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Don’t Fence Me In

Thousands of collisions between animals and motorists occur each year. In the unfortunate event that your animal wanders on to a roadway and causes an accident, it is important to know the fencing laws in your area and what duties are placed upon you.

Unfortunately, determining your responsibilities as a livestock owner is not necessarily a simple endeavor. In the Western United States and Canada, the law is generally open range. That is, livestock may roam free regardless of land ownership. Open range laws are in place if a landowner wants to keep animals off of his property, not to fence in his own livestock. Most of the Eastern states require landowners to fence in their livestock. There are exceptions to every rule, so it is recommended you consult with a local attorney if you have questions about your particular area.

Texas, for example, is an open range state; however, there are two exceptions to this general rule. The first is the stock law exception, which gives authority to each county to change or limit the open range law. A stock law will prohibit a certain category of livestock from roaming at large in a certain area.

The second exception to Texas open range law states that the owner of livestock may not knowingly permit an animal to traverse or roam at large, unattended, on the right-of-way of a highway. If your livestock does roam on to a U.S. or state highway in Texas, to avoid liability you will need to establish that you did not permit that roaming. It is strongly recommended that you not only erect a proper fence, but also inspect it frequently to ensure it is in good repair. The Texas Agriculture Code Chapter 143 sets forth requirements for a sufficient fence. Beyond fencing, it is also recommended to secure gates and install cattle guards; if you learn your livestock is escaping, you should swiftly address the issue.

To demonstrate the wide range of laws throughout the United States, consider Idaho. Idaho is an open range state where livestock have the right of way. If an animal is hit and killed by a motorist, the driver is actually liable for the price of the animal and the repair to his own vehicle. The exception to this general rule, however, is that herd districts can be created. A herd district requires livestock owners to “build and maintain adequate fences to keep their animals off roads and neighboring properties.” If an animal is struck by a motorist in a herd district, and the fencing either does not exist or is inadequate, then the livestock owner becomes liable.

Because the rules are so different from place to place, it is important to know what rules apply in your state and county. Having this knowledge will help protect you from liability in the event your horse or livestock escapes.


Counselor at law for the American Paint Horse Association, Suzanne C. Radcliff is the office managing partner at Cozen O’Connor’s Dallas, Texas, office. Her “Horse Sense” blog is featured at myflashyride.com.

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