Horse imports from Australia have been suspended since late August in the wake of the equine influenza outbreak in New South Wales and Queensland.
New Zealand is in the final stages of locking down the requirements for allowing a resumption of horse imports from Australia. Current proposals include three weeks in quarantine in Australia, followed by two weeks in New Zealand.
However, the major sticking point will be finding approved quarantine facilities to house the animals.
Before last August's equine influenza outbreak in Australia, bringing horses across the Tasman was comparatively straightforward.
Sea Horse Sea Freight's Allison Lozell said her firm moved 40 horses between New Zealand and Australia in the first two weeks of August before the outbreak - and 30 of them were imports.
Before the outbreak, horses being imported needed two blood tests, and treatment for both internal and external parasites within 48 hours of departure. Provided the paperwork was in order, the horses were good to go.
On arrival, at either the ports of Auckland or Tauranga, they were checked by a government veterinarian and were then free to be moved by road to their new home.
The firm had not required the use of quarantine facilities on either side of the Tasman before the flu outbreak.
The country's only operating quarantine facility for horses is at Karaka, in Auckland, run by equine air freight company IRT, which can house about 18 horses.
The facility is used for horses imported from countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, where endemic diseases require inbound quarantining.
New Zealand Bloodstock's air freight manager Greg Northcott said his firm was looking closely at a joint venture with IRT to set up a second facility in the Karaka area to meet demand, once the border opens.
"There is a pretty good chance we are going to lose a hell of a lot of money on it," he says.
He said it was likely to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up, even on leased land, and might have a life of only nine or 10 months before quarantine restrictions were eased [provided Australia remained free of the disease].
It was hoped that the cost of freighting horses by air from Australia could be kept to about $10,000 a horse, about half of which would be the cost of quarantining on both sides of the Tasman.
He said he had been making inquiries in Australia for facilities that could provide the three weeks of pre-export quarantine. "They are not a dime a dozen," he says.
He has held discussions with the owners of a couple of properties that would appear to be suitable.
Importers still face uncertainly, however, with the government yet to lock down the proposed import health standard for horses from Australia, and also reviewing quarantine standards, which include a fresh requirement for a 100m buffer zone around each facility.
Northcott said he hoped the new facility would be able to house 40 or more horses, but that would depend whether authorities imposed any limits on its size. However, there were other factors to consider, he said.
Horses would need to come in batches and it appeared that all would have to do their Australian quarantine at the same facility. The size of the New Zealand operation might therefore be limited by the quarantine space available in Australia.
He expected the facility would be available to other importers, but logistical issues might make that very difficult. It would take three months to clear their own backlog, and with horses needing to undertake their Australian quarantine at the same location, it might prove problematic to organise.
Northcott said a resumption would naturally depend upon the government finalising requirements, but he reckoned horses could be coming from Australia by early May.
Sea Horse Sea Freight's Lozell said her business had explored the possibility of setting up its own quarantine facility, but the costs were prohibitive, particularly given the prospect of relaxed requirements by year's end.
Horsetalk understands that, officially, Australia will be considered clear of the disease a year after the last reported case. That will be Christmas Day this year.
It was possible, Lozell said, New Zealand could reach agreement with Australia to relax restrictions sooner than that.
Before the lockdown, Sea Horse Sea Freight was charging $2600 for importing horses out of Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, with Brisbane being a little dearer.
Lozell says her company's backlog is understandably growing and she is receiving several inquiries a day.
Her advice to horse owners not wanting to take the more expensive air-freight option is to agist the horses in Australia and wait until restrictions are eased, hopefully later this year.
For those with mares in foal, she advises people to foal the horse in Australia and get the mare back in foal. The mare with foal at foot could be shipped back once restrictions are relaxed for around $5000.
The government is under no obligation to provide the required quarantine facilities, meaning the cost has to be met by the industry.