Marie owned a farm that was used as a turn out for race horses in the off season. She called me mid morning one cold December day to come have a look at Popeye. She had just found him lying on a patch of ice in her lower pasture. Marie was nervously waiting for me in as I turned into her driveway around noon. I parked the truck and gathered what I might need. Fearing the worst I also put a bottle of euthanasia solution into my coat pocket.
It was a long walk from the barn yard to where Popeye was lying. As we made our way down to the pasture Marie told me what had happened that morning. She turned the horses out early so that she could clean their stalls. A light drizzle was falling, and by mid morning most of the horses were back up by the barn wanting to come back in. Popeye was missing. Marie walked the 10 acre pasture and finally found him lying on his side in a hollow which was not visible from the barn. Marie could see scratches on the ice where he had tried to get up, and after some prompting she realized that he wasn’t going to. She ran back up to the house to call me.
We found Popeye lying in the same spot that Marie had left him. I did a physical exam and checked his legs. Besides the weak heart beat and sub normal temperature, there was a complete fracture of the femur right where it enters the hip socket. He had slipped on the ice and fallen on his hip. I told Marie he had to be euthanized. She knew I was right, but felt strongly that only the owner could give that permission. He was out of town and not reachable. We stood on that icy patch over Popeye who was shivering and going into shock. It took a few minutes to persuade Marie that we simply could not leave Popeye as he was. It wasn’t until I assured her that I would be willing to take the heat and the possible law suit which might result, that she agreed to my ending his life. As it turned out, the owner understood the situation and the fact that I did what had to be done.
This entire incident and a couple of similar ones over the years have made me realize how important it is to have specific arrangements in place whether you board horses or have yours boarded out. In this age of increased communication it seems like we can be reached any time, anywhere. The fact is, we can’t. Cell phones are a great thing, but there are limitations. A couple of months ago I was trying to trying to reach an owner who had just taken off on a six hour plane trip overseas. In this case it wasn’t a life or death situation, but a treatment that needed to be discussed. The conversation and treatment had to be delayed a week until she got back because there was no cell coverage in the country she was visiting. She had left without any instructions as to responsibilities for the animal. Even if your cell phone is attached at the hip and you don’t happen to be on a plane, you probably don’t take the device into the shower. As you know, there are also areas where there is no coverage.
Here are a few recommendations: Draw up a contract between care taker and owner. The word contract means a binding agreement between two or more people. Call it a written agreement if that makes it a little less scary. If you operate a boarding facility you should take this responsibility. Samples agreements can be found on line. For more ideas, ask the owner of a well run stable near you. If the barn where you are boarding doesn’t have such an agreement, you should make one yourself to protect both parties.
The agreement should include exactly what is involved in daily care. This is not a complete list, but here are some questions that should be agreed upon: When is the board bill due? What services does it include? What will be fed, amounts and frequency? Who will arbitrate if there is a dispute about how much hay or grain a horse should get? If more is to be fed, how much extra will that cost? What are the blanket and turn out policies? Who makes arrangement for farrier and vet care? What happens if the owner can’t be reached when medical and life decisions have to be made? Does each horse have a colic surgery plan? Who trucks the horse when it needs to go to a clinic?
These questions and others should be thoroughly discussed thoroughly and agreed upon before a horse walks into a boarding situation. It doesn’t cost a lot to have an attorney review the language in the agreement. You draw up the points of the agreement, the lawyer’s job is to look it over and make sure it is binding. Both parties should sign and date. Many a boarder has left a barn in the heat of an argument which in most cases would have been avoidable had there been a standing agreement.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM