Equestrian centre not liable under Animals Act where horse bucked when it went into a canter

Ms Freeman fell from a horse supplied by the Defendant during a hack escorted by its representative, Miss Turner. She fell suffering injury when the horse, Patty gave two or three large bucks as it was beginning to canter. When Ms Freeman was allocated Patty she was told that she might buck. Prior to the fall Patty had bucked and Miss Turner had stopped the ride and spoke to Ms Freeman who said that she was fine and wished to continue.  

Under s.2(2) Animals Act 1971 a Defendant will be strictly liable if (a) the damage is of a kind which the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause or which, if caused by the animal, was likely to be severe; and (b) the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances; and (c) those characteristics were known to that keeper.  

Held: The Court of Appeal held that paragraph (a) of s.2(2) was satisfied in this case. However, in respect of the first limb of paragraph (b) the Judge was entitled to find that Ms Freeman had failed to establish that bucking is not a normal characteristic of horses generally. With regards to the second limb, there was no evidence that horses generally buck at particular times or in particular circumstances. In any event the Defendant was exempted from liability under s.5(2) by the voluntary assumption of risk by Ms Freeman.

Comment: Following the House of Lords’ decision in Mirvahedy v Henley [2003] an increase in claims under the Animals Act was anticipated. In that case one of the Defendant’s horses escaped from a field onto a nearby road where it collided with the Claimant’s car. Paragraph (b) of s.2(2) was considered and it was held that the Act had been intended to create a strict liability for damage caused by animals displaying temporary characteristics in certain circumstances or at certain times that were normal to the breed.  

However, as this case illustrates, courts will want carefully to analyse each element of s.2(2) and will require evidence on which to base a finding in favour of the Claimant. Ms Freeman’s claim was not helped by a lack of evidence on the usual characteristics of horses, although it is by no means certain that further evidence would have supported her claim.  

The case also serves as a useful reminder that, when defending claims under the Animals Act, the provisions of s.5(2) should be kept in mind. In this case the Court of Appeal accepted that Ms Freeman voluntarily accepted the risk of carrying on with the ride and being thrown from the horse.  

It should be noted that consideration is currently being given to amending the Animals Act with a view to reducing the number of instances when, following an accident, the owner of an animal is strictly liable. The Animals Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons in March 2008. However, there is no clear timetable for the progress of the Bill through Parliament.