We expect a lot of ourselves, our horses, and the people who care for them. But when expectations differ between a trainer and a horse owner or rider, misunderstandings or disputes can quickly arise.

For trainers, a dispute with a client could result in serious consequences. Whether the client has left with unpaid bills or is complaining to other people in the horse world about their experience, it could be extremely damaging to a trainer’s reputation and financial well-being.

So, what can a trainer do to defend themselves following a client storming out with their horse?

Recouping Unpaid bills

If a client has left with unpaid bills, a trainer could attempt to recover the balance owing in Small Claims Court, which covers any amount up to $35,000. However, the cost of pursuing your claim in court can depend largely on the complexity of the facts and situation.

For example, in Ontario, the cost of simply filing your claim is $108 and setting a date for a trial or an assessment hearing is $308. You can be self-represented in Small Claims Court, but the legal system can be tricky to navigate for a non-professional. If you do have legal representation, it gets expensive – fast. According to the Law Society of Ontario, average legal costs start at $165/hour for a lawyer in their first year of practice, while a more experienced lawyer could cost up to $350/hour.

You might be able to recover some of your legal fees, however. If your claim is successful, and you were represented by a lawyer, paralegal, or articling student, the court can order the unsuccessful party to pay the successful party a ‘representation fee’ of up to 15% of the amount claimed. So if you have a claim of $5,000, the most you can recuperate for your legal fees would be $750, and that’s only if your claim is successful.

In short, pursuing your claim for bills owing might be worthwhile if it’s for a large amount – but if it’s for a smaller figure, you might end up spending significantly more in legal fees than you would get back.

Alternatively, you might also consider asking for a larger initial boarding deposit so that you don’t have so many costs owing if things do go south with unpaid bills.

Straight from the client’s mouth (or fingers)

The horse world is a small one, and gossip can have serious, negative consequences. But if an unhappy former client is calling other clients and saying disparaging things about you, what legal recourse does a trainer have?

“There’s always an injunction or a restraining order,” says Jonathan Franklin, a Montreal-based lawyer at Franklin & Franklin whose specialties include equine law. He suggests you could write a letter to the former client asking them to cease and desist, but notes that “might add fuel to the fire.”

Gossip can spread even more rapidly online. What can a trainer do if clients are posting nasty things about them on social media?

For example, let’s say a client left their trainer on bad terms and has been posting derogatory comments on Facebook. Even though they aren’t naming names, everyone knows who they were training with – so is the implication enough to launch a defamation suit?

It depends. In Canada, defamation requires the plaintiff to show three things:

1. That the statements in dispute are defamatory (that it would tend to lower their reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person)
2. That the plaintiff was alluded to by the terms
3. That the statements were spoken to at least one person other than the plaintiff

Comments made on social media have been found to be defamatory before in Canada. For example, in Lavallee et al. v. Isak 2021, Shania and Justine Lavallee were each awarded $50,000 in damages after Solit Isak published a number of social media posts using hurtful and inappropriate language to describe Shania and Justine, with the intention of getting them fired from their jobs (which they were). Isak was additionally ordered to take down all social media posts regarding Shania and Justine and prohibited from publishing defamatory statements about them ever again.

Of course, it’s important to remember that any case will largely depend on its specific facts – and that pursuing it could mean accumulating hefty legal fees.

An ounce of prevention

“Horses – it’s a great sport, the people are interesting, but it’s a very sophisticated product, and dealt with in a very casual way,” Franklin says.

He notes that in his experience, an excellent idea is simply prevention. This includes verifying a number of things before a trainer and client start working together, such as:

  • the health and soundness of the horse
  • the level, age and potential of the horse
  • the competence, physical abilities, experience and potential of the rider
  • expectations of the trainer, including how much time will be spent working with the horse each week
  • goals for the trainer – is the rider trying to improve for fun? Are they learning to ride, or trying to make it to the Olympics?
  • who makes decisions for the benefit of the horse, such as for farrier or veterinary services
  • how much the trainer will be paid, and whether it’s an hourly rate or a flat fee

Putting things in writing can help avoid future disagreements, Franklin says.

He also recommends frequency of payment to avoid disputes (such as monthly or bi-weekly). “You’ve got to make sure that you get paid on time,” Franklin says. “There’s a short rope between the services rendered and payment.”

Finally, Franklin suggests appointing somebody mutually agreed on as a mediator, just in case there are disagreements. “Appoint one person – a lawyer, or someone in the horse world who is respected – whose decision will be final,” Franklin says. This can be a much faster and easier way of resolving disputes than dragging them through court. A mediator is also “not expensive, [compared to] a lawsuit,” Franklin says.

Case Studies

Here are a couple of interesting horse-related situations that ended up in the courts, one regarding unpaid bills and the other for damage to reputation:

V.A. v. J.K.C., 2015. Between 2010 – 2012, J.K.C. and three other veterinarians provided veterinary services to several race horses. The horses were owned by V.A., and trainers of the horses made the request for veterinary care. The owner later failed to pay invoices for the vet services, so the four veterinarians took action in Small Claims Court.

The owner disputed their claims, and initiated a complaint with the Complaints Committee of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (College). The owner argued that the veterinarians didn’t have consent to provide the vet services, since it was the trainers who had authorized the vet services, not the owner.

Ultimately, the owner’s complaint was dismissed by not only the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, but also the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board. In the case comments, the Committee noted that “according to the College policy on informed owner consent, consent can be given by an ‘authorized agent’, including trainers in the equine industry.”

Additionally, the Committee reviewed the Ontario Racing Commission (ORC) Rules, which say that “trainers may represent the owners in the matter of the engagement of veterinarians,” and additionally, that “an owner must take specific steps if the owner wishes to restrict a trainer’s authority to represent the owner in the engagement of a veterinarian.” Since there was no record that the owner had tried to restrict the trainer’s authority, and no information to indicate that the veterinarians should have questioned the trainer’s authority in this case, the Committee determined that the trainers did have the authority to give consent for the veterinary services.

Hamel v. Canada, 1996. On June 18, 1990 Jean-Yves Hamel was stopped at the Lacolle customs office on the Canada-US border. The customs office had received a look-out notice from the RCMP concerning horses belonging to Double J. Ranch (Hamel’s business), because it was suspected that the horses were being used for drug trafficking.

Hamel consented to having his horses examined and, accompanied by RCMP vehicles, took the horses to the St-Hyacinthe veterinary hospital. Over ten days, the horses were subjected to examinations to determine whether they contained cocaine, including being fed laxatives over a period of at least three days. On June 29, the horses were returned to Hamel and Double J. Ranch, since no prohibited substances had been detected. The case received coverage in both print media and on television.

Hamel and Double J. Ranch later brought a suit against the RCMP in which they alleged (among other things) that the incidents in June 1990 had caused significant damage to both Hamel’s reputation and the reputation of Double J. Ranch, as “the horse community is a relatively small one and people are still talking about this incident, nearly six years after it occurred.” They argued that the media had been informed of the case by the RCMP, as “the information that was published and broadcast was so clear and precise that it could only have come from the RCMP.”

The judge, Justice Rouleau, agreed with Hamel and Double J. Ranch, finding that “after considering all of the evidence in the record, I am satisfied, on a balance of probabilities, that a member of the RCMP is responsible for leaking the information to the media.” Noting the importance of reputation to both an individual and a business, the judge determined that “Mr. Hamel and Double J. Ranch Inc. are entitled to receive the sum of $25,000 each from the defendant to compensate for interference with their reputation and for miscellaneous damage, humiliation and distress resulting from the faults committed by Her Majesty’s servants.”