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Shipping Horses, Safe, Sound, and Legal

Any time an owner ships his horse using a professional shipping company across state lines, the owner has to contend with a variety of issues that have a direct bearing on whether the horse will arrive safe and sound. Most horse owners already know that health certificates (a certificate of veterinary inspection or CVI) are usually required to ship interstate, as well as an up-to-date and "negative" coggins assay, which tests for the presence of equine infectious anemia (EIA, also known colloquially as "swamp fever"). Both of these items will require some planning on the owner's part, as the coggins blood results are usually not available much sooner than a week to ten days after drawing the horse's blood and CVI's are only good for ten to thirty days, depending on the state. A few states also require permits to entry (Arizona, Oregon, and Montana), with which the shipping company will help.

Owners usually need more help when picking a shipping company. Some horse transport companies have been in the business for many years and have much experience with the whole process. These companies use large trucks that have a transport area as big as a regular shipping container, and can allow the horse to be shipped in box-stall type comfort. Though these companies can be expensive, the relatively higher experience level of the drivers is a factor which argues for using them. Other, smaller companies can be just as good, but unless the owner has personal experience with the company, it's harder to rate overall experience and competence. One recent innovation available on the Internet is the web site called "UShip.com" which allows the consumer to put a shipping order up for bid among a number of transport companies in a manner similar to Ebay. This site attempts to address reliability concerns by providing feedback on the companies. Company experience and a good track record should rate as high as price when considering the process of shipping a horse, and this website seems to be trying to address those horse owner concerns as well as providing a forum for competition among shippers.

However, picking the shipping company is only the first step. In the event the horse is injured during or from the trip, owners need to be armed up front with information to help them both get the horse treated, and also to recover damages to which they're legally entitled.

First, you can provide the company with the limited right to seek veterinary help for the horse, if necessary. Talk to a company representative to see if they have a pre-printed form for this purpose, and if not, seek assistance from an equine lawyer.

Second, with regards to limitations of liability on the value of your horse, keep in mind that interstate carriers have the right to limit liability for the horses they ship, but only if the carriers jump through a number of legal hoops on the way towards presenting that limitation of liability to the owner.

A carrier can limit liability IF AND ONLY IF he also presents the owner with the choice of recovering more damages, via a higher costing insurance plan, and must present it for signing with a copy of the bill of lading reflecting the agreement between the shipper and owner showing the owner has made his choice between the two (or more) levels of insurance coverage. The horse owner's obligation there is to carefully read these bills of lading and make an affirmative election to buy the higher rate of coverage. This is a lesson some horse owners have learned to their dismay only after the fact.

For example, in 1997, a successful racehorse owner shipped his expensive racehorse from Florida to Kentucky. Meeting the horse transport driver at the trainer's farm was a groom who did not have much experience with signing bills of lading. When it was presented to him, the groom signed where the driver indicated, which reflected a waiver of liability for any goods worth over $1000. The groom testified that he only signed where told by the driver.

Unfortunately, the trailer caught fire on the road and all of the horses perished. The owner attempted to sue the transport company in federal court using state law claims for negligence, but was then presented with the waiver of liability signed by the trainer's groom. Though the owner protested that he had not authorized the groom to sign this legally binding document on his behalf, the court ruled that the waiver was valid. The point accepted by the court was that the owner had the ability to purchase more insurance, but did not take the effort to ensure that it happened, and that the federal law on this issue took precedence over state law claims.

The good news for owners is that shippers do have to provide the higher level of coverage. And good insurance, along with competitive pricing and a way to find out a company's service record, is the recipe for a good shipping experience for owners AND their horses. Not even the high price of diesel can prevent that.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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