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by Julia McLean

In recent years the topic of micro-chipping and a national identification scheme has been examined several times raising issues such as theft prevention, disease control and general mapping of the horse population.
Chipping is considered far more humane that the practice of branding and involves a chip the size of a rice grain being inserted into the muscle of the horse’s neck, which can then be read by a scanner.

However, as yet there is still no single central or national database in Australia that maintains the records for micro-chipped horses. The Thoroughbreds have one, Equestrian Australia has one, other breeds and associations have their own, and there are numerous companies within Australia that hold chip information and some chips are registered overseas. What this means is if it becomes necessary to identify the horse from a micro-chip then the actual company holding the chip information for that horse may not be locatable or may involve considerable investigation time and expense to find.

The tragedy of the floods in SE Queensland, where an ‘inland tsunami’ and subsequent flooding swept away all in its path including many horses, left owners whom will never have the closure of truly knowing their horse’s fate due to the problems experienced in an inability to identify them with certainty, if at all.

Speaking with Debbie Decker, President of the QLD Horse Industry Council, about the difficulties experienced by those called in to assist in the unenviable task of locating and identifying horses, her comments highlighted the need for a national database. “We know now that the animals can be greatly damaged during floods, to the point where manes and tails are lost while brands and markings can be distorted and disappear so finders of those horses that lived through this experience may not describe them as the owners might.”

Just 205 horses are reported as dead as these are the ones that could be identified while a great many horses will never be found because they may have been washed out to sea or just routinely buried by clean-up crews. The disaster zone was declared a crime scene so access was limited to authorised personnel only, also presenting challenges for those trying to locate horses.

Owners seeking lost horses were asked to send in photographs showing identifying markings and brands and efforts were made to match them using photographs of dead animals. Given the damage sustained this was an unsatisfactory process compounded by challenges of identifying if the horse was a miniature or a foal, what colour or breed it may have been or those lodged in trees.

“Not many matched up”, says Debbie, “lots of ‘probable matches’ but there are not many that we really know for sure”. She tells, “135 horses found alive were eventually returned to owners but the process was lengthy and involved a lot of guesswork.”

Non-horse, or even horse people who located horses would tend to describe a chestnut horse as brown or having a blaze instead of a star and so on. In Queensland it is not compulsory to brand so many had no other identifying mark.

During the EI Outbreak in 2007 this particular region was affected and around 75,000 horses were micro-chipped, and vaccinated, by Biosecurity QLD (then the Dept of Primary Industry) and kept as a record for the purpose of follow-up testing for flu exposure and vaccine antibodies. With the eradication of EI the records were stored away in the deep dark recesses of the government department, not maintained and almost certainly drastically out of date.

Privacy legislation denies access to those records in any account.

Multiple Records

Of course there were those that were indeed micro-chipped so one could be forgiven for thinking this may have assisted. Lost dogs and cats can be taken to almost any vet surgery or council pound and with one quick scan can be reunited with its registered owner. Sadly, not the case for horses.
When an owner has their horse micro-chipped they may register it with Equestrian Australia or they may just have it recorded by the breed society relevant to that horse.

For instance, a horse might be chipped and registered with the relevant breed society with the chip scanned in the event of loss or being found. Unless the person with the scanner can readily identify that horse as being an Andalusian or ASH or Quarter Horse they will not know how to match that registered chip to the individual animal.

Those registered with performance registries like the Australian National Saddlehorse Association (ANSA) may be of unknown breeding and not registered with any breed society at all.
Debbie confirms “scanning for microchips is easy - they are always located in a uniform area of the horse’s neck but searching the multitude of breed and performance registries is an enormous task.”
“This was made all the more difficult by many owners not having kept records of the microchip” she said “ If there was a central registry for micro-chipped horses the job would have been so much easier. We would have been able to scan horses and reunite them with their owners almost immediately.”

As of 1 July 2011 all horses competing in EA events will be micro-chipped. Owners can have this done by approved vets whom then supply stickers with the chip information, bar codes and horse description to be attached to registration papers sent to the EA in the relevant state .

EA then recommends that owners register the chip with other national registries such as Australasian Animals Registry (AAR). There are several that exist but they are generally used for companion animals such as dogs and cats. This is compulsory in Victoria.

All Thoroughbreds have been micro-chipped since the foal crop of 2003 with any older horses active in the Racing Industry during the EI Outbreak also chipped when vaccinated. This registry, maintained by the Australian Stud Book, is primarily concerned with pedigree, stud and racing information and NOT ownership. A horse’s registered ASB name can be found but it cannot be connected to an owner and certainly not once having purchased a Thoroughbred off the track for a performance career - unless of course the owner has registered the microchip information with Equestrian Australia and also with one of the national registries.
In the absence of a national database for horses this is the next best thing. All micro-chipping systems have commonalities greatly increasing the chances for identification.

There are those opposed to micro-chipping horses, which may be because they are mistaken in thinking that this is a tracking system like the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) for cattle. It is not. Micro-chipping is just another form of identification but more secure. It does not require ongoing paperwork for government departments. It is true however, that it would also have the ability to assist greatly with disease control or theft prevention and abattoir records could contribute to an understanding of breeding practices and general horse population.

Useful websites:
Australasian Animal Registry
Australian Stud Book
Equestrian Australia



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