Lack of public information on polo pony deaths after Tasmanian event worries vet, horse breeder

Almost six months on from the mysterious deaths of 16 polo ponies, a senior equine veterinarian is baffled by the “unacceptable” lack of information, while an industry veteran is warning that without any answers the impact will continue.

The ponies died on a truck on the Spirit of Tasmania on the way to Melbourne after competing in Tasmania’s premier polo event at Barnbougle.

Veterinarian Michael Morris said there had been “ample time” since the deaths for all of the necessary tests and autopsies to be completed.

“Six months after the event the horse-owning public are entitled to know something about what may have contributed to the deaths of these ponies,” he said.

“Under normal circumstances you would get autopsy results within well under a month. Admittedly we are dealing with 16 cases here, and I can understand that sometimes results are inconclusive.

“But I think it is stretching the imagination to suggest they are going to be inconclusive in 16 carcasses.

“The fact that there was a lot of [dead ponies] would certainly take the relevant authorities a bit more time than usual. But six months is just extraordinary.”

Dr Morris said it was critical to get some answers.

“At the moment we are being kept completely in the dark and that is just not acceptable,” he said.

Department says it won’t compromise investigation

A Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) spokesman said the investigation into the deaths was ongoing.

“As it is an active investigation more detailed information cannot not be provided at this stage,” the spokesman said in a statement.

“The department has provided information to the RSPCA and the equine industry, which said at this stage no ongoing concerns have been identified in relation to the ongoing movement of horses or other livestock across Bass Strait.

“The department will continue to keep the industry informed of relevant information. More detailed information will be provided when it is possible to do so without compromising the investigation.”

‘People worried’: veterinarian

Dr Morris said he was concerned about horses being sent across the Bass Strait when more information had not been provided.

“It has certainly got people worried, and we have the thoroughbred breeding season breathing down our neck,” he said.

“There will be a lot of horses going across Bass Strait to be bred, and these will also be quite high-value horses, and … quite vulnerable given that a lot of them will be mares that are in foal and not far off being due to foal.

“They will probably still go over, so owners will probably have their hearts in their mouths a little bit.

“But one wonders what the future of the next Barnbougle Polo will be, whether this is likely to threaten the future viability of that event.

“And that will be a very sad thing if that is the case because it had grown into quite a notable event on the social calendar in the north.”

Breeder wants more information

Armidale Stud owner Robyn Whishaw, who has been in the breeding industry more than 40 years and regularly sends horses across Bass Strait, echoed Dr Morris’ call for more information about the deaths.

“I find it astounding that nothing has been made public,” she said.

“It has had a negative effect on our business and will continue to.

“We rely on people sending mares over from interstate, and while there have not been any definitive answers people remain concerned, and you can’t blame them.

“And it is hard for us to give a reassurance when nothing has been released.

“Six months down the track I can’t believe they don’t have some answers now.

“The industry needs some understanding of if we can learn something from it so it does not happen again.”

Ms Whishaw said it was difficult to say the extent of the impact it had on her business.

“The Bass Strait is a physical and a psychological barrier to people sending mares across to us to stud and [when] you throw in an incident like that, the psychological barrier becomes far greater,” she said.

Given the imminent thoroughbred season, she said more information was critical.

“We will be sending 10 or 12 mares across to Melbourne as we always do, and will have mares coming into Tassie,” she said.

“We have confidence in our horse transporter that we use and we have confidence in the way we manage sending our horses and we have never had an incident.”

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