Why These ‘Unemployed’ Horses Need Your Help…

PMU stands for "pregnant mare’s urine."

The urine of pregnant mares is used in the manufacturing of Premarin, a female hormone replacement product. This industry is located mostly in Canada, in the region of Manitoba, close to the Wyeth-Ayerst pharmaceutical company who manufactures Premarin.

Since research has proven that Premarin causes cancer in women, there has been a decline in production of the hormone. Consequently, over the last few years more than 300 PMU ranches have been closed. Many foals born to production mares end up at slaughterhouses.

A better understanding of the risks of long term HRT led to drastic cuts in production by the manufacturer, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, starting in the fall of 2003. More than 20,000 horses, most of them pregnant, were potentially affected by the initial cuts. While we’re encouraged by the decreased exploitation of horses, the “unemployed” horses are in need of good homes.



Dr. Becker's Comments:

Out of progress sometimes comes tragedy, and this is one example.

Sales of Premarin have dropped like a stone over the past 7 years, since women began flushing their Premarin pills down the toilet after the Women’s Health Initiative Study—great news for women’s health.

However, lower demand for the urine of pregnant mares has caused thousands of mares to be, well, out of work. Less demand for their urine means less demand for them.

It appears that the dismal unemployment situation in this country extends beyond the two-legged working class.

Now these horses and their foals desperately need homes and, if not adopted, sadly face destruction. Thanks to PMU horse “adoption agencies,” some of these animals are finding homes.

There just aren’t enough homes to meet the need.

Canada’s Gift That Keeps on Giving

Canada was the country that started the estrogen therapy ball rolling with its publication of an article in 1930 in The Canadian Medical Association Journal about medicinal uses for an estrogen complex derived from human placental tissue.

The compound was called Emmenin.

A Canada-based company known as Ayerst, McKenna and Harrison hopped on that wagon and began manufacturing Emmenin for clinical use.

Eight years later, in 1938, it was discovered that a similar complex of estrogens could be isolated from pregnant mare urine (PMU), which was far more economical to produce than human urine because horses make much more urine than people.

In 1939, PMU was first processed commercially for its estrogenic components, and Premarin followed in 1941, receiving FDA approval in 1942. Although the exact formula is a trade secret, Wyeth reports that it contains a mixture of 10 estrogens.

Premarin became Canada’s most widely exported product and eventually became the most widely scripted medication in the United States (as of 1992). In 1997, Premarin sales hit $1 billion, and $2 billion in 2001.

In 2002, an estimated 22 million women were taking Premarin for menopausal symptoms.

A Bitter Pill for Our Equine Friends

Wyeth contracts with horse ranches to produce the PMU needed for its hormone products. The demand for Premarin and other PMU-derived drugs soon caused “pee barns” to sprinkle the Canadian landscape.

This “pee barn” industry thrived for decades (mostly in western Canada, near Wyeth) until allegations of catheterized mares living in terrible conditions and foals being abused or mistreated could no longer be ignored.

In 1986, the animal welfare organization HorseAid began investigating the actual circumstances of urine collection.

HorseAid discovered that the collection process involved ranchers confining mares in very small spaces for extended periods of time, subjecting them to inhumane conditions. Animal rights organizations have been very vocal against this mistreatment of mares and their foals ever since.

But the beefiness of Big Pharma overpowered animal rights concerns, and PMU mares continue to suffer today.

According to the ASPCAi:

“Women, doctors and the general public must be made aware of the unnecessary stress and pain inflicted on horses in the manufacture of these drugs, and of the alternatives from nonanimal sources that exist.”

The Premarin industry is self-regulated through Wyeth Ayerst’s internal Code of Practice, but there are currently more than 70 farms holding 5,600 mares, and no outside scrutiny.

According to the ASPCA :

  • Mares are strapped into urine collection bags six months a year.
  • They are tied up in narrow stalls that do not allow them to turn around or lie down flat, reportedly so that they won’t detach the collection cups; the stalls are 3.5 to 5 feet in diameter.
  • Mares are denied free, continual access to water so their urine will be concentrated (i.e., ranchers can get more money per gallon).
  • They are exercised inadequately, if at all, since there is no minimum exercise requirement specified in the Code of Practice.

A typical PMU ranch consists of a small family and one hired hand responsible for all of the feeding, cleaning, and exercising of about 100 pregnant mares at a time.

Mares under these conditions are exposed to abrasions, infections, leg swelling, excessive boredom, stress, and an early death from their terrible living conditions.

These mares are made to foal every year for eight or nine years.

Each September, their foals are snatched away from them to be sold, whether or not they are fully weaned, so that the mare can be impregnated again immediately.

When no longer able to reproduce, they are sold for slaughter and their meat shipped off to other countries for human consumption, such as Europe and Japan.

By contrast, a domestic horse will live 20 to 25 years, so the lives of these poor creatures are really cut short—not to mention, miserable.

The offspring of the PMU mares can look forward to an even worse fate, since they are considered no more than a “by product” of the industry. Many of them end up in slaughterhouses. A select few of the fillies grow up to replace their worn-out mothers.

Helen Meredith of the United Pegasus Foundation attended an auction of Premarin foals in Manitoba, Canada, calling what she witnessed “absolutely devastating.” Hundreds of terrified foals as young as three months were run through the auction and loaded onto cattle trucks for transport to the feedlot—where they would be maintained until they were large enough for the slaughter plant.

The Mare’s Fate Post Premarin “Bubble”

Sales of Premarin (and PremPro, PremPac, and PremPhase) dropped precipitously after the Women’s Health Initiative HRT study had to be stopped prematurely in 2002 when researchers discovered that Premarin was causing breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots.

Wyeth’s stock fell more than 55 percent in 3 months.

This change in market demand resulted in Wyeth’s cutting back on ranch contracts in 2003 and 2005, leaving former ranchers with thousands of unwanted pregnant mares.

At the height of the Premarin bubble, there were reports of nearly 70,000 PMU mares and 422 pee barns.

The horse market is oversaturated as it is, and there is no one to take in another estimated 5,000 foals born from this industry each year. And most of these mares have had little training and handling, making them even harder to sell.

With few other options, many ranchers continue to breed their mares and sell the foals to the slaughter market. 

Wyeth contributes a meager $6.75 million to its own “Equine Placement Fund,” a paltry amount in comparison to the tens of billions of dollars in revenue these drugs (and these mares) have earned Wyeth over the years. And to make matters worse, they've prohibited currently contracted ranchers from working with rescue groups, since they want to avoid the image that any of these horses are in need of rescue!

Better Cures for Hormone Woes

The first thing you can do for yourself and for the horses is realize there are excellent, effective, and safe non-PMU alternatives for hormone replacement.

If you decide you do need hormone replacement, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) is a safe and effective way to go--and it’s 100 percent plant-derived.

However, you might not need hormone replacement at all. There are other ways to address menopausal symptoms.

Menopause is a natural life process, not a disease.

As such, lifestyle changes can be quite effective in improving health and reducing menopausal symptoms, including changing your diet and exercise routine and addressing sleep and stress issues.

Dr. Ray Kellosalmi, a Canadian physician involved in Premarin foal rescue, offers a powerful message to prescribing physicians:

“Unfortunately, it is easy and comfortable for physicians to prescribe drugs that have been around for a long time. It is also easy not to think about our contribution to the cruel chain of events that our prescriptions may allow, and thus the PMU industry is supported by our acquiescence. But the doomsday clock is again well on its way for tens of thousands of innocent lives that, once again, will end in terror needlessly. With a few strokes of the prescribing pen, we are able to decide the fate of future innocents.”

What You Can Do for the Horses

First and foremost, share this information with your friends, family and heath care providers. Ignorance is our worst enemy.

You can also respectfully voice your protest to the maker of PMU-derived conjugated estrogens:

Robert Essner, President
Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories
PO Box 8299
Philadelphia, PA 19101

If you would like to sponsor or adopt a PMU horse, PMUrescue.org is an online bulletin where organizations post horses in need. Potential adopters can then view photos and profiles and start the application process.

You can also visit the ASPCA site for a partial list of horse-rescue organizations.

Consider contacting your legislators about banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Horse slaughter provides a profitable economic incentive to overbreed horses, enabling the PMU industry to operate the way it does.

i "Premarin” ASPCA website  

ii “About Premarin” United Animal Nations  

iii United Pegasus Foundation  

iv Women’s Health Initiative participant website 

v “Horse slaughter: Myth vs. fact,” United Animal Nations