Horses are regularly consigned to sale yards throughout Australia. Fetching low or bargain prices, many horses thankfully find new homes. For sellers, yards offer an efficient means of disposing of unwanted horses.  But not all these horses are old or of no use to anyone.  A reader recently saw a foal alone in a yard apparently without water. Troubled by this event, the reader wanted to know what, if any, rules underpinned custody and welfare of horses consigned for sale in this way.

In 1989, the Australian Agricultural Council endorsed a national model code of practice for the welfare of animals, including horses, titled ‘Animals at Sale Yards’.  Absent any Federal involvement in the area, the idea behind the model code was to encourage and assist each of the States and Territories to develop a code of practice suited to its own particular needs around sale yards

The national model code has plenty of insights into the needs of horses which find expression in requirements for management practices at sale yards to encourage the considerate treatment and handling of horses and other livestock. Take these examples alone: Do not keep horses on concrete for a prolonged period; Facilities and procedures should minimise dust and eliminate boggy conditions; Cool clean drinking water should be provided if horses are held overnight or in a yard for more than 24 hours or for any length of time in hot weather; Provision of food if the horse is without it for more than 24 hours including time spent travelling to the yard, and a lesser interval for immature horses and foals.

But while the national model code is excellently written and comprehensive, is it anything more than a useful guide?  What legal force does it have?

Under animal welfare legislation (viz Animal Welfare Acts of WA, SA, Tas, ACT and NT; Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Acts of Vic and NSW; Animal Care and Protection Act of Qld), Parliaments have outlawed cruelty to horses and some (Qld, Tas, ACT and NT) have, in addition, mandated a duty of care towards horses. These proscriptions and duties apply wherever the horse might be – yard, private property or public venue. Since the national model code of practice addresses the plight of horses specifically in sale yards, do these pieces of legislation accommodate the code’s requirements?

South Australia’s Parliament has prescribed the code, in other words, elevated it to the status of legislation and therefore conferred on it legal significance.  In SA, adherence to the provisions of the code prevents a legal finding that anything done or omitted to be done in a sale yard was unlawful in contravention of SA’s Animal Welfare Act. The Parliaments of Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory have also legislated to a similar effect so that compliance with the provisions of the code is an offence exemption under their animal welfare legislation.  While not the same thing as making the code compulsory, compliance in these 2 States and the NT with the code’s provisions gives the manager of the sale yard legal protection if a horse is harmed or its welfare is at risk. Elsewhere in Australia, the code provides helpful guidance to sale yard managers and horse handlers and perhaps relevant benchmarking for evaluation of treatment of horses in sale yards by investigators, but the code itself is not accorded legislative force.

Each legislative scheme for the welfare and protection of animals embodies a regime of inspectors with extensive powers and enforcement capabilities. State governments also confer investigative and prosecutorial functions and powers on the RSPCA.

If you happen to be in a sale yard and witness a horse being maltreated or improperly cared for, what should you do if you are concerned about the situation?  Video footage or photographs of the circumstances are important evidence to secure for later reference. Contact the sale yard manager on the spot to complain and ask what will be done and even wait around to see the situation rectified.  If the matter was serious or the problem to your knowledge is endemic to the sale yard, you might consider reporting the incident to an inspector of the State or Territory department administering the animal welfare and protection legislation or the RSPCA.

It is important to remember, however, that horses might be stressed in a sale yard due to the unfamiliar surroundings, including animals or isolation, as well as possible restricted access to water and feed. There might be no shade. These situations might be troubling, but they do not mean that reasonable care is wanting or that cruelty has occurred.  If a sale yard manager is to be approached, remaining calm and factual and keeping emotions proportionate to the incident and the overall setting are important factors to encourage a positive response from the manager.

12 February 2018

© 2018 Michael Mackinnon, Solicitor & Independent Counsel