Elly McDonald


Horses of the Australian bushfires, January 2020


My sister’s closest friend from our Adelaide childhood has a sister who lives in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, with her horses, surrounded by wildlife.

The local race-track opened up for anyone with horses to bring them in for the duration of the fire threat, to be stabled, fed and cared for on race club premises.

Becky (Cathy’s friend) was at a pet supplies centre and asked the owner if they had horse feed in stock for horses at that race club.

The owner told her if she coordinated with other horse owners his business would provide whatever feed was needed, at cost price, with free delivery and drop-off at Oakbank Racecourse.

Becky texted me “Our practice [she’s a GP] bought 22 bales of lucerne which the fodder store delivered free to the drop-off point for aid in Oakbank. This was the message from the truck driver who delivered the bales – ‘Your bales are in that stack. Thanks for the help. Tony@magillgrain’.

Here (pic) are the bales Tony delivered.


I don’t write this to publicise Magill Grain or the unnamed local race-track that opened up as a shelter.

I’m writing because my sister teared up telling me this story. She was at Flemington Races last Saturday and the race guide had a beautiful watercolour on the cover, by artist Laura Crane, of what appeared to be a bunch of tanned holiday-makers sunning on a beach, with a thoroughbred race horse incongruously in their midst. It’s only when you open the cover that you see Laura painted from a photo by Herald-Sun photographer Alex Coppel, of people seeking refuge on Malua Bay beach on New Year’s Eve, the entire scene tinted a hell-ish orange, and yes, a race horse in the crowd.

vrc-bushfire-relief-2020_laura-crane-painting-630pwx380ph-72ppi copy

Watercolour painting by Laura Crane – inspired by Alex Coppel’s photograph


Photograph by Alex Coppel, Malua Bay, New Year’s Eve 2020 – people seeking refuge from bushfires, with horse

Turn the next page and there’s an article by Michael Sharkie that first appeared in Carnival magazine, 2015, about horses’ instincts faced with bushfires – see link attached for the extraordinary story of Fabish and his seven yearling charges. What a hero 🐎


Turn another page, and there’s a list from the Victorian Racing Club of ways “the Victorian Thoroughbred Racing Industry, including RV, the metropolitan racing clubs and Country Racing Victoria, will continue to work on a number of initiatives [itemised], equine welfare support, fundraising activities and practical support for people affected by the bushfires”.

On the facing page: The program for the January Twilight Race Day 18 January 2020 – Race 2 Donate to Foodbank Victoria; Race 3 Donate to Salvation Army Disaster Appeal; Race 4 Donate to Equine Bushfire Relief; Race 6 Thank You Emergency Services; Race 8 Thank You Firefighters; Race 9 Thank You Volunteers.

Entrance proceeds from the day, and from the previous weekend’s meet, went to the VIC Bushfire Disaster Appeal. Firefighters and their families had free entry both meets. Stands were in place for donations to the Salvation Army, along with pop-up stores where racegoers could purchase equine supplies on behalf of horse owners in fire affected areas.

Some of my friends oppose the racing industry, and some may think all this was and is a PR exercise. Personally, I’m glad to see racing bodies support the broader equine community.


Author: Elly McDonald

Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also briefly as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

4 thoughts on “Horses of the Australian bushfires, January 2020

  1. Very nice piece on horses. I share some of your ambiguity on the “horse industry” but not any ambiguity about these gifted and beautiful animals.
    I think some people need to learn about the Jain religion/people in India. They try very hard not to kill any living thing. So, when they walk they brush the path ahead so that they not kill anything. I don’t think they really know if nothing is killed by their brushing. Nor, I suspect, do they know everything about the nature of the human digestive system or about how vaccination works.
    But better a Jain than many human beings!


    • If the horse racing industry ceased to exist, I wonder how long the gifted and beautiful horse type that is the thoroughbred would continue to exist? What incentive would there be the breed best bloodlines, given the expense involved? Would the thoroughbred go the way of other purpose-bred types whose purpose is redundant in the modern world?

      I do have ambivalence about the horse racing industry, largely due to wasteage (the fate of the also-rans); and I am one of those whose inability to ignore what happens behind the green screens means I can never attend race meets again. But I also recognize – I know from direct experience – that accidents can happen in paddocks and stables, and that when injuries happen to thoroughbreds there are often few options for effective rehabilitation.


  2. I think that there are many in the world who lack empathy. It seems, and perhaps it’s because I’m not rich enough to own a thoroughbred, some of them are those who are rich enough to own thoroughbreds. And,I think, for them, having a calamity happen to something or someone who is close is enough to them might bring to light problems that they would not otherwise have any idea were problems in the first place. I think for so many who are insulated from problems of the world — things like climate change and fires — having their personal possessions, their families, their very livelihood, in some cases, threatened by something that they might not otherwise notice, is a positive thing. So, as much as I don’t particularly like the idea that horses are used and many times abused the way they sometimes are, the fact that even they are in many cases in danger might bring about changes that otherwise may not have happened. Sometimes calamity is a good thing as much as it may not seem so as it’s happening.


    • Donna I suspect most of the race horses affected by the fires are stabled on trainers’ properties, and a lot of trainers are just country people like other country people, not rich. For that matter a lot of race horses hereabouts are jointly owned by people who are not especially rich who pool their resources. My sister and her husband were part owners of a race horse.

      The horses that took refuge at that race track in the Adelaide Hills were mostly not race horses at all, they will have been riding hacks, pet ponies, eventers, dressage, jumpers at all levels, owned by everyone from the parents of the horse-mad 12 y.o. to the serious competitor.

      I don’t think it’s fair to suggest these owners lack empathy. I think we’d find most of the owners of these horses are deeply attached to their animals and care about the impacts of the fires just as much as anyone else does.

      I guess there are some indifferent absentee owner a**holes. But they won’t be the ones desperate to find temporary safe accommodation and feed for their horses.


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