Vicious Horses? That’s Not What We See In Orange

by Kathleen Schurman

Is the horse a vicious animal by nature? That is the question the Connecticut Supreme Court seeks to answer while hearing an appeal in the case of Vendrella v. Astriab.{{more}} According to court documents, Anthony Vendrella was buying plants at Glendale Farm in Milford.

After purchasing the plants, he and his 2-year old son walked to a horse paddock and pet a horse through the fence, despite prominent signs that read, “Please do not pet or feed the horses.” A brown horse named Scuppy leaned down and bit the child’s face, removing a chunk of flesh that resulted in permanent scarring.

Vendrella sued farm owner, Timothy Astriab, for damages, but according to state law, the defendant is only liable if he had previous indications that the horse was vicious. If Astriab had known of any biting tendencies, the defendant would have had a “duty of care” to take extra measures to protect the public from that horse.

However, according to all testimony, Scuppy was an upstanding equine citizen and had never taken a nip out of anyone, either human or another horse. Because of this, in a summary judgment, the court ruled in favor of the defendant and Astriab and Scuppy were off the hook. Temporarily.

During the trial, in an apparent attempt to protect his farm and business, Astriab testified that Scuppy was no different from any other horse and that, “A horse could bite you and cause great damage.” He also said it didn’t have to be Scuppy, and that any horse was capable of biting. Courts documents read, “Astriab also admitted that he had concerns with horses nipping or biting a person if they put something in front of it. He was repeatedly asked and affirmatively answered questions regarding whether a ‘typical reaction’ from a ‘typical horse’ would be to nip or bite something that is put in front of their face.” Ultimately Astriab’s answers, that all horses have a propensity to be aggressive, may have saved his farm, but it threw the rest of the state’s horse industry under the bus as his testimony helped fuel the appeal that is now before the court, which is limited to the following issue:

Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that the horse belongs to a species so naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious to human beings that the minor plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable regardless of whether the particular horse has shown a prior vicious disposition known to the keeper?

Town resident Marjorie Schenk doesn’t think so.

She is a bit of a horse expert having owned at least one for the past 23 years.

“I feel it is a shame that parents do not use good judgment when they expose their child at any age to animals that do not belong to them. Any animal can pose a harmful threat if people don’t use their heads. The case in Milford, which is seven years old smacks of dollars and not good sense,” Schenk said.

Judy Smith is the owner of a New York City retired police department horse, Broadway Bob.

“Horses are not vicious animals they are gentle giants,” she said.

“Like all animals, people need to show them respect and appreciation,” she said.

If the court decides this is an accurate statement of a horse’s nature, the ramifications to the state’s horse industry could be enormous, dramatically changing the liability issues of owning or caring for horses. According to state law, as described by the Animal Legal and Historical Center:

Connecticut statute limits the liability of equine sponsors by providing that each person engaged in recreational equestrian activities assumes the risk for any injury arising out of the hazards inherent in equestrian sports. However, if the injury was proximately caused by the negligence of the person providing the horse or by the failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure or activity, liability if not limited by law.

Current signage required for use by equine facilities state that a person’s presence on that property indicates they, “accept the limits of liability resulting from the inherent risks associated with equine activities,” would no longer be strong enough as every horse would be considered dangerous.

A slew of “horse people” have spoken out against the designation of horses as vicious animals. Equine veterinarian Dr. Stacy Golub, owner of Connecticut Valley Equine Veterinary services, denies horses are born to be aggressive.

“Horses are not inherently vicious or even aggressive by nature, Golub said. “As prey animals, their first instinct is to run from anything they perceive as threatening or scary. Like any animal, they can be territorial over things like food, shelter, or when protecting their offspring. The problem is that humans speak a different language than animals and may not heed the warnings they clearly show through body language before they take action (bite, kick, etc). This is true of almost any animals that humans interact with, including dogs and cats. The moral of this story is that if you’re unfamiliar with an animal or its language, do not approach it, and certainly don’t stick your child in its face. But don’t label them as vicious because you don’t understand them.”

Even if the court upholds the appeal and Connecticut horses are deemed vicious, the end of the debate is far from over. Another appeal could send the case to the federal second circuit court of appeals, which also covers the heavily horse-populated states of New York and Vermont. While the United States Supreme Court only takes about 100 of the 10,000 cases put before it each year, a ruling by the Chief Justices would change the face of the horse industry in the entire country.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the owner of a Milford nursery and greenhouse operation who takes in boarder horses for some extra income, as well the potential legacy of a horse named Scuppy that has the potential to change the face and future of the equine industry in this state, and possibly further.

Kathleen is the owner of Locket’s Meadow Farm in Bethany. The farm has about 100 horses rescued from slaughter and abuse.