"These waivers are worth far more than the
paper they're written on"
We’ve all heard, “Liability releases aren’t worth the paper they’re
written on.” However, this old saw just isn’t true. Liability
releases have provided an effective legal defense in many an
equine-related case, including the following real-life examples:
• During a trail ride on rental horses, one horse bolted and another
horse took off after him, causing his rider to fall off.
• At a boarding stable, a horse had broken part of a tie rack (a
type of hitching post). Before it could be repaired another boarder
used the tie rack, and her horse pinned her in it, injuring her.
• At a wilderness park, a horse reared as his rider was dismounting,
How Liability Releases Work
Liability releases, also known as hold harmless agreements and
waivers, do two very important things:
• They discourage people from suing in the first place; and
• They help protect the person being sued.
If someone signs a liability release at, say, a boarding barn, he or
she is essentially agreeing that the released party (in this case,
the facility owner) is not legally responsible for any injury
suffered on his or her property.
Any liability release can discourage the person who signed it from
suing in the event of an accident. Most personal injury attorneys
work on contingency, which means they only get paid if their client
wins the case. So, it doesn’t make economic sense for personal
injury attorneys to take cases they don’t believe they can win. This
would include cases where the client signed a well-drafted liability
release. Therefore, the more thorough a liability release is, the
more enforceable it is likely to be and, also, the more
lawsuit-deterring value it has.
A liability release operates by providing what is known as an
“assumption of the risk” legal defense. Essentially, the person
signing the liability release agrees that they understand the risks
of what they are about to do and agrees to accept those risks. For
example, a person signing a liability release for riding lessons
agrees that taking riding lessons is potentially dangerous and
agrees to accept the risks associated with taking those lessons.
Then, if the person who signs the release is injured during a lesson
at that facility, and he or she sues the riding instructor, the
instructor can raise the legal defense that the lesson student
assumed the risks of taking riding lessons in the first place.
What a Liability Release Should Say
Because a well-drafted liability release is intended to inform the
person signing the release about the risks of what they are about to
do, it needs to describe what those risks are, and it needs to be
specific. The release risk description should assume the person
signing the release has no experience with the activity and,
therefore, isn’t aware of what makes it dangerous. For example, a
release for dude ranch trail rides should include the risks that
trail horses, no matter how experienced and well-trained, are still
highly reactive large animals that are easily frightened and might
take off at high rates of speed with no warning, injuring or even
killing the rider. Sound dramatic? It should. You want the liability
release signer to take notice of how dangerous the activity is.
Ideally, a liability release thoroughly describes all of the
potential risks of engaging in that activity.
Poorly drafted liability releases tend to make generic statements of
risk such as “horseback riding is dangerous.” This type of statement
isn’t very informative, because it doesn’t say why horseback riding
is dangerous. Therefore, this type of release doesn’t provide a
strong assumption of the risk defense.
Because well-drafted liability releases are so specific about the
risks, they are typically quite a bit longer than poorly drafted
releases. When someone is being sued, however, he or she doesn’t
need to be concerned as much with liability release length as
whether the liability release has all the right provisions for
Many states have “equine activity statutes,” which provide a legal
defense to some types of horse-related legal claims. Each state’s
statute is different in terms of whom it protects and what it
covers. To take advantage of the protections offered by the equine
activity statute, some states require that the liability release
include specific language. If the release doesn’t include the
statutory language, the equine activity statute might not protect
the person being sued. However, the liability release might still
provide an assumption of the risk defense.
Liability Release Do's and Don'ts
• Do name all the correct parties in the release. For example, a
boarding stable liability release should name the boarding stable
business and its owners, as well as the owners of the property where
the boarding business is located.
• Do keep a copy of all signed release forms. In most states digital
copies are acceptable.
• Do make it your practice to have all visitors and customers sign a
liability release immediately upon arrival at your property.
• Do check to see if your state's equine activity statute requires
certain language to be included in liability releases and, if it
does, include the exact language the statute specifies.
• Don’t use a release form with more than one place for signatures,
initials, etc. Sooner or later someone will forget to sign or
initial all of those places, resulting in a potential question about
the enforceability of the uninitialed or unsigned section(s). A
single signature line at the end of the release form is sufficient.
• Don’t assume that if you have your visitors and customers sign
liability releases, you don’t need insurance. Liability releases
help prevent lawsuits and provide legal defenses, but if you are
sued they don’t pay for your legal defense. A good liability
insurance policy does.
• Don’t edit your liability release and/or put it in a smaller font
to fit it onto a single page. You might inadvertently delete
language that is there to protect you, and if the typeface is too
small the release might not be enforceable.
• Don’t wait until there is a problem before you have an attorney
review your liability release. If your release doesn’t provide
adequate protection, better to find out before you need to rely on
Who Can Enforce a Liability Release
To benefit from the liability release, the person being sued must be
mentioned in the release. This doesn’t, however, mean the release
must list the names of each person who might be sued. Instead, it
can list the released parties by category. For example, a boarding
stable release might name “Stable X and its owners, employees, and
independent contractors.” In fact, listing the parties to be
released by category is safer. That way, if the members of the
category change, the new members of the category are automatically
covered by the existing release. For example, if a boarding stable
hires new employees, its existing liability release form will cover
the new employees, as long as the boarding stable’s employees are
listed as a released party. Also remember that if the stable doesn’t
own the property where it operates, the release form should also
include the property owners.
Operators of boarding stables and other equine businesses often
create their own liability releases using documents found on the
Internet, borrowed from another equine business owner, etc. However,
in creating these releases they sometimes forget to change the names
of the released parties. The result? Stable B is using a liability
release that names Stable A (and not Stable B)—not helpful!
Who Should Sign a Release
In most states the person signing a liability release form can only
sign away their own rights. Therefore, each person who might sue
needs to sign a liability release. For example, a boarder can’t sign
away his or her family members’ and guests’ legal rights. The
boarding stable would need to have each of the boarder’s family
members and guests who visit the facility sign a separate release.
In most states minors (persons under 18 years of age) can’t sign
away their legal rights. So having a child sign a liability release
does absolutely no good. Even more troubling, because the statute of
limitations (the time a person has to file a legal claim) is usually
tolled (delayed or paused) until the child turns 18, a child who
suffers an injury can sue years after the injury occurred, even if
their parent or guardian signed a release on their behalf.
So what can equine businesses, such as riding stables, that have
young clients and visitors do to protect themselves from liability?
They can provide a separate release for the parent or guardian to
sign, in which the parent or guardian waives their rights to sue if
the child is injured and agrees to pay for the equine business’
legal defense if anyone later sues the business on the child’s
behalf. The parent or guardian’s obligation to pay for the business’
legal defense discourages the child from suing (assuming the child
does not want to cause their parent or guardian financial ruin). But
if someone, such as an insurance company, does happen to sue the
equine business, the business has a source of payment for its
expenses. Of course, the usefulness of this provision depends upon
the parent’s or guardian’s ability to pay.
Liability Releases Alone Aren't Enough
Liability releases discourage people from suing in the first place
and help prevent them from winning if they do so. But liability
releases don’t pay for the cost of defending against a lawsuit or
the cost of a legal judgment against you. Therefore, in addition to
liability releases, equine businesses absolutely need comprehensive
liability insurance, which does serve these purposes.
Rachel Kosmal McCart is the founder and principal attorney of Equine
Legal Solutions, PC (ELS), an equine law firm based near Portland,
Ore. McCart is a graduate of the Duke University School of Law and
licensed to practice in four states: California, New York, Oregon,
and Washington. She is also admitted to practice before the U.S.
District Court for the District of Oregon. ELS represents clients in
litigation, helps resolve equine disputes, drafts customized equine
contracts, represents clients in horse industry disciplinary
hearings, and incorporates equine businesses. Learn more at