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 infections.
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 slaughterhouse.
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.
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 Animals Nation, an organization that provides disaster relief for animals.
"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, UAN's director.
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.