October 5, 2013

Cass equestrians react to Conn. court's "vicious" horses ruling

Local equestrians react to Conn. court's 'vicious' horses ruling

by Mitchell Kirk

---- — More than 800 miles from where the fate of Connecticut equine establishments hang in the balance, Cass County equestrians say a move in Indiana like Connecticut's would create a devastating situation similar to the one horse lovers out East are bracing themselves for.

A pending Connecticut Supreme Court decision will resolve whether or not horses are vicious animals. The case stems from an incident in 2006 in which a boy had a "large chunk" removed from his right cheek after being bitten by a horse he had been petting on a visit to a farm, The Associated Press reported last month.

While a lower court decided in favor of the farm, the state appellate court overturned this ruling, stating the incident was "foreseeable" and that the horse belongs to "a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious," AP goes on to report.

Should the high court uphold the appellate court's decision, horses would not be able to be insured, forcing the closing of stables, racetracks, lesson centers and other equestrian establishments across the state.

According to the "Indiana Equine Industry Economic Impact and Health Study" published by five Purdue University professors in 2011, Indiana's equine industry employed almost 10,000 people and contributed more than $2 billion to the state's gross domestic product in 2010.

These figures would likely drop to zero should Indiana make a move similar to the one suggested by Connecticut's appellate court, a local horse owner and stable owner say.

Sheila Knight, a Cass County 4-H Association leader with the organization's Horse and Pony Club and owner of four horses of her own, said the 50-some horses in the fair every summer would likely be absent if insurance policies for the animals were no longer possible.

Because the association, its clubs and all of its activities are covered through insurance taken out by the Purdue Cass County Extension Service, uninsured horses may pose too big of a risk, she said.

"They're not going to want us on the fairgrounds if [horses] can't be insured," she said. "Not many people are going to want to take that liability."

Knight went on to say measures are taken at the fair to ensure the environment is as safe as possible around the horses.

"If we know we have a biter, we try to put a sign on the door that says they're a biter," she said.

While bites happen from time to time, Knight said it's hardly out of a viciousness in the horses, but rather a lack of understanding on a person's part.

"Some of them don't bite aggressively, not always, but for the most part, they just think everybody's got something to eat for them, so they nibble," she said. "If someone doesn't know how to hold their fingers, they get bit."

Uninsured horses would likely force the Horse and Pony Club along with all of its activities and fundraisers to shut down, Knight continued.

"Most kids are out doing something all the time regarding their horses," she said.

Greenbridge Farm near Star City, with its 28 horses and four part-time employees, offers lessons, boarding, training and colt starting.

"It would really affect things here," said Greenbridge Farm owner Abby Miller, adding that the possibility of someone getting hurt by a horse on the property without her able to have insurance would deplete her clientele. "It would really make kind of a mortal impact on a business for sure."

Miller went on to say there are always instances that can be beyond a stable owner's control that can lead to injuries, like someone not knowing how to hold a carrot during a feeding, for instance.

"It's kind of a ride-the-line kind of problem anyway," she said. "Add in you're not supported by law or courts or insurance and you really wouldn't be able to have people come on your property."

The Indiana General Assembly passed a law in 2011 regarding agritourism that states people visiting agricultural facilities with required signs and warning notices assume certain risks while being on the property and engaging in activities, one of which regards "the behavior of wild or domestic animals."

"Anyone who goes onto agricultural property goes there with the understanding that animals are not in control of their behavior," said Indiana State Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport. "In Indiana, if you go on a farm tour — there might be big machines or the ground might not be level — these are risks you assume when you engage in that kind of activity."

Head said it could be debatable whether horses are considered an element of agritourism.

Knight said should the Connecticut Supreme Court uphold the current decision, it would have detrimental and far-reaching effects.

"If they enforce that, it's going to be tragic," she said. "There's going to be a lot of people who miss out on wonderful opportunities."

Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or Follow him: @PharosMAK