Wisconsin trainer loses lawsuit over show horse she nursed back to health
MILWAUKEE – In a legal dispute over a champion sporting stallion, Wisconsin’s Court of Appeals decided it was a case of a horse – or two – apiece.
But the Viroqua, Wis., trainer on the losing end of the ruling doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s been pretty frustrating,” said Amy S. Hunter. “Basically it means I live in the wrong state. Anywhere there’s some knowledge of the industry this would be different.”
Hunter, 43, trained a sick horse back to health and productivity for a wealthy out-of-state owner, who Hunter says was so grateful she told Hunter she could keep it. But after the horse regained Grand Prix show jumping status, the owner demanded the horse back, prompting a lawsuit.
“I feel like the court sees this as a joke,” Hunter said, referring to the trial judge’s comment that an Irish Draught horse should be pulling a plow. “This is my life’s work.”
According to the opinion, Grace Shaw-Kennedy, of California, imported Cradilo, an Irish Draught horse from Ireland, for about $35,000 in 1996 but turned over his care and management to business partner Kassandra Ladd. The horse competed in dressage events for a few years until he was slowed by a lung infection.
In 2006, Ladd turned Cradilo over to Hunter, with the understanding Hunter would use the horse for breeding but also try to rehab him for a possible return to high-level competition.
Hunter said Ladd was her best friend from high school. Hunter not only made Cradilo competitive, she rode him in competition around the country, and also bred him with her own thoroughbred mares. Some of those offspring are now among the best 5-year-olds competing, Hunter said.
One dispute in the case was whether, and when, there was a formal lease agreement. Hunter says there was not, and that she understood that part of the reason she was taking Cradilo was to help Ladd hide the horse during her divorce. Varied leases later produced basically agreed that Hunter was essentially getting free use of Cradilo, but would cover her own expenses.
About three years into Cradilo’s time in Wisconsin, he began competing again at the Grand Prix level, but Hunter couldn’t afford to keep him on the circuit so Shaw-Kennedy started sending Hunter about $13,000 a month, payments that eventually totaled $217,000.
“Grace was like my best friend after that,” Hunter recalled on Sept. 20. “She came to spend Christmas with my family” in 2010, and flew Hunter out to California the next month for a visit.
A couple months later, Hunter said, she got a call from the minister of Shaw-Kennedy’s church, who announced she no longer wished to speak with Hunter. The checks stopped, and in September came the demand for Cradilo’s return. Hunter said she would not return the horse unless Shaw-Kennedy repaid nearly a quarter-million dollars in expenses Hunter had incurred. At that point, Shaw-Kennedy sued.
Hunter counterclaimed for breach of contract and sought damages for unjust enrichment to Shaw-Kennedy. At trial in 2012, an expert for Hunter testified that Cradilo’s value as a stud was only about $50,000 in 2006, but now, with his return to form and the early success of offspring born to Hunter’s mares, his value is about $500,000 and could top $1 million in the future.
But much of the stud value was predicated on whether Cradilo’s semen could be successfully frozen. Hunter said she had frozen 1,000 tubes but had not used it yet, while Shaw-Kennedy said Cradilo’s frozen sperm was found not viable after earlier attempts.
The trial court found that a definite value had not been established, and further noting Hunter’s gain from the live breeding, ruled in Shaw-Kennedy’s favor. The appellate court affirmed.
“The fact that Hunter had already reaped the benefit of owning at least two more horses who were showing signs of being able to compete at the Grand Prix level suggests that, even if Cradilo’s value had exponentially increased due to Hunter’s efforts, it was not inequitable for Shaw-Kennedy to keep that value when Hunter’s efforts also benefited herself,” the court wrote.
Cradilo went to California after the trial, said Shaw-Kennedy’s attorney, Michael Ablan of La Crosse, Wis. He said Shaw-Kennedy had an emotional attachment to the horse, and doesn’t even ride it, but felt Cradilo was getting too old to compete.
Irish Draught horses can live 40 years, Ablan said. Cradilo was born in 1993.
Hunter said she was devastated by the simultaneous loss of Cradilo and the friendships of Shaw-Kennedy and Ladd. She didn’t go to a horse show for a year until this month.
She’s taken a part-time job at the local jail, and is in bankruptcy. She said the investment in horses is very expensive to maintain because the payback comes years later, after horses establish solid competition records thereby raising their own value and that of their sire.
“I have put Cradilo on the map as a show jumper producer,” Hunter said. “The only (Cradilo offspring) doing anything are the ones I bred. And they won’t even give me the semen I bought.”
Ablan said Hunter gets to keep the frozen semen, but she says Shaw-Kennedy won’t sign it over until Hunter pays off an expensive horse trailer they had bought together, something Hunter says she can’t afford at the moment.
Rachel Cox owns a horse farm in Pennsylvania and is on the board of the Irish Draught Horse Association of North America and familiar with Cradilo.
“I’ve seen this so many times,” Cox said, referring to misunderstandings among owners, breeders and trainers of expensive horses. She said owners underestimate the effort trainers put in, trainers can get very attached to specific animals, and friends frequently don’t execute the proper paperwork.
“You really need to cross the T’s and dot the I’s,” she said.