Equine Title Documentation – Needed Industry Reform: An open letter to US Equestrian

While the leadership of US Equestrian touts its’ dedication to growing the sport and its membership base, I hear a great deal of chatter from the existing membership asking the age-old question: “What have you done for me, lately?” Members see increasing fees without a visible increase in services. If US Equestrian is serious about attracting new members and retaining old ones, then I suggest the addition of a service that is crucially needed by every horse owner in the country: the creation of a national equine title document.

We know where we’ve been, but where are we going?

I think most people are cognizant that US Equestrian’s predecessor, the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) was an association of horse shows/managers and conceived with the purpose of tracking competition results for granting end-of-year awards. “Members” paid for the privilege of being in contention for those awards, and those who wanted to compete without regard to whether their competition results would “count” for anything could simply pay a nominal non-member fee for the privilege of competing. It wasn’t so much an organization for the competitors as it was for show management. And that’s how it was.

Fast forward to the passage of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act and the requirement that organized amateur sports have a “national governing body” (“NGB”). AHSA and its successor organizations (US Equestrian included) had to assume functions consistent with the Congressional mandates imposed on them by virtue of their NGB status. And, somewhere along the way the members starting thinking of AHSA etc as “their” organization – a “member” organization. And it is now clear that US Equestrian is articulating its mission to be more of a service organization to equine and equestrian sport enthusiasts – not just its competing membership. But what does it have to offer anyone who is not required to join for the privilege of competing? Press releases? Tutorial and training podcasts? Horse show videos on demand and the occasional event livestreaming?

US Equestrian can, and should, do more.

Equine Title Documentation

No one can deny that the phrase “sales integrity” has become a curiously controversial buzz-phrase in our sport. But, as an attorney, I can assure you that the problem of nefarious horse sales transcends our “sport,” and infects our society in a way that has not been cured by any civil or criminal law. Indeed, there are innumerable criminal and civil laws that seemingly come into play when a horse is bought and sold, and the seemingly endless passage of new or proposed laws and regulations is doing nothing to stem the ever rising tide of fraud. Let’s set aside the issue of undisclosed commissions and focus on the problem at its most elemental – the sale of stolen horses.

For many, the word “stolen” conjures up images of old-fashioned livestock rustlers and cowboys. But in our modern age, it is a problem with much subtler tones: horses being sold without the authority of their owner; monies paid by a purchaser being diverted from the owner. And, although demand for thorough transactional documentation is steadily on the rise, it is still common industry practice for equine sales and lease transactions to be poorly documented, fraudulently documented, or not documented at all. And even if documentation from the seller is delivered to the buyer, there is no central registry system against which to check its authenticity. In other words, for lack of a central title registry system, even the best paperwork is deficient.

Let’s compare the sale of a horse to the sale of an automobile. When you buy an automobile, be it from a car dealer or an individual, the first thing you expect to get after you hand over the purchase money is a “Title.” What information does the title have on it? The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). And, the VIN on the Title must match the VIN on the vehicle. And who issues the Title document? Your state DMV. And every time the vehicle changes hands, the ownership is tracked, as well as the price paid for the vehicle. And that’s just the way it is. And everyone is OK with that because that’s just the way it has been in recent memory.

But it wasn’t always that way. Who came up with this system? The government. The states. Not car dealers, that’s for sure.

Now, we don’t have “Title” documents for horses in the United States. Why? Because no one has come up with the system. Not the government. Not the states. So I have to ask, “Why not our NGB?” If not our NGB, then who?

In no time at all, every horse competing at a recognized show will have to be micro-chipped. It is not beyond anyone’s imagination that all livestock may soon have to be micro-chipped as the government seeks to track infectious disease outbreaks. And what does a micro-chip provide? The equivalent of a VIN. Every horse can now have an identification number. An immutable, unchangeable, trackable identification number which (and here’s the kicker) can be associated with an owner. And if we can track the animal by owner, then why not attach to that the issuance of an official title document that is recorded and is searchable by an interested party?

The ability to assure oneself of the legitimacy of a horse transaction has value to anyone buying a horse, regardless of their competitive intent. So if US Equestrian wants to increase its member base and offer services to non-competing members, why not offer a service that has value to every horse owner in the country? If little Janie’s parents want to buy her a pony that she will only keep as a pet and trail ride from time to time, they might still rather pay a fee to US Equestrian for the privilege of making sure that they are actually giving the purchase price to the owner of that pony instead of buying themselves a lawsuit (or heart-ache) down the road. And if, when Janie outgrows that pony and her parents decide to lease it out, they might find comfort in the thought that the people leasing the pony won’t be able to surreptitiously sell it down the road behind their backs. Why? Because if that pony is micro chipped and Janie has a US Equestrian Title document, then someone looking to buy that pony from the lessee can verify the pony’s ownership simply by scanning the microchip and then cross-referencing that number with the US Equestrian equine title registry, only to discover the pony is not owned by the lessee but by little Janie. Pony theft averted.

Under the current state of affairs, with no registry of title documents, if the lessee sells that pony then there is no way little Janie gets that pony back. Janie can sue the lessee for stealing her pony, but that’s hardly the equitable or practical solution in light of the availability of micro chipping. Now we need to do something useful with this new technology.

I’ve heard people say, “USEF isn’t interested in getting into the business of regulating horse sales.” Well, in my opinion, it should be. If it is in the business of serving its members and the national horse community, then it needs to get into the business of regulating horse sales because, well, someone has to. The fact that no one does is absolutely mind-boggling to any attorney or business person who operates outside the horse industry.

Obtaining a title document and using the central registry doesn’t have to be mandated by law to become the “law of the land.” If a practice becomes wide-spread and generally accepted, then it becomes “expected,” even if compliance is voluntary. US Equestrian is perfectly positioned to establish and legitimize “industry custom and usage,” which will become the law of the land (over time).


Our NGB purports to be all about “clean sport,” not just from the perspective of anti-doping, but in terms of enforcing sportsmanship and (to some degree) ethics. The mission of the NGB now includes protecting the safety and well-being of minors from predatory and inappropriate behavior. Thus, it seems to me that US Equestrian wants to be perceived as governing the sport and “cleaning it up.” It wants to expand membership and accordingly, its jurisdictional reach. To do those things, it simply needs to offer services of value to anyone who has anything to do with horses. How will it reach all those people? How will it “clean up” an industry without treating its biggest wart? You can’t “govern” without looking like a government. And governments regulate financial transactions that are important to their people. How can US Equestrian claim to govern equestrian sport without regulating equine sales at their most basic?

Krysia Nelson is an attorney who practices equestrian sports law. She is licensed in both Virginia and Florida. A member of US Equestrian (and its predecessor organizations) since the 1980’s, she currently competes in the amateur hunter divisions. For almost 25 years, she has produced Equine Law & Business Letter, a commercial newsletter reporting on legal issues and cases affecting the horse industry. She is a frequent lecturer on equine and animal law, having served on the faculty at Washington & Lee University School of Law. In addition to her private practice, she serves as an administrative law judge for the Virginia Supreme Court. Questions and comments may be directed to her by e-mail: kcnelson@kcnelsonlaw.com

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