Summer Evenings: Trail Riding on Private Land

I'm sorry for not posting for a week; when the twilight stretches to almost 9 pm, I end up spending an extra hour grazing Bella in the last bit of sunshine, rather than getting back to my computer!  As much as I enjoy blogging for all of you, I have to say, I think soaking up the last bit of summer is worth it!

Mirabella, a perfect subject for Summer Evenings

One of my favorite summer activities is trail riding.  Morning, afternoon, or evening, I find nothing so peaceful as meandering along tree-covered paths, up hills, along streams, and adding a rocking canter or two along the way.  

I ride on both public and private lands, and on occasion I hear of riders who fall on the trail and are injured.
If you are a landowner and a rider falls while on any part of your property, could you be held liable for injuries to the rider (or the rider's horse)?

According to California Civil Code §846: “An owner of any estate or any other interest in real property, whether possessory or nonpossessory, owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for any recreational purpose or to give any warning of hazardous conditions, uses of, structures, or activities on such premises to persons entering for such purpose, except as provided in this section."

Trail riding is considered a recreational activity, so it looks like the answer is that a private landowner is not required to protect riders from hazardous conditions (i.e., a rotten tree branch that falls and hits a rider, rabid wild animals that attack the horses, or gopher holes that trap a weak fetlock).  

However, there are of course exceptions:

1. Landowner will be held liable if a rider is injured due to malicious or willful conduct/ failure to warn.   Example: landowner sets a bear trap on the trail to deliberately catch a horse, or fails to warn riders that bear traps have been set out on the trails to catch bears, or there is an open mine on the property that the landowner deliberately does not warn against, or the landowner has invited the local hunting club to use the land to hunt deer, without disclosing that important fact to the riders)
2. If the landowner is paid (or given other consideration) by the riders to use the property, then there is a duty to warn, guard against, or perhaps fix known dangers 
Example: a local trail riding association pays a sum of money for the right to cross a corner of the landowner's land)
3. If riders are expressly invited, rather than merely permitted to be on the private property, then the landowner has a duty to warn, guard against, and perhaps fix known dangers.  
Example: this can be a murky distinction, but if a landowner has expressly invited the local pony club to do a mock fox hunt in his fields, then he has a duty to warn or guard against dangers.  If he does not, he could be liable.

In California, landowners tend to not allow riders onto their property, out of the fear of being sued.  Even defending yourself can cost a lot of money!  While I understand the landowners who choose to prohibit any access, I know that many landowners also want to give back to the equine community, and allow foxhunting, eventing, schooling shows, or pony club events.  

If you are a private landowner who invites or permits trail riders (or bikers or hikers) onto your property, I would recommend having a liability release form signed by the riders, and I would also suggest that you walk your property with a liability expert (such as a lawyer) to discuss what you can do to help minimize the risk of injury on your property, such as posting signs, having safe gates and fences, and anticipating what could spook horses (are there barking dogs next door?  will there be tractors or pesticide planes operating in nearby fields on the day of your event?)

A special thank you to the private landowners that have graciously given back to the equine community to permit riders to visit; my hope is that riders and owners alike mutually benefit and enjoy the relationship!

A discussion of the liability, or right of recovery, for injuries from trail riding on public lands is up next!