On 4 September 2019, an Australian Senate committee began public hearings into the benefits of a national register for all horses in Australia.  Individuals and organisations involved in the horse industry or responsible for its regulation made written submissions to the inquiry.  At scheduled hearings, Sydney on 4 September, followed by one in Canberra on 21 September and there may be others, invited witnesses make oral submissions and respond to queries by the Senators arising from the submissions.

Practically all written submissions supported the idea of a register. Just what a register could meaningfully achieve is, however, a major concern for the inquiry.  There are 4 principle potential benefits of a register.

Firstly, bio-security. In August 2007, there was an outbreak of equine influenza. The response to this disease outbreak was to place a standstill on all horse movements. Memories of being in a lock down at competition venues for weeks are still raw for many people in New South Wales due to the enormous inconvenience and associated expense. To enforce the control over horse movements, every police officer in New South Wales became an authorised bio-security officer with power to arrest and fine offenders. In the case of another disease outbreak, tracing the origins and whereabouts of infected horses is vital. It is thought that a register would enable this to happen swiftly without avoidable disruption.

Second, integrity of trading horses. The unfortunate riding death of Sarah Waugh, a student at Dubbo TAFE in 2009 brought about intense scrutiny of the procurement of Sarah’s TAFE supplied horse.  She was learning to ride. Sarah’s horse was still a registered racehorse, retired from the track only weeks earlier and was never re-trained before Sarah took her fatal ride.  Her parents, Mark and Juliana AM, strongly believe that if the horse’s history had been identified, Sarah would not have died. The TAFE itself has admitted that, had it been made aware of the horse’s history, its assessment of the horse for its equine course would have proceeded differently. A register is considered an additional tool to evaluate suitability of a horse before purchase or use, by reference to its owernship history.

Third, animal welfare. Backyard breeding is the indiscriminate breeding of a mare to a stallion with no regard to the willingness and capability of the breeder to look after the mare and her progeny. This scenario is viewed as an animal welfare issue. The lives of horses after their racing or pacing careers are also considered to be welfare issues. The greater visibility of horses, through formal identification and traceability for their whole of life by virtue of a register would, it is contended, assist with their welfare and lead to increased accountability of their owners and custodians.

Fourth, stock theft is a problem in some areas of Australia.  Horse identification would arguably help Police and Stock Squads to clarify ownership of horses and to prosecute persons with illegal possession of them.

The Senators are naturally concerned to gauge the costs of creating and maintaining any register from a budgetary view. The National Livestock Identification System for cattle and sheep was driven by the export market, since trading partners required traceability. But without a significant export market for Australia’s horses, there is concern that the expense to the taxpayer might greatly outweigh the benefits of a register.  All horse owners need to be aware, therefore, of the possibility that Government may levy a fee on them to fund and administer any register.

Like any meritorious idea, however, the challenge lies with the practical implementation of any register. There is no place of course for a traceability register if it is incomplete, ignored, left out of date or unaudited: Horse owners would resent another cost overlay to their business or pleasure time pursuits for no meaningful purpose. Pending the Senate’s Inquiry and preparation of its report due in December 2019, there a several things, however, that breed and equestrian bodies might do in the short to medium term to advance the prospects of a cost efficient and effective register if one were to be brought about by legislation.

Horse identification by means of micro-chipping is widespread and indeed mandated by some sporting bodies. It would be good forward planning if all breed societies and equestrian bodies were to self-impose a requirement that all horses within their auspices be micro-chipped, if they do not already mandate it. Inserted in a nationally standardised place on horses to prevent movement (like the neck), micro-chips are widely accepted as the optimal means of identification given current technologies, although biometrics are gaining ground.

In addition, clubs, societies and organisations might review their own registers with the aim of capturing information that could be of use to a national traceability register. Date in these sub-registers could be technologically transferred to the national register subject to over-riding privacy and commercial factors. The benefit to members could come by way of exemption to any future Government levy for the set-up, running and policing of the national register, quite apart from the benefit of the collected data for internal administration purposes.

Various countries already have horse registers, for example, the United Kingdom, which in 2019 opened up its central equine database to the public.  Australia needs a horse traceability register to meet international best practice concerning horse welfare and to protect the interests of everyone whose business or enjoyment derives from horses.  Comprehensive and accurate horse identification is essential to the viability of any national register and is something that can start at the grass roots level.

18 September 2019

© 2019 Michael Mackinnon, Solicitor & Independent Counsel