Common Misconceptions on Horse Ownership: Does a Passport or Registration Paper Prove Ownership?

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 11:14
Equine Law

You can easily pick your horse out of a group. You know each of its characteristic, its breeding and his or her way of moving. But if the horse was stolen and/or resold to a third person without your permission, would you be able to identify yourself as its true legal owner?

It is a legal requirement for all horses and ponies to be issued with a valid passport. Horse passports are required throughout the European Union for identification as well as effective disease control. However contrary to common view throughout the horse sector, a horse’s registration paper and passport do not automatically reflect true ownership. Courts across jurisdictions have examined the issue and, in fact, reaffirmed that the name appearing on the horse’s breed registration paper or passport may not necessarily be the horse’s owner in the eyes of the law.

Such misconception provides for unnecessary conflict and uncertainty, especially when it comes to the sale of a particular horse. Across all European countries it is illegal to sell a horse without providing the buyer with both a horse's breed registration paper and passport. The new owner of a horse is legally obliged to register a change of ownership. In the Netherlands and Germany, for example, the owner of the horse is obliged to register ownership in accordance with the Identification & Registration system. However, in practice this is rarely done, especially where horses are resold and therefore change hands on numerous occasions within a short period of time.

In view of the abovementioned scenario courts across jurisdictions have come to recognize that a horse’s breed registration papers and passport are not the same as a title to a car. Both a horse’s passport as well as breed registration papers have been held to merely serve as identification document. Courts hereby arguably have taken into account that many people in the horse industry simply do not transfer the horse’s breed registration papers when they sell a horse. In the Netherlands as well as the UK, the fact that the horse's passport and/or breed registration papers are registered in your name provide for a strong indication that the horse is actually your legal property. Yet courts require additional substantiating evidence in order to acknowledge your ownership. German courts do not make such assumption, but focus on the fact that the name entered into a horse’s passport breed registration paper is the name of its possessor not its owner. Although in some cases a horse might be owned and possessed by the same person at the same time, courts seem to strictly interpret and differentiate between both terms when it comes to conflicts in regard to the sale of a horse. German breeding associations have responded by issuing property certificates for horses owned by their members. However, although legal, such documents are also not binding.

The horse sector seems entangled in old customs where the transfer of ownership still requires the actual physical transfer of the horse to the buyer. The issuance of a horse’s breeding papers and equine passport hereby follows from the transfer of ownership of the horse and not the other way around. As a result he or she who can prove ownership over a horse will have a claim against the owner of that particular horse’s papers. Yet prove of ownership cannot solely be based on the possession of or entries in a horses breeding papers or passport.

So what does all of this mean if you already own a horse, or are thinking of buying one? Essentially your title to ownership over a horse is only going to be as good as the person who you are buying from. A horse’s passport and its breed registration paper do not provide conclusive proof of your ownership on their own. Ownership, therefore, depends upon other circumstantial evidence, such as a bill of sale. When buying or selling a horse one is ought to get a written confirmation that the horse has been sold and that title has transferred. A complete written sale agreement will provide for even more protection. Furthermore veterinary, board, feed, tack receipts and insurance premium payments as well as microchipping can reduce the risks of becoming involved in disputes concerning ownership considerably.

by Stephan Wensing, esq.

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