As the National Horse Traceability Scheme awaits an official launch, volunteers have taken horse welfare into their own hands and found new homes for animals left for dead.
When devastating bushfires tore through the Mudgee region in late 2019, Sarah McCarthy began evacuating and caring for horses left behind by fleeing residents.
But just as the ash settled from the disaster, she was alerted to another animal welfare crisis unfolding in Central West New South Wales: a group of 20 horses starving to death on a drought-ravaged property.
With a small team of volunteers, Ms McCarthy sprung into action and arranged the immediate surrender and rescue of the horses — and it couldn’t have waited another day.
A skinny horse with marks on its flank in a paddock.
It was nearly too late to save some of the rescued horses.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
“The state of the horses was pretty dire; there were horses that were dying, carcasses all over the place,” she said.
“There were probably about six that died in the two weeks that we tried to start getting them out.
“Some of the horses were actually eating bark and leaves to survive. There was just nothing for them to eat.”
A skinny mare and foal eat from a bale of hay.
The starving horses are now being cared for at Ms McCarthy’s makeshift sanctuary.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
Ms McCarthy then began rehabilitating the horses with feed and veterinary care, while searching for new owners to adopt them.
Before they could be rehomed, though, the wild horses needed to be handled, which involved making contact with them in a confined space to gain their trust and get them used to humans.
Ms McCarthy said every horse was different and had a different timeline for recovery.
“You don’t know whether that horse has been abused, whether it’s never had any interaction or whether it’s frightened of something,” she said.
“You’ve just got to take it slowly.”
A dark brown horse with a bridle on in an enclosure.
The horses must be handled with care and patience.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
‘Mates helping mates’
Helping fund the rescue was We Care Community Shop manager Donna Collins, who bankrolled the purchase of thousands of dollars worth of feed for the horses.
She said she was proud to support the rescue and loved an underdog.
“Sarah’s passion and dedication is unquestionable, it’s just amazing,” she said.
“Her love of horses is just brilliant.
“It’s about mates helping mates, and making differences to animals. To people, it doesn’t matter. If somebody can help them, then that’s all that matters.”
A woman in a black polo leans on a metal railing, talking to a group.
Ms Collins has been the financial backbone of the rescue operation.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
Highlighting the need for national horse registry
Specialty equine lawyer Leah Manning worked closely with Ms McCarthy to draw up surrender forms for the starving horses, and said volunteers were not responsible for animal welfare.
“This is the Government’s job, this isn’t the job of individuals that don’t know these horses, that don’t know this owner, it’s not their job to go and do this,” Ms Manning said.
Close-up of a man’s hands turning a page on a clipboard and signing with his other hand.
Surrender forms had to be quickly drawn up for the horses.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
After an investigation on the ABC’s 7.30 program last year revealed the widespread mistreatment of former racehorses, a Senate inquiry recommended establishing a national horse-traceability scheme to track horses from birth.
The Department of Agriculture accepted the inquiry’s recommendations earlier this year, and opened a working group to build towards a trial of the scheme, which was yet to be launched.
Ms Manning said a horse registry would help bolster accountability in cases of unchecked animal cruelty on isolated properties.
“The national horse-traceability scheme would help with that,” she said.
“We could identify the horses, identify the owners.”
A woman in a grey hoodie looks concerned at a man in the foreground.
Lawyer Leah Manning is pushing for a national horse registry to curb abuse.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
In a statement to Landline, the Department of Agriculture said it “appreciates the potential contribution a national horse register would make to the welfare of horses and to biosecurity and other matters”.
“As the responsibility for animal welfare and biosecurity within Australia are state and territory matters, the primary responsibility for development, legislation and operation of a national horse-traceability register rests with the state and territory governments,” the Department of Agriculture said.
Ms Manning said a national registry to address the issue was needed immediately.
“Until the laws change and there is something like the National Horse Traceability Scheme, I think it’s going to continue,” she said.
A skinny bay mare and foal eat out of the same blue bucket.
Ms Manning maintains it shouldn’t be the responsibility of volunteers to care for starving horses.(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)
After rehoming the rescue horses in Victoria and Queensland, Ms McCarthy said she was in the early stages of starting a charity, called Rescue 20, to support horse rescues across Australia.
“There’s more ability to do more when you’re a registered charity, because there’s grants and support out there to help charities,” she said.
“More than just some girl in the middle of Woop Woop trying to help a mob of horses.”
Ms McCarthy said the financial backing of the community was the driving force behind the rescue.
“Without good-hearted people and community support, none of this would have ever happened.”
Brown and bay horses graze in a pen.
The rescued horses are in good hands now.
(ABC Landline: Donal Shiel)