Mention the PMU industry, and most horse lovers react negatively. It’s vilified by much of the equestrian community, and the horses that result as a “by-product” are looked on with pity. In some roundabout way, I suppose I am grateful to the PMU industry, as without it I would not have my fabulous mare. So, armed with questions, I sat down to do some research into the accusations that swirl around this industry, in an attempt to separate fact from rumor.
The bad taste in the mouths of many equestrians likely comes from the few years when PMU horses flooded the market because Wyeth Pharmaceuticals downsized its production and ranches had to move their horses on. With so many horses entering an already saturated market, not all fell into good hands, and some ended up going to slaughter. In addition, undercover photos and videos of mares kept in poor living conditions and bad health, and with inadequate care, came to the surface regularly. Rumors circulated of horses having their water intake restricted to make their urine more concentrated.
The question becomes – are all the ranches like this, or are a few bad seeds creating a poor image? And even if this is the case and most ranches are on the up-and-up – are the horses suffering from the PMU lifestyle?
A BIT ABOUT THE PMU INDUSTRY
Premarin is a popular estrogen therapy produced from the urine of pregnant mares – hence the name (Pregnant Mare Urine) and the acronym PMU. The ranches are based mainly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Approximately 22 million women in the States used Premarin in 2002. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals is the only company that produces it.
Earlier, as many as 70,000 mares on 422 ranches were used for the production of Premarin. Now the numbers are closer to 5,600 horses on 70 ranches, due to decreased demand and effective alternatives becoming available to women. Around 5,000 foals are produced by this industry every year.
The mares are kept for approximately six months through the winter in standing type stalls, with urine collection harnesses attached to them. The stalls range from four to five feet wide, depending on the weight of the mare. Mares may be given daily turnout, depending on the ranch, while the barn, equipment and harnesses are cleaned.
Spring is foaling time, and during the summer the mares and foals are put out to pasture. Herds typically consist of a band of mares and one stallion, to get the mares back in foal again.
Foals are weaned each fall, and sold privately or at sales. According to the North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC) Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Horses in PMU Operations, foals cannot be sold or leave the ranch until they are three months old, and no foals can be weaned before the first of September. Meanwhile, the cycle begins all over again for the mares.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE HORSES?
Mares and foals sold from PMU farms, whether as regular practice or due to downsizing, may not necessarily have the best chance at a bright future. While some ranches pride themselves on their breeding stock and focus on good bloodlines and performance, others breed randomly with seemingly little thought. With the market already saturated, not many people are clamoring for mixed breed horses with little to no training, and perhaps in not the best condition.
That said, PMU horses bought and given an opportunity at a career can do as well as any other horse, with some becoming incredibly successful.
IMPROVEMENTS ARE BEING MADE
NAERIC represents the ranchers of the PMU industry. Ranchers must follow the organization’s regularly evaluated and updated code of practice, which includes guidelines on everything from care and handling to stabling and pasture, nutrition and breeding. It’s available for the public to read at naeric.org.
Regular inspections are performed by different organizations, and mandatory herd health inspections are done by veterinarians at regular, predetermined intervals.
A consensus report on the care of horses at PMU ranches was done by representatives of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and the International League for the Protection of Horses. Here’s what it reports:
“The ranchers took pride in their animals, and Wyeth-Ayerst showed a commitment to continuing to improve the standards of equine welfare on the farms. Based on our inspections, the allegations of inhumane treatment of horses involved in PMU ranching are unfounded. Generally, the horses are very well cared for. The ranchers and the company have responded in a progressive and proactive manner to both professional and public interest. Observations for improvement have been taken seriously and continue to be acted upon by Wyeth-Ayerst and the PMU ranchers. The public should be assured that the care and welfare of the horses involved in the production of an estrogen replacement medication is good, and is closely monitored.”
The report also suggested further changes and improvements to continue ensuring the best quality of life possible for the horses.
WHAT IS NAERIC DOING TO HELP?
There’s a need to help give “by-product” foals a better shot at securing a good home. So NAERIC developed the Advantage program, an incentive program for horses bred on PMU ranches registered with NAERIC. If your horse is registered with the program, you can earn rewards at approved events all over North America and Europe. You can earn money depending on your placing, and the program will also match winnings from certain breed incentive funds, such as the AQHA Incentive Fund.
Over 40,000 horses are currently registered, with winnings totaling over 2.5 million to date. Approved events include everything from line classes, dressage, eventing and hunt classes to barrel racing, team penning, halter classes and driving classes.
NAERIC also offers other programs, including the CanAm Sport Horse Program and the Young Horse Development Program, for which the Manitoba Equine Ranching Association teamed with Manitoba 4-H to teach youth how to care for and train young horses.
While the industry seems less than ideal, it does appear to be taking steps to improve the horses’ care and comfort and give them a chance for a better future. However… even though the industry has drastically downsized, and may argue that their horses make up a very small portion of the equine population, 5,000 foals annually are still 5,000 extra foals on the market every year that need to ind homes, or face slaughter. Not only that, but months on end in a standing stall, pregnant year after year, is not an ideal way for a mare to live. There is a better way.
ISABELLA EDWARDS IS AN EQUINE ENTHUSIAST AND AVID COMPETITOR RESIDING IN ONTARIO, CANADA. SHE AND HER MARE COMPETE AT THE PROVINCIAL LEVEL IN BOTH DRESSAGE, AND HUNTER/JUMPER.