Adopt a Horse and Save it From the
End of Hormone Therapy Causes Demise of Thousands of Horses
By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
ABC News - Jan. 4, 2007
Karin Matey, a New Hampshire mother who had
yearned all her life to raise a young horse, adopted two foals
from an animal rescue organization last year. The pair -- both
under 6 months old -- arrived emaciated with worms and eye
Today, with good care, Keanu Bay and Midnight
Miss are healthy and have won numerous awards in dressage
competitions. "I have learned so much from them," said Delaney.
"As they grow, I grow."
But her foals were the lucky ones. Raised on a
pregnant mares' urine, or PMU, ranch in Minnesota that was
overrun with horses, they had escaped the fate that thousands of
other discarded mares and their foals would meet -- the
Their mother was a PMU horse, kept continually
pregnant and tethered to a collection cup so that her
estrogen-rich urine could be used to make Premarin, a drug
prescribed to treat menopause symptoms. Her foals -- bred in the
field with little medical attention -- are often sold by the
pound and slaughtered for their meat.
But now, with negative publicity about the
potential health risks associated with hormone replacement
therapy, fewer doctors prescribe Premarin or its sister drug
Prempro, and its manufacturer, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, has shut
down most of its horse ranches -- many of them in Canada.
Out to Pasture
The animals, which for so long have provided benefits
and profits to women, are now in peril. But this new spotlight
on women's health has lifted the veil on a long secretive
marriage between horse ranchers and Wyeth, and calls attention
to the well-being and treatment of horses.
This year an estimated 17,500 mares and their
foals that are no longer needed for hormone production will need
adoptive homes or end up on dinner tables in Europe and Asia,
where horse meat is a delicacy, according to United Animal
Nations, an organization that provides disaster relief for
"My biggest concern is that as women become
educated about the health risks and cruelty associated with
these drugs, and more and more horses are discarded by this
industry, we and other organizations will not have the resources
to rescue the thousands of unwanted horses," said Karen Brown,
Wyeth has been making Premarin and its sister
drug Prempro -- the only human estrogen replacement drugs
derived from animal hormones -- since 1942.
At the peak of its production in the
mid-1990s, 10 million women were taking Premarin. But in 2002,
the landmark Women's Health Initiative stopped trials when these
estrogen-based drugs were linked to strokes. Today fewer than 4
million of the 23 million women who report menopause symptoms
use Premarin, according to Wyeth spokesman Natalie de Vane.
When the value of hormone replacement therapy
was questioned, Wyeth's thriving $2 billion a year Premarin
sales were cut in half. By 2003, the company cut its ranch
contracts from 200 to 72, said de Vane. Today, according to the
company, only 5,000 to 7,000 mares are still in production.
Animal rescue groups say the number of PMU
mares is actually much higher, about 17,500. The UAN bases its
estimates on an average of 250 horses per farm, rather than the
100 that Wyeth uses.
Last month's announcement that breast cancer
rates had dropped 7 percent since 2003 has many researches
linking the drop to the fact that millions of women quit hormone
replacement therapy in 2002. Animal rescue groups now worry that
even more women will quit HRT, and, in turn, more PMU horses
will be discarded.
In a war of words, Wyeth and animal rescue
organizations clash not only on the number of horses' lives at
stake but over the conditions in which these animals are raised.
For much of the 11-month
pregnancy, mares are kept immobile in narrow stalls, strapped to
urine collection cups. After the foals are born -- one a year --
the horses are re-impregnated and the cycle begins again. PMU
mares can produce only for 12 to 13 years and are then adopted
"It's a secret business," said Helen Meredith,
director of the Arizona-based United Pegasus Foundation, which
has placed 5,000 PMU horses for adoption since its founding in
1996. "They are kept in stalls, 4-by-8-feet long, where they
stand for six months at a time when they are pregnant. The
harness comes down from the ceiling and straps between the legs
to hold the collection pouch in place. They have little room to
walk back and forth."
The foundation also supports about 75
unadoptable PMU mares, many more than 20 years old, and those
who are disabled by injuries. The drug industry prefers those
under 12. "Like women, the younger they are, the higher their
estrogen levels," Meredith said.
The mares are let out at the end of March to
foal in April. Mares are left to pasture breed with a stallion.
By September, the sale of older mares and unwanted foals begins.
Mares are given 30 days to "dry up and the cycle starts again,"
said Meredith. Those horses that do not sell go to auction for
The cost to maintain one horse is about $1,000
a year, and ranchers have struggled financially since the
cutbacks. An estimated 30,000 nonproducing mares entered the
market after hormone drug sales dropped, according to UAN.
"The problem is, that's the ranchers'
livelihood," said UAN's Alexis Raymond. "When the contracts are
cut, they have bills to pay, providing food and caring for the
horses. Slaughter is the financially feasible way to go. We have
tried to pressure Wyeth to do more to encourage the ranchers to
go the rescue route with financial incentives."
Wyeth contracts with 72 independent,
family-owned horse ranches, according to spokesman de Vane. The
company insists that those farms abide by a code of standards
for the treatment of horses, which governs regulations on
feeding, watering, stalls and exercise.
"These farms were inspected by an independent
review group that concluded these horses were well cared for,"
said de Vane. "Because we were cutting back a few years ago, we
wanted to make sure the horses went to good homes."
Who Cares the Most?
Since 2003, Wyeth has contributed $6.75 million to an
equine placement fund to help find homes for horses too old to
impregnate. De Vane said 22,500 horses had been placed since
2003. The fund provides aid to ranchers for veterinary fees,
border fees and shipping costs associated with transporting
horses from the PMU industry.
"We only put horses in the productive market
like show riding, police work and farming, not slaughterhouse,"
It is illegal to sell horse meat in the United
States and Congress will consider a ban on sale to foreign meat
markets this year.
Wyeth forbids its contracted horse ranchers to
work with the animal rescue organizations, according to de Vane.
"These groups are unregulated and do not have
stringent standards of care and oversight," she said. "We have
increasing concerns over the stability of these 'rescue'
organizations and their ability to provide adequate care to the
equines they claim to adopt."
The UAN disagrees and said its Web site --
PMURescue.org -- has found good homes for 1,900 PMU horses. The
organization said Wyeth has underestimated the number of horses
that need homes, especially since the most recent women's health
Modeled on the popular site Petfinder.com, the
site allows rescue organizations to register horses available
for adoption. The animals are sorted by gender, breed and
In 2005, Thorne Delaney, an animal lover from
Summit, N.J., adopted Ulysses Blue -- a beautiful black and
white foal sired on a ranch in Manitoba from a quarter-horse
mare and draft father. The little horse died of an unexplained
illness, but the experience of caring for a PMU foal was so
satisfying that this year she adopted Ulysses Blue's
chestnut-colored half-brother, River.
"I wasn't ready for another horse right away,
but when I saw River's photo on the Web site, I wanted to save
him," Delaney said. "I was so shocked when I heard about how
horrible the industry was."
More Like Pets
Delaney paid an $800 adoption fee and about $500 in
cross-country shipping costs. Curious about her foal's
parentage, Delaney has kept a correspondence with ranchers Gary
and Janice Lowry, who had worked with United Pegasus
The Lowrys, who raised PMU horses on their
Manitoba ranch before Wyeth cut their contract in 2003, were
thrilled to learn River was thriving. The couple has struggled
to maintain their animals but reassured Delaney that Blue's and
River's mother was still alive.
"Our horses were well looked after," said
Janice Lowry. Their ranch was cut back from 200
Premarin-producing mares to 45 breeding thoroughbreds. She said
ranchers could no longer afford to provide oats and vaccinations
for the horses that were once used to produce Premarin.
"We would certainly much rather not see these
animals go to slaughter," she explained. "But we didn't have a
choice after the PMU industry shut down. You get attached to the
animals you keep. It's devastating when you have to put down the
animals you have given names to."