Can I really return a horse after purchase?

Here at Whickr HQ, the subject of rights for both buyers and sellers of horses for sale is a topic we follow closely. But, searching online, the answers are mostly generic and lite on information. We wanted to go deeper, and find out what really happens when a purchase of a horse doesn’t go to plan.

To help answer some of our questions, we got in touch with Hannah Bradley at The Equine Law Firm, an expert in the field of equine law. More information on Hannah can be found at the end of the Q&A.

*The Q&A was hosted by Andrew at Whickr with Hannah answering the questions.

1. What are the different laws that protect equestrians when buying a horse?

This depends on who you are and who you are buying from. If you are a consumer (i.e: a hobby equestrian) and you are purchasing from a trader, then you will be protected by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (see more about that below).

Regardless of who is buying from who, the law of misrepresentation can also protect purchasers of horses (again, see more about this below).

These are the laws which apply to England and Wales. Other legal systems are likely to have similar laws, but please do check with a local lawyer.

2. When buying from a horse dealer what if any added rights do I have compared to buying private?

When a trader is selling to a consumer, the horse in question must be:-

a) As described;

b) Fit for purpose;

c) Of satisfactory quality

If the horse does not meet with those requirements then the consumer is entitled to reject the horse and request a full refund within the first 30 days of taking possession of it. After 30 days have passed, the consumer can ask for a “repair or replacement” in respect of an issue which has arisen, and if that is not possible, they can request a refund.

These rights are what we call “implied”. You don’t have to agree them or mention them, they automatically apply to agreements between traders and consumers.

3. So from a legal standpoint buying from a horse dealer could be seen as safer?

You certainly have more implied rights, so potentially, yes. Any horse sold, whether from a trader or individual must be in accordance with the description given. However, you are able to agree with any seller for you to have certain rights (see question 7).

No transaction can ever truly be seen as “safe”. The safety of the transaction is dependent largely on the person who you are buying from. I can’t stress enough how important it is to “do your homework”, particularly if you don’t know the seller or the horse.

If they are a dealer, how long have they been established? Is there any evidence of them moving premises frequently? How long have they had the horse? What do they know about its history? If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t right.

4. What are your rights if any when buying a horse unseen?

You have the same rights as if you had seen the horse. It is arguable that you may have more rights, if the “distance selling” regulations apply.

5. Is having a sales contract important when buying a horse?

Having a written agreement of the terms agreed will always provide additional protection if it is drafted appropriately. Memories fade, and buyer or seller may misremember what was said at the time of the sale- this is when disputes often arise.

If there is a key issue which is important to you, you should not rely on any verbal representations made at the time of the sale. These can be difficult to evidence if a dispute later arises.

It may not always be proportionate or feasible to instruct a lawyer to prepare a contract of sale. If it isn’t, any document which records the key issues which are important to you, and which is signed by both parties, is better than nothing.

Do not be tempted to use the standard form contracts which can sometimes be found online- the risk with these documents is that they may have been drafted to benefit one party more than the other, and you may unintentionally be agreeing to give the other party more rights.

If you are purchasing or selling a horse for a significant sum of money, you should consider instructing a lawyer to prepare a contract of sale. I have been instructed to act in many long -fought disputes, which could have been avoided if there was a properly drafted contract of sale in place.

Many traders have standard term contracts which will say that a buyer can exchange the horse, that no refunds are given, or that they will sell the horse on the buyer’s behalf, if the horse proves not to be suitable. These terms often lead buyers to think that they have no right to ask for a refund if the horse is unfit, misdescribed or not of satisfactory quality. This is not the case. It is not possible for a trader to restrict the rights of a consumer which are provided by the Consumer Rights Act. Any such restriction will be unenforceable. Therefore, as a trader, it is important to be aware of your obligations by law, and to ensure that your standard terms are drafted with those obligations in mind.

6. Can a buyer really return a horse after purchase?

The law views horses as a “chattel”, i.e: like a washing machine, or a car. It is therefore often practically difficult to apply to the sale of horses. We often speak to buyers who are anxious that they cannot “reject” the horse, as they are required to by the Consumer Rights Act because they can’t simply leave it at the seller’s premises. We advise that the best thing to do in these circumstances is to send communication, usually by email, notifying the seller, in certain terms, that you are rejecting the horse, that you require a refund, and that you wish to speak to the seller to arrange the return of the horse. If the seller does not engage, the Court will have evidence that the buyer took reasonable steps to “reject” the horse. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean physically returning it, simply indicating your intention to do so.

7. If it turns out that the horse was falsely advertised, a buyer has the right to ask for a refund or a horse of equal value, how does that work in reality?

Horses must be in accordance with any description given before the sale regardless of the circumstances of the sale.

This is often a difficult issue, and it causes a lot of acrimonious litigation. There are often disagreements about what verbal statements were made before the sale, and whether the horse met those descriptions when they were made. It can often be difficult to establish whether a defect or trait was present at the relevant time, or whether it arose after.

However, with any claim between a trader and a consumer, the sale will imply a term that any defect arising within the first 6 months shall be assumed to have been present at the time of the sale unless it can be proved otherwise.

8. All cases are unique but is there a ball-park figure for a legal dispute concerning a horse purchase?

Litigation varies wildly depending upon the facts and the value of the dispute. Some claims could proceed to a trial within 6 months and some could take years.

9. Are you able to share the success rate of claims you have settled with a focus on horse purchases?

The vast majority of cases are settled on confidential terms before reaching a trial. The Courts are keen to push parties towards forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or negotiation. Those are often successful means of dealing with a dispute.

10. Would you say the number of purchase disputes is on the rise?

It is difficult to say. The number of instructions which we receive is increasing. Certainly, there has been a “spike” in people buying unseen horses during the lockdown period, which have transpired, for whatever reason, to be unsuitable or unfit.

11. We always talk about protection from the buyer angle but do horse sellers also need to protect themselves from an unsavoury situation?

It is important to be aware that the majority of traders are experienced and professional individuals who are committed to finding suitable homes for horses in their care. Consumer protection laws in England and Wales are strict, and they impose often difficult restrictions on the way that traders operate.

There may arise situations where buyers are not forthcoming about their own abilities or intentions and they may “over horse” themselves. Such a situation will result in the horse being unsuitable for the buyer, through no fault of the trader.

We are often instructed to draft standard terms of business for traders. It is important that those terms do not infringe the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act, because they could be deemed as unenforceable, leaving the trader with no protection. They must, however, provide protection to the trader against a buyer who simply decides that the horse is not what they want, despite the fact that there is nothing wrong with the horse.

Examples of key issues for the trader are recording the intended purpose for the horse (in case it is alleged that the horse is not fit for something which is was not sold as) and recording any quirks or clinical history which have been expressly disclosed (in case a complaint later arises in relation to that issues).

It’s not possible to give a comprehensive summary of how traders might minimise the risk posed to them by selling horses. When preparing terms of business for traders, we tailor the protection based on the kind of transactions being entered into. The risk posed by selling a relatively low number of elite sports horses is very different to that posed by a high turnover “happy hacker” operation.

Information on Hannah and The Equine Law Firm

Hannah setup The Equine Law Firm in 2017 in order to give equestrians access to a firm dedicated to the industry. Now they act for clients globally in relation to horses from much loved family pets to elite international team horses. To get in touch with Hannah please visit her website, The Equine Law Firm.

To wrap up

We hope the answers provided shed some light on the very important subject of rights when buying and selling horses – we certainly found it incredibly valuable, and would like to thank Hannah for her help.