked in the knee by another competitor’s horse. The injured competitor blames the problem on jumps left in the ring that allegedly restrict space along the rail.
  • A horse spooks while its trainer is saddling it, breaks away from its handler, and runs loose through the show grounds causing other horses to spook before it runs over a spectator.
  • During the line-up, as the competitors await their placings, a horse spooks (possibly from a colorful electronic scoring board near the arena), throws its rider, jumps out of the arena, and seriously injures people on the show grounds.

These incidents actually occurred, and lawsuits followed. We defended each of the lawsuits.

Risk Management Options

Equine event managers, in their efforts to avoid liability, have numerous options to consider. The measures they pursue will depend on the type of event, type of animals involved, location, applicable laws, and the individual preferences of management. Here are a few ideas.

Event Liability Insurance

Liability insurance is important for equine events. Should an incident occur that gives rise to a claim, and if the claim is covered, the liability insurer will assign defense counsel, pay the legal fees, and pay any settlements or judgments as the policy permits. Few equine associations are financially capable of paying these expenses on their own, without coverage.

Keep in mind that event insurance policies can be complicated. Policies sometimes exclude coverage for claims brought by participants who are injured while practicing for or participating in the event. In a 1979 case, for example, a cutting horse competitor died after his horse slipped and fell on him during competition. His estate blamed the fall on improper arena footing and sued. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court held that coverage was excluded for that case because the competitor was a “participant,” and the event policy excluded coverage for claims involving injured participants. Carefully discuss your coverage options with a knowledgeable insurance agent.

Participant waivers/releases

Show management can consider requiring all participants of legal age (or, where allowed by law, the minor participants’ parents or legally appointed guardians) to sign liability releases. In the eyes of the law, horse trainers very rarely qualify as “guardians” for their clients’ minor children. Courts in most states have shown a willingness to enforce releases – if they are properly written and signed. As this blog has explained in the past, some states prevent parents from releasing claims of their minor children through pre-incident waivers or releases.

“Warning” Signs

Equine activity liability acts (now in all states except New York, California, and Maryland) sometimes provide that “equine activity sponsors” should post “warning” or other signs.

Showground Rental Agreement Issues

Clubs should be extra careful before signing contracts to rent showgrounds. For example, the property owner renting the showgrounds for the event might require the club to sign leases. While these documents can be tremendously important, they sometimes include provisions that cause trouble down the line. For example, property leases sometimes include indemnification and “hold harmless” clauses through which the club must release and protect the property owner – even if the property owner was at fault for causing an injury (such as defective stalls or a sound system that generates loud pings that scare horses). Also, rental contracts sometimes require the club to name the property owner as an “additional insured” on the club’s event liability policy. Read all contracts carefully and seek counsel when needed.


Equine events can generate serous liabilities. Associations and clubs would be wise to plan ahead to avoid or respond to them.

This blog post does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.