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 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.
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 or slaughtered.
"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 slaughter.
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."
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," she said.
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 findings.
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 location.
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."
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 Organization.
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."