Professional horse riders – do you need a written contract with your owners?

We are lawyers, and so of course the short answer is: yes, you do. However, there is more to it than that.

We work with many professional riders (especially event riders), and as is common in equestrian sport, many do not have formal contractual arrangements in place – whether these are with horse owners, yard/land owners, employees or suppliers. This article focuses on the professional rider and horse owner relationship in particular, as regards the main equine sport disciplines (eventing, showjumping and dressage). This article does not deal with the position in horseracing – largely because there is a regulatory obligation for trainers to have a training agreement in place with their owners. 

The owner/rider relationship is a nuanced one and can be a careful thing to manage. Most professional riders simply cannot operate without the support of their owners. Owners pay to keep and run horses, and in exchange they get to share in the highs (and of course, lows) of taking a horse to potentially top level competition.  Without owners’ support the equestrian sport business model largely breaks down. Therefore, it can be uncomfortable for riders, especially younger/newer professionals, to present owners with formal legal terms.

That difficulty will continue to be perpetuated until there is an industry wide change in approach, with many riders continuing to rely on loose arrangements. One way to break through this is to prepare documents with exactly that in mind, which are fair to riders and owners alike, but also serve to sufficiently protect a rider’s position in case things do go wrong. It is important that the document is as concise as possible, and readily understandable by both parties.

Whilst parties fortunately tick along according to their informal arrangements most of the time, when issues do arise, that can really impact a professional rider’s business. As a specialist equine and bloodstock litigation team, you will not be surprised to learn from us that litigation is often expensive and time consuming. Many professional riders do not have large amounts of excess cashflow to divert to that exercise – and even if they do, they would probably rather spend that money on growing their business rather than bringing or fighting claims. Investing some time at the start to formalise arrangements so that everyone knows where they stand, can simplify litigation or even avoid it altogether. 

What should you include in a typical contract?

Everyone’s specific situation will be different, but here are a few points a professional rider (and their advisors) should consider when it comes to contractual arrangements with owners:

  • Fees and invoicing are key, so you will need a clear and transparent pricing structure as well as a mechanism for revising pricing in future.
  • There should also be a reasonable control mechanism in place for failure to pay any costs (livery fees or entry fees) – for example, a contractual lien which you can enforce in the event of non-payment (a lien is a right to retain and then sell the horse, in order to clear the debt).
  • The parties should also broadly agree their responsibilities – whilst recognising that professional equestrian sport is unpredictable and riders simply cannot guarantee results.
  • You might also need to consider any key sponsorship arrangements and ensure there are no conflicts.
  • What happens if the owner decides to move or sell the horse? You would probably want to include a minimum termination notice period (and that notice period might change depending if the notice is given during the competition season).
  • Whilst it might be unpleasant to think about, a horse may become severely injured or may even pass away within the rider’s care. Therefore, and depending on the relationship, a professional rider may wish to consider reasonable exclusion or limitation of liability provisions, to mitigate or even discourage later litigation by a disgruntled owner.
  • Linked to that, you should also give some thought to insurance responsibilities and how that might be reflected in your contractual arrangements.

As an aside, many professional riders agree to sell horses in their care on behalf of their owners – sometimes charging the owner a commission when the horse sells. It is a good idea to formalise that arrangement in writing, to bring certainty to the obligations of both parties (and hopefully mitigate a potential dispute later). Those obligations might be included in your owner agreement or via a separate document, depending on your particular circumstances. 

If you are thinking about formalising your arrangements with your owners, a standard written contract, updated periodically, is likely to be the most cost effective method. We can discuss your particular requirements; we work in tandem with our Commercial colleagues and, importantly, can ensure a sensitive and fair approach, because we understand the wider context of professional equine sport.

For more information on this article, please contact Joanne Saye. Joanne is an Associate in the Dispute Resolution team and is a specialist equine and bloodstock litigator.

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