Horse owners pleased with Malloy's bill defending the animals

Julia Marrinan of Montville guides Marshmello, a 5-year-old male quarter pony, over a jump during equestrian training Sunday at Treasure Hill Farm in Salem. The class instructor is Heather Navarrete.
Julia Marrinan of Montville guides Marshmello, a 5-year-old male quarter pony, over a jump during equestrian training Sunday at Treasure Hill Farm in Salem. The class instructor is Heather Navarrete.

Reacting to a case being considered by the Connecticut Supreme Court, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has introduced legislation declaring something that may seem like common sense to some: that horses are not "inherently dangerous" animals.

The Supreme Court case involves a 2006 incident in which a horse at Glendale Farms in Milford bit a child on the cheek when he tried to pet it. In 2012, an appellate court found that the owner of the horse was at fault because horses are "a species naturally inclined to do mischief or be vicious."

Local horse owners said the categorization of horses as "vicious" could drive up insurance premiums for owners and their associated businesses, or even make them uninsurable, something Malloy's bill was designed to prevent.

"I'm relieved. Finally, somebody with a rational head is taking a look at (the issue)," said Dee Doolittle, founder and executive director of Mitchell Farm Equine Retirement in Salem, which provides a home for "aged and infirm" horses.

The "vicious" ruling could "impact us in so many ways. We're a nonprofit and we rely on volunteer help and our insurance rates would have just gone sky high," said Doolittle, who said the high insurance rates would have made it difficult to continue using volunteers.

The bill, which is being reviewed by the General Assembly's Environment Committee, states that personal injury cases involving horses should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

"Connecticut's agriculture sector contributes $3.5 billion to our economy, accounts for about 28,000 jobs in our state, and is an industry with tremendous growth potential," said Malloy in a statement. "This legislation will protect owners of domesticated horses from a precedent-setting state court decision that unfortunately used too large of a brush to paint an entire species of animals as wild."

Joe Newman, the managing director of Salem's Treasure Hill Farm, said he thinks the bill is "a wonderful proposal and the right thing to protect the horse industry in Connecticut."

The harsh temperatures and high snowfall of this winter have already created a difficult economic climate for the horse industry, said Newman. If horses are legally considered vicious, "we can say with some certainty that the insurance landscape is going to shift dramatically," he said.

It's just wrong to call horses vicious, said Newman. Not only do they form connections with other horses and with their owners, but they are prey animals who run before they fight, he explained.

If abused or treated poorly, said Newman, the horses might become aggressive, but that's "solely a product of their environment, not their nature."

Jenifer Nadeau, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut's Department of Animal Science, backed Newman's assertion that horses are prey animals and are not inherently dangerous, though she said they may become dangerous if they are startled.

"A horse may react unpredictably since they are prey, much as a deer or moose would," said Nadeau. "However, I would not at all say that they are inherently vicious and likely to bite or kick. That is simply untrue. If one startles them, they may react this way to protect themselves."

The bottom line, said Doolittle, is that, like humans, "every horse is an individual."

"They each have their own distinct personalities," she said. "Some of them are comedians; some of them are (gentle). And yes, we have had horses come through who are cranky. I wouldn't call them vicious, but they're not the in-your-pocket kind of horse either. Those are the horses you take care with, and you educate people about their moods."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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