Finder's Keepers, or do you have to give your horse back?

As mentioned in my earlier post, I want to address the issue of returning a horse to a previous owner, which arose from the story of a mare that was used at a testing facility.

According to the article, seven years ago the mare's owner left her at a boarding facility with a breeding agreement (this is not uncommon; in lieu of paying board and maintenance, some owners will permit another party to use their mare as a broodmare).  When the owner tried to retrieve her horse at the end of the year, the owner of the barn and the mare had vanished.
Little did the owner know that her mare had become a test mare for testing imported stallions for STDs (see my previous post on that topic!).
Sometime later, a person working with a horse rescue organization came across this mare at a state horse sale and purchased her for $200 in July 2011 (the article said the horse was bound for slaughter).  The horse rescue shared photos of the mare on its facebook page as a horse available for adoption; in October the mare's original owner called the rescue and cried, "I think you have my horse."
The owner and mare were soon happily reunited.

In this instance, the story is heartwarming- but what if the mare had been purchased by someone who fell in love with her, invested time, money, and energy into rehabilitating and training her- and wanted to keep her forever, without any intent to adopt her out or sell her to a new family?


According to the story, this mare was not abandoned property (voluntarily giving up possession with the intent to give up title and control), but the mare could be classified as lost property: the owner's  parting with the mare was accidental and involuntary.
The general rule of lost property is that the finder of the lost property wins.

But that seems an overly simplified answer, so I considered the argument that the purchaser of the mare at the state sale was a bona fide purchaser for value (BFP): someone who in good faith purchases property for value, without notice of any adverse claim against the property.

While bona fide purchasers for value are treated differently based on the area of law (such as commercial paper, real property, personal property, etc.), and vary according to different state laws, in general, public policy strives to protect the innocent party, which in this case would be the purchaser of the mare.
While the original owner would lose her mare under this policy, the law upholds the idea that it is better to put the responsibility on the owner to protect her mare/ her property, than to punish an innocent buyer.

If you in good faith paid $50,000 for a horse, fell in love with it, improved its training, and perhaps decided to use it for breeding or for your future children to ride- and then someone comes along 6 years later and wants the horse back- I imagine you would feel that the horse belongs to you!
Such a situation could be governed by accession rules: when someone takes the property of another, either wrongfully or not, and then does something to make that property more valuable.

In general, if the person who increased the value is innocent (like a BFP), and the increase to the property is GREAT, then the one doing the innocent accession keeps the property- but if the accession isn't of great value, then the property has to be given back.
In the context of the mare, if you turned her $200 value into a $20,000 mare, you would most likely get to keep her, but the court may decide you would have to pay the original owner the $200 value of the mare before the accession.

Whew, a lot of concepts! Abandoned or Lost Property, Bona Fide Purchaser, Accession Value... the eternal problem with the legal treatment of horses as property is the grey area of what is fair or what is right- it is the element of emotional attachment.
Imagine if the woman who had purchased the mare for $200 had fallen in love with her and didn't want to give her back- this story certainly would not have a heartwarming ending.

If you innocently bought an auction horse, fell in love with the horse, spent hours and money in training and showing the horse- and then a prior owner comes along 5-10 years later- would you be willing to give the horse back with no strings attached?
If you were the previous owner whose horse disappeared- would you expect the innocent new family to give the horse back to you?
It is certainly something to ponder, and hope that we are never caught in such a situation!