Mary Beth Gordon with Gem, one of 11 PMU foals to be sold at a benefit auction for Rutgers' equine programs, April 28. ? Sarah Ralston
There are few more controversial or emotional issues in the horse world than that of the PMU foals. PMU stands for Pregnant Mares' Urine, which is used in the production of Premarin, a hormone replacement drug for menopausal women manufactured by Wyeth Ayerst. As the baby boomers age, there will be more of a demand for such therapies; the question is, what happens to the foals born because the farmer needs their mother's urine?
The California-based United Pegasus Foundation states, in 2001, there were 450 PMU farms in Canada and 50 in the U.S., with approximately 60,000 mares. Mares are hooked up to urine collection devices, and stand on-line in large barns. Collection is generally from October to March, and the mares give birth in the spring. They are usually re-bred within a few weeks of foaling. Foals are sent to auction in September.
UPF board member Lara Stringfield claims about 10,000 of the foals die young, for various reasons, including early weaning. She estimates another ten thousand are bought at sales by individuals or groups to use as riding or driving horses. The rest go for meat. UPF is one of many organizations actively buying foals at auction and finding homes for them. Stringfield also has concerns about mares, citing Wyeth's 30 minutes every two weeks exercise regulation when mares are on-line.
Dr. Sarah Ralston, associate professor of equine science at Cook College, Rutgers, and an expert on equine nutrition, has traveled to North Dakota for the past three summers and brought PMU foals back to New Jersey. The foals are used for research studies, such as the use of vitamin supplementation in the reduction of disease for long-haul transport. Ralston's students gentle the foals and teach them basic ground manners. They are sold in the spring at a benefit auction for Rutgers' equine programs. This year's auction is April 28 and 11 fillies, including purebred Quarter Horses and Belgian/Quarter Horse crosses, will be up for bid.
According to Ralston, "The treatment of the mares is now highly regulated by Wyeth on the licensed Premarin farms. There are strict regulations that insure the humane treatment of the mares, especially when they are "on-line" in both Canada and the U.S. If ranches don't comply with the requirements for stall size, cleanliness, ventilation, feed, water and veterinary/farrier care, their contracts are revoked. Ranches are inspected at least twice a year. Mares are given thorough veterinary inspections two or three times a year - more than the average pleasure horse, according to recent USDA statistics. This is probably the most controlled and regulated equine industry in the world!"
As to the 30-minute exercise regulation, Ralston observes: "It is a minimum - most ranchers I have spoken to say they let the mares out 'as needed,' which means if they get stocked up or antsy before the two-week deadline. The draft and quarter horse mares which predominate in the industry are perfectly content to stand in a nice, warm barn, eating all day next to their friends. Think about it - most of the farms are in the North Central plains, where from October through March there is three feet or more of snow on the ground and temperatures are usually below zero with the wind blowing! The ranchers say that when they do turn the mares out they might run around for a few minutes but then congregate at the barn door, asking to be let back in."
Ralston also disputes the notion of 10,000 foals dying from various causes each year. "There is less than 5 percent losses on the farms, which is about average for large breeding farms in the U.S."
The North American Equine Ranching Information Council represents those engaged in PMU farming. They have developed an incentive program to improve the marketing of the PMU offspring.
"NAERIC will match, dollar for dollar, up to one million, payouts awarded to approved horses when they are successful in designated competitions throughout North America," according to their website, www.naeric.org.
The Council also runs the North American Breeding Enhancement Program, which acquires or leases thoroughbred stallio
ns to breed to the draft mares, creating foals for the sport horse market.
A NAERIC spokeswoman says, "Now we are competition [for people who breed horses]. There is no monetary incentive to send a foal to slaughter."
"If people can be educated about the alternatives available to Premarin, there is the solution," says Stringfield. There are several synthetic estrogen replacement drugs on the market, but none are as widely prescribed as Premarin.
Says Ralston, "The Premarin industry has been in place for over thirty years and provided a lot of benefits to women world-wide. It is not going to go away."