Animal Protection > AR Interviews

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Jane Duckworth
Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan
First published in Vegan Voice

Jane Duckworth was in the process of completing a professional writing and editing course when she was required to plan and produce the first part of a manuscript for her final year non-fiction project. Prior to this she had viewed a UK documentary about the British horse racing industry and the subsequent treatment of racehorses, which left her appalled and angry at the way horses were cast off like old boots when they broke down or when they failed to make the grade.
It got her thinking about what sort of deal Australian racehorses were getting. Once she started to research, the idea for the book They Shoot Horses, Don't They? took off. Duckworth looked into most aspects of Australia's horse industry, including the recreational horse scene, and discovered that equine welfare is not all that it should be.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a uniquely Australian book. The author's idea to write a book covering subjects that have not been broached before in such depth, such as saleyards and slaughterhouses, is timely. Most of us are aware of the all-too-frequent reports on the latest brumby massacre, or an article on full paddocks of horses left to starve to death by neglectful owners, or the racehorse "Three Crowns" trying to gallop with a broken leg swinging in the 1998 Melbourne Cup.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? did not come to Jane Duckworth in a quick flash of inspiration, but more like a slow-burning fuse lit when she was a teenager. She is convinced that Australians consider themselves a nation of horse-lovers but, she points out, the old knowledge of horses is not being formally handed down as it once was and this is causing a problem larger than any thought possible.
Q. Australians revel in the fact that horse culture in this country has a cult status and yet the true extent of cruelty, abuse and neglect to which many horses are subject in contemporary Australia is very little known.
A. I suppose the media tends to report on the inspiring, amazing or iconic aspects of horses and their human counterparts; not a lot is presented on their suffering, poor treatment or on general welfare issues such as the state of knackeries. It's either something that makes people feel really uncomfortable and that they would rather not know about or it bores them silly, as it's much more fun and interesting to hear about Lonhro's latest miracle win or the birth of the world's first horse clone.
While watching this year's Garryowen at the Royal Melbourne Show I was telling a friend what was happening to some of our brumbies. A fellow spectator turned around and said that I was ruining her day out and that now she was very upset. Don't talk about it any more. She represents a huge segment of the population, I reckon. Ignorance is bliss.
Q. Animals Australia and Lawrence Pope have made headway in highlighting the danger of jumps racing. What are your views on the subject?
A. Not that I'm any expert but Lawrence came to purchase a copy of my book in the early stages of the campaign. I had a good chat with him and he is such an articulate and sincere advocate for animals in general that I'm not surprised that his group had such a successful and fruitful campaign, even though jumps racing has not been banned from Victoria.
I'm not as radical on this issue as you might expect. I think that the recent reforms in Victorian jumps racing will have a big impact on horse and rider safety. The traditional brush hurdle has been replaced by yellow plastic bristles, similar to a broom, which are supported by a padded, plastic base. If the horses make an error at these hurdles they can recover. So there should be less horses falling and being injured. More attention is going to be paid to rider and horse training which is also a good thing.
Without jumps racing I fear that even more thoroughbreds will go directly to the abattoirs to be made into meat for human consumption.
Q. What can you tell us about the saleyards, slaughterhouses and horsemeat industry in Australia?
A. This one is a doozey. Chapter seven of my book covers these topics in depth, asking if the horse is a food animal or friend. The vast majority of saleyards were built for cattle and sheep and are in a poor state of repair (at least in Victoria), so they are welfare issues. Standards are improving as saleyard owners are now trying to meet 'industry best practice'.
Knackeries and abattoirs are secretive places so it's hard to find out what really goes on or why most of the horses ended up being destroyed there. I can tell you that a 'ground-breaking' study is currently taking place at the University of Sydney, funded by RSPCA Australia. It is a horse welfare research project surveying horses entering Australian knackeries and abattoirs. To begin with they will gather preliminary data on the fate of horses that have left the racing or pleasure riding industries. I also wish to point out that licensed knackery workers who come out to people's homes and put down ailing horses in their home paddocks are helping owners carry out their last responsibility.
As far as the horsemeat industry is concerned, I am appalled at so many young racehorses, both thoroughbred and standard bred, being sent to abattoirs to become export meat for human consumption.
Q. What laws are in place, if any, to abolish unethical practices at horse saleyards where old beloved horses are bought for the knackery and pet food?
A. I must point out that beloved horses of any age and condition would never be sent to a saleyard if their owners had any sense of responsibility. If an owner cannot provide an appropriate retirement option with proper food, care and shelter, or their horse is suffering too much (consult your vet to determine this), euthanasia in the home paddock is the only option. Don't sell them on to the saleyards to make a few bucks.
In answer to your question, you may consider it unethical for doggers (knackery buyers) to purchase unwanted horses for slaughter, but where else are they going to go? To me the biggest concern is when the abattoir buyers outbid a private buyer who was prepared to give the horse a good home. This will happen with bulky, healthy young horses, the type preferred for meat for human consumption. (NB Since 1986 there has been a code of practice in Victoria outlining accepted practice for slaughtering and conditions in slaughtering establishments. Who knows if it is adhered to?)
Q. How can it be controlled -- if it can be?
A. The University of Sydney study might help us to determine why so many healthy horses are being killed. Of course, one reason is that there is over-breeding in the racehorse industry. No doubt another reason will be behavioural problems that have been created by poor training and general handling.
Horse identification should be a huge issue for a number of reasons, one being that stolen or missing horses could be identified at the slaughterhouse and their owners contacted.
Q. Who purchases saleyard horses?
A. The more elite sales with the pedigreed, expensive horses that have reserves probably tend to end up in reasonably knowledgeable homes. On the other hand, aged and injured horses and those with behavioural problems sold at country sales for $50 are likely to go to the knackers or to people who equate their low economic value with the idea that these horses aren't worth being fed quality feed or having the expense of a vet visit. Of course, some do go to very good homes but it is a very risky business for the potential saleyard buyer.
Q. Do ex-racehorses go to the slaughterhouse? Apart from the longer goal of humane education what solution is there to eliminate these practices?
A. I hear that thousands that never made it to the track and failed racehorses go to the abattoirs every year. Stop over-breeding. Stop racing two-year-old horses. Their musculo-skeletal system is not strong enough to bear the strain of racing. Many, many breakdown and are discarded for this reason. The racing authorities should put some of the millions of dollars earned into re-training sound ex-racehorses so that they can be placed in new homes.
Q. Why are severely injured horses almost always shot?
A. When a horse has a total breakdown the bones may 'explode' into many pieces. This usually makes it impossible for a vet to repair them.
Q. How much do horses suffer in the process of slaughter?
A. I think they suffer most seeing their fellow horses killed. The code of practice in Victoria says that they should not see other horses slaughtered but I know they can see it happening in some places (not the abattoirs).
The captive bolt method seems humane as long as the horse's head doesn't move. I have to say I need to find out more about this. Certainly knackery workers who shoot (euthanase) horses out in their home paddocks are usually very professional and the horse will drop immediately, unlike when a lethal injection is used and the horse may jump and shudder.
Q. What are some of the overseas markets for Australian horsemeat produced for human consumption?
A. Japan, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and others.
Q. What can we do to help?
A. There are a heap of actions you can take. Where do I start? Read up about the general treatment of horses in Australia. Maybe focus on a couple of issues and see how you can help. Even be a passive member of a horse welfare group if you are time-poor but have thirty dollars or so to spend.
Look on the Internet and see what some groups are doing. Try Brumby Watch Australia or the Brumby Group for starters. Project Hop Horse Welfare, Victoria, is a very active and professional group that is involved in lobbying to change legislation as well as educating owners and certainly physically rescuing neglected horses.
Be a responsible horse owner. See my book for further suggestions as every chapter has a 'What you can do' section.
Q. Give me your professional opinion on Melbourne's tourist horse and buggy rides that are going on in the middle of the city. I would like to start a campaign against these rides, but though the horses look utterly miserable they also look plump and well fed. If animal liberationists stepped in, would it mean the horses could end up at the knackery? What would you do?
A. In my humble opinion and to the best of my knowledge Melbourne's carriage horses are well looked after by their drivers. There was a newspaper article a year or so ago that talked about their welfare. Sounded favourable. I have seen some of them, both resting and working. They have water, food, and half rugs/blankets for wet weather. I have never seen any in poor condition. I reckon they look bored rather than miserable. They are working horses and worth quite a bit of money so I tend to think that their owners are probably up on their horse husbandry knowledge. They would be better off than most, I imagine.