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At the Echuca saleyards, 200km north of the glamour of Melbourne’s spring racing carnival, a row of thoroughbreds are waiting to be auctioned.

They are a mixed bunch. The first has worn a deep track in the dirt of her high-fenced yard and is dark with sweat. A few pens over, another mare is quietly surveying the crowd. She has already been reserved by a buyer who saw her photo on Facebook.

As the auctioneer comes around, a volunteer reads out the horses’ details to the crowd of bidders. They sell quickly and for not very much. A few weeks ago they were part of the $18bn Australian racing industry. Now, unless the bidding goes high enough, they could be headed to an abattoir.

It’s a supply chain the racing industry says it’s trying to disrupt. Trainers in both the thoroughbred and harness racing industries must now file a retirement form at the end of every horse’s career that states where it is going next. Selling through livestock sales is discouraged in favour of certified retraining options.

But still the trucks arrive every fortnight, leaving clusters of unlucky racehorses at the mercy of the auction crowd.

Of the 23 thoroughbreds and 15 standardbreds – the breed used in the harness racing industry – sold outside the riding ring at this sale, 10 go to a buyer who supplies the export horse meat trade.





A mule is auctioned



A mule is auctioned at Echuca. Photograph: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian

The rest sell to breeders, dealers and a few private homes. Some will begin new lives as riding horses; others will end up back here again.

‘A degree of mindfulness’

Victoria Armstrong usually arrives early. She carries a scanner which can read the microchips that have been implanted in every thoroughbred registered with the Australian Racing Board since 2003.

The information – age, breeding history, average winnings, likely temperament – are uploaded on the sale’s Facebook page, which has 27,000 followers. As the auctioneer, Andrew Wilson, goes around the pens, Armstrong or another volunteer calls out what the chips say.

“I have been doing it for the last four years and it’s been very successful,” Armstrong says. “We’ve got up to about a 70 to 100% clearance rate [of horses going to good homes] depending on the sale.”

She has been involved in the racing industry for three decades and is a director of Country Racing Victoria. Rehoming efforts are improving, she says, but remain “pretty ad hoc”.

“They are trying to promote a degree of mindfulness amongst the trainers and the owners about where to rehome a horse,” she says. “Some are brilliant, some are not so much.”

Most of Racing Victoria’s efforts have gone into funding the Off the Track program, which promotes ex-racehorses as equestrian prospects through sponsoring events such as the Garryowen, the prestigious turnout class at the Royal Melbourne Show which has been won for seven years in a row by a retired racehorse.





A chestnut thoroughbred



This 11-year-old thoroughbred last raced in 2014 and had total winnings of more than $100,000. He sells for $340. Photograph: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian

The Garryowen is also credited with the new vogue for standardbreds, which experienced an uptick in popularity after the first standardbred was entered in the extremely snooty event.

“It’s gone from nobody wanted to ride a standardbred to it becoming quite trendy to have one,” says Tanya McDermott, who runs Harness Racing Victoria’s rehoming and retraining program.

Wilson says numbers from the racing industry have decreased but drought caused the number of all horses at this September sale to double. Hay is selling for $300 a tonne; the average sale price per horse (excluding those sold for higher rates in the riding ring) was $485.

Most are non-racing breeds, many from backyard breeders. A small proportion come directly from the track and will go on to the export abattoir in Caboolture, just north of Brisbane.

“There’s two over there on delivery that must have raced last week,” Wilson says. “There’s a lot of them going direct now, they’re going straight to the butcher’s rather than going through here because they don’t want to put up with people carrying on about it.”

Wilson’s preference is that horses go to private homes – the commissions are higher, and there’s a chance they’ll end up back in a few years to be sold again.

The advent of Facebook and the closure of the Laverton knackery has improved outcomes for the horses, he says. Facebook absentee bids now account for more than 10% of purchases.

“These horses come here and, out of 150 horses, only 20 would ever go with their heads off,” he said.

According to Jamie Stier, the general manager of integrity services at Racing Victoria, 90% of retired racehorses are either retained for the breeding industry or used for other equestrian pursuits, and 9% die or are euthanised, leaving just 1% to end up at a saleyard, in the export meat market, or in the domestic pet food trade.

Those figures are drawn from mandatory retirement forms instituted by the Australian Racing Board in 2015. Stier says the figures are “robust” but allows that a horse recorded as rehomed could arrive at the sales via a third party.

“It could be the case where horses don’t go directly but they may end up there after they’ve been through three or four homes,” he says, adding: “The rules of racing only regulate effectively the first transfer out of racing. The horses are then subject to the law of the land.”

The same concern exists in the New South Wales thoroughbred racing industry, which has committed to ban the practice of selling directly to a knackery.





Horse dealer Jack O’Connell



Horse dealer Jack O’Connell: ‘We buy them for meat, we buy them for rehoming.’ Photograph: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian

“I think there’s a few that bypass that, because they give them to someone else and then that person takes them to the sales,” Lisa Macumber, a regular attendee at the Echuca horse sales, tells Guardian Australia.

RSPCA Australia’s chief scientist, Bidda Jones, is similarly sceptical. “Someone is selling to pet suppliers because it’s definitely horse meat in pet food,” she says.

At Echuca, that someone is Jack O’Connell, although the percentage of his horses that make it to Sydney pet supplies is uncertain.

Now 72, O’Connell says he has been dealing horses since he was 11. He buys everything that nobody else wants: three young miniature ponies at $70 a head; three donkeys; a bunch of skinny, scrappy quarter horses with ribs sharpened by drought; some ponies of indeterminate origin.

“We buy horses,” he says. “We buy them for meat, we buy them for rehoming. The girls come and they go through them, and anything that they think is any good they find them a home.”

There is more money in rehoming, although not necessarily better animal welfare outcomes. Horses destined for the meat trade are readvertised, at a mark-up, though second-chance Facebook pages.

A 2008 study of 340 horses processed at export abattoirs found 40% were thoroughbreds and 13% standardbreds, and that about 9,000 horses were sent to them each year.

There is no public auditing of horses used for pet food. And because horses are not eaten in Australia there is no requirement to register them in the national livestock traceability program.

The RSPCA has called for a national tracing and registration system for all horses, starting with those involved in the racing industry.





The Echuca saleyards



The sales are held every second Friday. Photograph: Calla Wahlquist for the Guardian

Racing Victoria supports the proposal, but the federal agriculture department says the cost would be prohibitively high.

“If those horses end up at Echuca and then they go to a knackery, that knackery should have to report the microchip numbers of the horses that enter that facility, and then you have got traceability,” Jones says.

“But at the moment that doesn’t exist.”

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