“My worst nightmare” – mystery death of prized polo horses

Eighteen horses that died while being transported back from a polo tournament in Tasmania were from Jemalong Polo Club.

The club’s Andrew Williams has described his devastation in a statement released on Thursday.

“They are my lifeline, my income in and my best friends,” he said.

Mr Williams described the moment he discovered 16 horses dead in the back of his truck and another two fighting to survive.

The former captain of the Australian polo team, was transporting 18 polo ponies back to NSW after attending the Barnbougle Polo event in January.

He said he made the devastating discovery the horses had not survived the journey within an hour of crossing Bass Strait on January 29.

Polo at the Jemalong club in 2016. File photo.

Polo at the Jemalong club in 2016. File photo.

“I have done this trip 11 times in the same truck, but I knew something was wrong as I drove through the city of Melbourne a short time after disembarking,” he said. 

“So I rang my other truck and asked if his load was travelling well.

“My head groom said his horses couldn’t wait to get off his truck. I knew then that something was potentially wrong, as mine was not indicating the usual activity.

“I then arrived in Yarra Glen at a friend’s property. It was my worst nightmare. 

“Within an hour of leaving the boat, I had 16 horses that were cold dead and two fighting to survive.”

Mr Wiliams said he went into “survival mode”, transporting the 16 dead horses to Wagga Equine Hospital for autopsies – the results of which are not yet known.

He said he is still waiting for his questions to be answered. 

“I didn’t change anything,” he said. “Yes, it was a warm night. I have asked for answers, but have received nothing. 

“What I know is I saw 18 healthy horses on my truck just before departure in Tasmania, and an hour after leaving the boat in Melbourne I discovered 16 of them were dead and cold.”

Mr Williams owned some of the dead animals and managed others belonging to his employer Johnny Kahlbetzer, the son of German-born agribusiness baron John Dieter Kahlbetzer.

Along with his younger brother, Mr Kahlbetzer runs the family's extensive agribusiness, property, venture capital and resources operations and owns Jemalong Polo Club where the horses were based.

“I have lost a breeding line that was priceless to me, and I have already had to knock back playing commitments,” Mr Williams said.

“I am a farmer, a polo player and a breeder of ponies. They are the reason I can feed my family. To have that taken away is gut-wrenching.

“It is with the legal team now and hopefully they will receive the answers I deserve.

“ … No one should go through what I have recently gone through. I am just trying to stay busy, but it’s there, and I can’t see it going away until we have some answers.”

Representatives of the Spirit of Tasmania told Fairfax Media the organisation would not comment while investigations continued.

A spokeswoman for Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, said the department was being assisted by other jurisdictions, including chief veterinary officers in Victoria and NSW.

"As per standard practice, no further details will be released as this is an ongoing investigation," the spokeswoman said.

EARLIER

From the Launceston Examiner

The circumstances surrounding the death of 16 horses being transported from Tasmania to NSW in January remain uncertain.

An investigation led by the Department of  Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment and supported by veterinary authorities in Victoria and NSW, is currently underway. 

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority confirmed the Spirit of Tasmania had “complied with AMSA requirements relating to the carriage of livestock”. 

The Australian Polo Federation said it was recently made aware of the deaths of 16 polo ponies, but were not in a position to comment on the incident until investigations were completed. 

“As with the loss of any horses from the broader polo community, the Australian Polo Federation was saddened by this news,” chairman Tim Clarke said.

“The Australian Polo Federation considers the health and wellbeing of any polo pony to be paramount in its administration of the sport of polo in Australia.”

The horses died in transit while being transported back to NSW, after competing at the Barnbougle Polo event on January 20 and travelled overnight on the Spirit of Tasmania on January 28. 

The news of the deaths on Wednesday sent a shockwave through Tasmania’s equestrian community.

Tasmania Horse Transport’s Hayley Sheehan said horse owners deserved to know the outcome of the investigation. 

“I think there needs to be far more transparency about what has happened here,” she said. 

“People are making assumptions and delaying the fact is not helping people. 

“It is creating a lot of uncertainty in the horse industry and I think we deserve some answers about what has happened here.”

Vern Poke, of Bass Strait Horse Transport, has been transporting horses between Tasmania and the mainland for more than 40 years and said the incident was “completely unprecedented”. 

“I have crossed Bass Strait with horses more than 4000 times and I didn’t believe the news when I heard it,” he said. 

“Something like this, for 16 horses to die in one go … it doesn’t add up.”