My two, 2-year-old mares arrived at dusk on a typically rainy April evening in Maryland. They came off the trailer a bit scruffy but no worse for their 2,000-mile journey from the province of Alberta in Canada. I had done the craziest thing, and here was the proof. I had bought the mares from pictures on the Internet. It was a rescue effort I had learned about from an e-mail forwarded numerous times by a bevy of horse people. I could help save these horses from slaughter and at the same time get a nice young Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred cross.
I went to the website mentioned in the e-mail and saw the faces of about 30 horses looking back at me. They were from a ranch that had lost its contract with the drug company Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories to produce urine from pregnant mares (PMU). The urine is used in the manufacture of hormones for humans. Premarin® and PREMPRO™ are the most popular hormone replacement therapies (HRT) in the United States.
During my research, I discovered the PMU ranches were producing many inexpensive sporthorse types--Thoroughbreds crossed with draft horses and other breeds as well as registered horses such as Paints and American Quarter Horses. This, I thought, is not only a great resource for budget-conscious dressage riders, but also it helps the ranchers and the horses. What a deal. I checked out the people involved and then sent my money.
The story of how the two mares arrived at my door--as part of the thousands of horses produced each year at PMU ranches--is a strange mix of modern science, women's health needs, independent ranchers, animal activists and passionate horse lovers. And horses connect them all.
The story begins 62 years ago in 1942 when chemists discovered that hormones could be extracted from the urine of pregnant mares, processed and given to women in need of hormone replacement. At the time, this was the only HRT available for women with menopausal symptoms and bone loss (osteoporosis). Ranches, mostly in Canada where the program began, were contracted to impregnate mares and collect their urine, which was shipped to a Canadian processing center.
In the beginning, ranchers mostly used low-quality mares. In the spring, the mares are put out to pasture to have their foals. They live in small herds with a stallion and they breed as they would in the wild. In the fall, the mares are moved into barns where, for about six months, they live in standing stalls with some bedding and enough space to lay down. They are fitted with a device that collects their urine around the clock. When spring returns, the cycle begins again.
Barn cleanliness, properly fitting collection devices, nutrition and exercise, not to mention that most of the foals produced went directly to slaughter, were problems that horse people and animal rights activists protested against. During the 1960s and again in the '70s the PMU ranching industry was investigated, laws were passed and conditions for the horses improved.
In the 1990s inspections by top Canadian and U.S. veterinarians and animal welfare organizations resulted in a handbook setting care guidelines for ranchers to follow. Regular inspections were instituted by Wyeth-Ayerst to see that the guidelines were followed. Conditions for mares continued to improve. Wyeth-Ayerst established Linwood Equine Ranch to study PMU horses and understand their particular health issues, such as how much exercise and nutrition they needed.
In 1995, the North American Equine Ranching Council (NAERIC) was created to assist PMU ranchers in education, breeding and marketing better foals that could be sold as riding horses instead of being sent to slaughter. Director Norman Luba is proud of NAERIC's programs that reward good breeding and training. They offer scholarships for the children of PMU ranchers and matching funds for NAERIC registered PMU horses that earn prize money at shows. Quarter Horses are the largest breed of registered horses used at PMU ranches.
NAERIC's CanAm Sporthorse Program is of particular interest to dressage riders because PMU ranchers breed three-quarter Thoroughbred/one-quarter draft crosses. This sporthorse program provides an alternative for dressage, eventing and jumping riders who cannot afford to purchase expensive European warmbloods.
Ranchers are assisted in leasing Thoroughbred stallions to cross with drafts and other breeds. These sporthorses also are eligible for registration in the Performance Horse Registry based with the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Luba says NAERIC sporthorses are filling a niche in the sporthorse market where a nice weanling can be found for about $1,000.