Risk of strict liability claims for horse owners

This article originally appeared in Horse Scene, July 2014

Whether you are an individual horse owner or a business that keeps horses, for example, a riding school, although it is a pleasure to own a horse (for those of you that do), it comes with a number of risks that owners should be aware of when you allow other people to ride your horse or your horse is involved in causing injury or damage to a third party or their property.

This article considers the current position for owners relating to strict liability claims and insuring against such risks.

The Animals Act 1971

The Animals Act 1971 (the Act) clarifies certain areas of liability in respect of animals, known as strict liability.  The essence of strict liability is that negligence does not have to be proved.  Horses are covered under the Act, which deals with certain injuries that they may cause as well as any damage that may arise from straying.

Who is a keeper?

A keeper is defined in the Act as either the owner, the person in possession of the animal, or the head of the household where the owner lives if the owner is a member of the household and aged under sixteen.

Liability for Non-Dangerous Species

Section 2(2) of the Act deals with the liability of a keeper for non-dangerous species, which include horses.  Under this section, a keeper is liable for damage caused by a non-dangerous species if:

  • 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.
  • The likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to the 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.
  • These characteristics were known to the keeper or were at any time known to a person, who at that time had charge of the animal as the keeper’s servant.

A keeper of a horse can be liable where the horse’s behaviour is not normally found in animals of the same species.  In addition, a keeper can be liable where the behaviour, although not generally displayed by animals of that species, was normal in particular circumstances or at particular times.

The leading case on this issue is Mirvahedy v Henley [2003], which involved a claim brought by Mr Mirvahedy whose car collided with a horse that had ran across the road. The horse was one of three horses owned by the Henleys that had stampeded out of their field and on to a busy road about a mile away from the field due to being frightened very badly by an unknown cause.  In the collision, Mr Mirvahedy suffered serious injuries.

The Henleys, as the keepers of the horse, were found strictly liable under Section 2(2) of the Act for the injuries sustained by Mr Mirvahedy.  Even though stampeding is not a characteristic normally found in horses, Mr Mirvahedy succeeded with his claim as the Court stated that an animal’s behaviour, although not normal behaviour for the animals of that species, was nevertheless normal behaviour for the species in the particular circumstances.  In other words, horses do and can stampede under certain conditions.

Subsequent cases have attempted to narrow the level of a horse owner’s liability, but strict liability still remains.  In light of this, horse owners should always consider how a horse may react to events i.e. if a horse is startled, it may stampede, rear up or kick and may cause damage to someone or something.

Limitation of Liability

There are a few limited defences to strict liability placed upon keepers under the Act.  Two of these are potentially relevant to horse owners:

  • A person is not liable for any damage suffered by a person who has voluntarily accepted the risk.
  • A person is not liable for any damage which is due wholly to the fault of the person suffering it.

If, for example, a characteristic that is unusual to a horse is pointed out to the rider, a keeper may be able to escape liability.  This can be useful for riding schools in particular that have a variety of people riding horses that they may not be familiar with.  However, whether a keeper can escape liability will depend on the specific facts of the case.


There are limited defences available to owners under current law.  You, therefore, have to consider the amount of damage a large animal such as a horse can cause if it does escape and particularly if the public walk through the field where it is kept.

If you own a horse or ride horses provided by others, such as an equestrian school, you should consider obtaining some form of personal insurance cover.  The policies offered by insurers vary greatly and some of them provide personal accident cover should you be unfortunate enough to suffer an injury whilst riding.

If you employ anyone as part of a business, you are required to have insurance in place.  It is compulsory for all employers (with limited exception) to insure against liability for injury or disease to their employees arising out of their employment.  Even if you run a fairly small business and you have people assisting you who you do not formally employ, you may still be deemed to be their employer if you exercise a reasonable amount of control over their activities.

If you are an owner or occupier of property that has regular visitors you should consider purchasing public liability insurance to provide you with cover against claims by members of the public.  Occupiers of premises have a duty of care to ensure that lawful visitors are reasonably safe and that all reasonable steps have been taken to minimise any risk to visitors.  If there was some unforeseen occurrence or incident that could not have been prevented for a reasonable cost then there will be limited or no liability attached to the occupier.  However, if the risk to any visitor is immediately obvious, you could be found liable and may be left with paying a significant bill for any claims made against you.

Even if you have insurance in place, it is worthwhile undertaking a review of your policies to check that you and/or your business are covered if a horse you own causes injury or damage.

If you are concerned about a claim being made against you or require further information about strict liability claims and protecting yourself, it is beneficial to speak to a solicitor specialising in equine law.  They will be able to give you relevant advice on any changes to your insurance documentation and/or procedures that may help reduce your liability.  It is better to act before a claim is made against you than reactively after an incident occurs.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

Kieran Walshe

Partner - Head of Commercial Insurance and Head of Equine

As Head of DWF's Commercial Insurance team I advise on a range of high value and/ or complex litigation matters and misfeasance cases.