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Bucked off! But who pays?
The Animals Act 1971 is back in the news after the decision in Kara Goldsmith v Robert Patchcott in which Ms Goldsmith sued Mr Patchcott for injuries she suffered when she was bucked off a horse which was in his keeping. So what is the law when an experienced rider is bucked off someone else’s horse? There have been many decisions about horses under the Animals Act over the last three decades. Judges have taken differing approaches to interpreting the Act so the position has become confused. But recent cases have begun to establish clearer legal principles. I shall do my best to explain it in straightforward language, taking bucking as an example of a common cause of rider falls.
The Animals Act 1971 makes the keeper of a horse liable for injuries caused to someone falling off it if they fall off because of something it does which is characteristic either of horses in general or of horses in particular circumstances. But the keeper gets off the hook if it was totally the rider’s fault they got hurt or if the rider can be said to have voluntarily assumed the risk of that behaviour.
It now seems to be accepted by the courts that bucking (and rearing, napping, bolting etc) are things which either are characteristic of all horses or which all horses do in some circumstances, for example when spooked by traffic, pigs, donkeys, paper bags or even just the weather. So one way or another, the basic liability is there – if someone falls off your horse and is hurt, you are liable.
However the possible defences then come in.
The first is easy – if the rider caused the problem by harsh riding or inappropriate use of whip or spurs then the keeper is not responsible.
The second is trickier. When an experienced rider gets on a horse, are they to be taken to accept the risk of being bucked off? If the horse throws an unexpected buck and they are caught out and take a tumble, most people would say yes – that is a chance all riders take. But what if the horse suddenly has a violent bucking fit on the road for no apparent reason and you suffer serious injury? Is that a risk you voluntarily assumed when you got on it? If you assumed the risk the horse may throw a buck – because horses sometimes do – does that mean you accepted the risk that it would buck violently and repeatedly in order to throw you off?
Most riders would say No. The judges in Goldsmith v Patchcott said Yes. Their reasoning was that once you accept the risk of certain horse behaviour, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t anticipate the severity of it. So if you are experienced around horses then you know they sometimes buck or rear and if you get on and they do so you are likely to be taken to have accepted that risk, even if the bucking or rearing is far more dangerous that you could ever have imagined.