Are Horses Mere Chattel?

Out of Hay for the Horses?  Ah, Just Let ‘Em Starve!  They’re Mere Chattel Anyway!

By Ken K. Gourdin

This is in response to a story in yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune about a man who was charged with several counts of animal cruelty for neglecting his horses (originally he was charged with 25 counts, but later pleaded guilty to five counts).  (If you took extreme umbrage at the offensive title to this post, you have the idea.)   See the story and accompanying comments on line here (last accessed today):  My first response to the story was as follows (quotations without footnotes are from comments to the story, which are available at the link posted above):

I don’t want to be unduly judgmental. He ran out of hay. (That might demonstrate a lack of foresight on his part, but …) OK. How hard did he try to get more, or to make other arrangements so that his horses wouldn’t suffer? Most people wouldn’t say, “Oh, crap! Out of hay! Hope the horses’ll be OK until spring!” I think most people would get on the phone, and they wouldn’t put it down until appropriate arrangements had been made (“Got any hay you can spare . . . ?” “Can you take a couple of my horses until spring . . .?” Et cetera).

In response, another poster (who apparently holds the extreme [in my view] position that since the horses are his property, their owner may do with them as he wishes (and hence, that he should not have been charged with animal cruelty for his neglect of them) wrote (paraphrasing), “He shoulda shot ’em or sold ’em,” and (paraphrasing again), “But Ken, hay is expensive.”  In response to that, I wrote:

I’m sorry. With reference to the hay, where in my post did I use the word “give”? And, while I realize finding hay late in the season is a tall order, as far as paying for it goes, one does what one must: if he has to take out a loan to buy some hay, so be it.

And with respect to the horses, property or not, anthropomorphized or not, we’re talking about sentient beings here. Horses simply aren’t mere “property” in the sense that my house is property or that my car is property. And if he can’t sell the horses, he has plenty of other options besides shooting them. You know those animal lovers you deride? Many of them run organizations intended to rescue animals from just such circumstances as the ones in which these horses unwittingly found themselves.

That same poster opposed the punishment this man received on the basis of the contention by the poster that the horses are mere property.  Apparently, because the horses are mere property, the defendant in this case was entitled to do as he wished with them, including neglecting them and starving them.  The poster also derided and dismissed anyone who would argue otherwise as an “animal lover”—as though loving animals is a bad thing.  (By that logic, one wonders why we even have animal cruelty statutes on the books in the first place; more on that below.)  While I lost his train of logic with this turn, he also tried, somehow, to relate this man’s neglect of his horses to federal government’s current “cradle-to-grave” entitlement posture.  I responded:

Practically your entire first paragraph is a non sequitur. The federal government isn’t responsible for what happened to these horses: their owner is. And as I told you above, anthropomorphized or not, property or not, we’re talking about sentient beings here, not mere chattel: horses aren’t property in the same way that my house is my property or that my car is my property.

And your proposed solution (that law enforcement tell this man to sell his horses or to shoot them, and that it take action only after he failed to do so) only deals with the problem post hoc. He should have been better prepared to assume responsibility for his property and all of its attendant obligations before the situation became so dire. He had a duty to exercise foresight, yet he did not do so. That’s why he was arrested. Not because the “animal lovers” wouldn’t leave the Sheriff alone unless he did something, or for any other reason than for their owner’s criminal lack of foresight and due care.

For the record, Utah’s animal cruelty statute, which can be found in Utah Code Annotated § 76-9-301 reads as follows:

. . . (1) (g)  “Necessary food, water, care, or shelter” means the following, taking into account the species, age, and physical condition of the animal:

(i)  appropriate and essential food and water;

(ii)  adequate protection, including appropriate shelter, against extreme weather conditions; and

(iii)  other essential care.

(2)  Except as provided in Subsection (4) or (6), a person is guilty of cruelty to an animal if the person, without legal privilege to do so, intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence:

(a)  fails to provide necessary food, water, care, or shelter for an animal in the person’s custody . . .1

It’s rare that I say this, but it does seem to me in this case that simply what has been reported by the news media about what happened in this case is sufficient to conclude that the man’s conduct meets Utah’s animal cruelty statute as excerpted above.  In response to my previous post (before the above excerpt of the Utah Criminal Code), my interlocutor said:

This statement of yours is entirely legally and factually false: “. . . we’re talking about sentient beings here, not mere chattel: horses aren’t property in the same way that my house is my property or that my car is my property.”

Learn law. Learn what chattel means. It’s funny that you misused the word chattel because that word has always been used to mean living beings, sometimes even humans. Dictionaries are your friend.

Legally, a horse is the same type of property as your car. You’ve spent too long in the land of good intentions and you need to learn law.

Let’s examine the assertions this poster makes above.  Broadly speaking (in fact, speaking nearly as broadly as possible) “real property” is, “Land, and anything growing on, attached to, or erected on it.”2 Under this definition, plainly, horses do not qualify as real property because they are not land, neither are they growing on it, attached to it, or erected on it.  “Personal property” is, “Any movable or intangible thing that is subject to ownership and is not classified as real property.”3 Horses can be classified as personal property because they are “moveable” (which I will define as “capable of being transported from one place to another”) and because they are “subject to ownership” (whether any given horse is privately owned or not), and because they are not “real property.”  “Chattel” is “Moveable or transferrable property, esp. personal property.”4 Because horses are “moveable” and “transferrable” they can be classified as chattel.

But does the status of horses as chattel end the inquiry—should it end the inquiry into whether there are limits to what an owner can do with them, and can do to them? A car is a television is a computer is a—horse?  They’re all subject to ownership: given an appropriate transaction—a gifting, a sale, or some other act of alienation (of transfer of ownership)—someone can say of any of those items, “That’s mine.” There are capable of being personally owned.  With the exception of the house, they’re all moveable.  But does this end the inquiry?  A horse may be chattel, but it’s not chattel in the same sense that any of the other items mentioned in this paragraph (except the house) are chattel.  To illustrate, would my computer care if I “starved” it of electricity by removing its battery and  unplugging it, never to use it again; or would my television care if I unplugged it, thereby “starved” it, too, of electricity, and never watched it again?  No, even though televisions, computers, and horses are all chattel, all chattel isn’t created equal.

Given a choice, a horse will do what is necessary for its own self-preservation and for the preservation of its offspring, even if those actions are driven largely by instinct than by conscious choice.  One may deprive a horse of adequate food or water, but a horse would never make the choice on its own to deprive itself of these necessities for very long.  Unlike my television or my computer, neither of which would care if I were to “starve” it of electricity or to otherwise “mistreat” it, a horse—a sentient, semi-aware being—certainly would care if I were to deprive it of food and water (or of the opportunity to seek out these things on its own).

With this background, I responded to the post quoted immediately above (which stated that my assertions are “legally and factually false”) as follows:

Extreme condescension coupled with extreme ignorance is never a good combination. On the other hand, humility, even when combined with a good deal of intelligence, will rarely steer a person wrong. As “1stedition” helpfully points out below, one cannot be prosecuted for “house abuse” or “car abuse,” but one can be prosecuted for animal abuse or neglect. Thus, my original point (that a horse is not chattel in the same sense that, for example . . . my car is my chattel) still stands.

Further, even accepting (solely for the sake of argument) that horses are chattel, they’re not chattel in the same sense that other movable objects are chattel, because those movable objects are inanimate, while horses (whether they’re chattel or not) are animate. My house (yes, I realize that houses are not chattel, but they are inanimate objects) or my car wouldn’t care if I mistreated it (whether willfully or negligently); conversely, if I were to mistreat a horse (whether willfully or negligently), it certainly would care that I did so. And that’s why there’s a distinction in the law between the two types of “chattel.” (And you’d best not take the notion that horses are chattel too far beyond its intended limits: in England back in the middle ages, a man’s wife was considered his chattel: if you were to attempt to use that notion as a defense to a charge of domestic abuse today, I doubt it would get you very far.)

All the same, thanks so much for your helpful invitation to learn the law. While, consistent with my previous observation, I’ll freely admit that many know more about the law than I do, I do feel pretty safe in saying (my advice regarding humility, knowledge, and ignorance above notwithstanding) that my knowledge of the law stacks up favorably against yours all day long, every day (even on Sunday).

Learn the law?  That’s a good idea.  I think I’ll do that.  Perhaps I’ll get a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from Weber State University (for which I will be required to take several law-related courses, including [but not limited to] Criminal Law, Civil & Criminal Police Liability, and Laws of Arrest, Search, & Seizure); perhaps I’ll sit for the Certified Paralegal Examination offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants in Tulsa, Okla., for which I will be required take fifteen Paralegal Studies semester credits (I took mine from Salt Lake Community College in Civil Litigation, Legal Research & Writing I & II, Family Law, the Law of Wills, Trusts, & Estates, and in a Certified Paralegal Examination preparation course); maybe I’ll even go to law school, perhaps at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah.


1.         Utah Code Annotated, Title 76, Chapter 9, Section 301, accessed on line at the following address on August 21, 2013:

2.         Bryan A. Garner, ed. (2001) Black’s Law Dictionary (2d Pocket ed.) St. Paul, Minn.: West Group 564, s.v. “real property” (definition 1).

3.         Id., s.v. “personal property” (definition 1).

4.         Id., s.v. “chattel” (definition 1) at 95.

About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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