In the eye of the storm has been the pregnant mare urine (PMU) industry, which has involved a large number of Canadian horses and horse owners. PMU ranchers started from a beginning when foals were a cast-off commodity and there were questionable practices used in managing mares. Today, breeders are finding the market for well-bred sport horses to be more profitable in many cases than the urine business.
During earlier years, this industry was responsible for the rapid proliferation of horses on participating ranches that swelled the number of equines in Canada. At the industry's peak, some 35,000 pregnant mares were used for urine collection, with their resultant foals hitting the marketplace each fall. A total of 422 ranches were involved in the program in the early days. The 35,000 mares were "on line" (used to produce urine from which estrogen was derived for a commercial human estrogen replacement medication).
When stallions and retired and maturing PMU mares were added into the equation, the population of horses involved in the PMU industry was nearly doubled.
There were years of clashes with animal rights activists, with internal and governmental regulations on management and care of the mares and their offspring put into effect. Then came the day the bottom dropped out of the PMU market.
Today, the number of mares used for urine collection has dropped dramatically. Only 73 ranches with 5,600 mares remain.
Of course, the PMU industry is only one part of the total equine picture in Canada, but it remains one of the most visible. Because of the controversy of the industry, the Canadian government--and the ranchers themselves--developed some of the most stringent care and management guidelines for horses found anywhere. Actions taken within the PMU industry had a positive effect on other aspects of the Canadian horse industry by influencing proper nutrition and care.
For that reason, this article, aimed at discussing Canadian equine welfare in general, will focus on the PMU industry and the changes that have taken place.
There is another reason to focus on the PMU industry. Most of the producers are second- or third-generation horsemen. They or their parents and grandparents were involved with horses before the PMU industry came along. They were, and are, horsemen first and PMU producers second. Many former producers continue to raise horses and, thus, continue to be representative of the Canadian breeding industry.
Horses in Canada
It is estimated that Canada is home to some 900,000 horses, about one-tenth of the nine-million-plus that are estimated to reside in the United States. Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing are widespread in Canada, with competition ranging from tiny bush tracks to venues in metropolitan centers such as Toronto, home of Woodbine Race Course, which features world-class racing.
Rodeo also is big in Canada, with the country having a reputation for turning out some of the best saddle broncs, as well as saddle bronc riders, in the world. Today, rodeo contractors are raising horses that are "born to buck" and are employing sophisticated technology, such as embryo transfer, in the process.
Fort Macleod, Alberta, is home to North America's largest equine slaughter facility. Not only does the Bouvry plant in Fort Macleod process horsemeat for the European and Japanese markets, but it has feedlots with a capacity for 20,000 or more horses. In addition to horses, the plant slaughters buffalo on a regular basis.
While the above are some of the more visible segments of the equine industry in Canada, the vast majority of horses in the country are owned and utilized by recreational riders.
First, a look at the PMU industry.
It was three years ago that the first waves--signaling the oncoming storm--hit the PMU producers and impacted the horse industry in general throughout Canada. To understand what occurred, one must first understand the use that is made of pregnant mare urine.
It was discovered in 1942 that estrogen, extracted from the urine of pregnant mares, could be used in a therapeutic product to assist post-menopausal women and women suffering from osteoporosis. In the wake of that discovery, the PMU industry was born. A company now known as Wyeth Organics, with headquarters in the United States and a processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba, began producing a product called Premarin.
As Premarin gained in popularity, the demand for the estrogen raw material increased. Wyeth continued to expand its production program until PMU ranches existed in three provinces of Canada--Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan--and the state of North Dakota. The last major expansion of ranches occurred in 1992.
Then came a 2002 study by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that concluded that long-term, high doses of hormones were putting women at risk for breast cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots.
Some elements of that study have since been called into question, but the conclusions sent Wyeth researchers back to the drawing board. They came up with a product that was lower in dosage, and deemed to incorporate the necessary health safety elements, while still providing the needed therapeutic benefits.
What this meant to PMU ranchers was that much less pregnant mare urine would be needed. Rather than cut production at all of the existing ranches, Wyeth decided to consolidate its overall operation by eliminating many of the producers. Among the first to go were PMU ranchers in Alberta. The urine processing plant in Brandon, Manitoba, was hundreds of miles away from some of the Alberta producers. Eliminating those producers cut transportation costs involved in trucking the urine from ranch to processing plant.
Along the way, the company held its cards close to the vest. It did not share with ranchers the criteria being used to determine which ranchers would be eliminated from the program and which would remain in business. It was a period of stress and anxiety for ranchers as they waited for a life-changing telephone call.
It was a tremendous blow to the Alberta agricultural economy when all of the PMU producers in the province went out of business, says Les Burwash, manager of horse programs for the Alberta Agriculture Food and Rural Development, which is akin to a state department of agriculture in the United States. The PMU industry contributed some $22 million to the province's economy each year, he says, and that involved urine production only, not the sale of foals and other horses. The impact was heaviest in small communities that were surrounded by PMU ranches. In some of those communities in Alberta, and even in areas of Saskatchewan, certain small businesses that had become dependent on the industry were forced to close their doors.
Many of the former PMU ranchers in Alberta, Burwash says, have elected to remain in the horse business, but on a smaller scale. Some have cut back from 100 or more mares to 20 or 30.
Sometimes it seemed that there was little rhyme or reason to the decision-making by Wyeth in places other than Alberta. Melvin Paton of Carnduff, Saskatchewan, is a case in point.
Now 72, Melvin was one of the early producers, joining the program in 1966. He raised Belgians, and later his two sons, Curt and Clint, joined in. They operated two barns--Melvin had one with 88 mares on line and his sons had the other, also with 88 mares on line. During the final cutbacks, Wyeth announced that the two sons could remain in business, but that Melvin was out. The irony was that just the year before Melvin had remodeled his barn to meet new company requirements for stall size.
"He took it hard," says Curt Paton.
Melvin had been in the horse business before the PMU program came around, and he remains in it today, still breeding Belgians.
The cutbacks resulted in the Canadian market being quickly flooded with horses. There was concern that many of the PMU mares would wind up at slaughter, and some of them did. However, Wyeth did not leave the producers high and dry. The company earmarked $6.75 million to ease the financial strain on shut-down ranchers and to aid in the marketing and delivery of horses.
Although they were no longer producers, these ranchers were paid to the end of their contracts and beyond. The money also was to be utilized to pay transportation costs for mares shipped long distances and to cover the costs for such necessary elements as health certificates and Coggins tests.
"They were much kinder than they had to be, and I admire them for that," says Bob Brickley, a producer still in business near Kennedy, Saskatchewan. Brickley also is president of the Saskatchewan Equine Ranching Association, which is comprised of the 15 PMU producers remaining in the province.
The big challenge was to find homes for the thousands of mares that were no longer in the program. Wyeth formed a seven-member advisory board, representing the veterinary community, equine extension, horse breeders, and Wyeth. That board continues to meet quarterly.
The effort to place PMU mares began in the fall of 2003, and by December 2005, approximately 20,000 horses had found new homes in Canada and the lower 48 states, says Nat Messer, DVM, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and a member of the advisory board.
Messer says many of the mares went to embryo transfer facilities as recipient mares, while the younger horses wound up in various riding programs. Although some found their way to the Bouvry slaughter plant in Fort Macleod, the vast majority were placed in new homes in the eastern and western United States.
"The placement project was a rousing success," says Messer. "I would say it was almost unprecedented."
The goal of the project today, he says, is to help the existing producers improve the quality of their horses and, in the process, find additional markets for them. The advisory board continues in its role of "watchdog" over the money allocated to the project by Wyeth and to the health and welfare of the horses maintained on PMU ranches.
It has long been a goal of the PMU industry to improve horse quality and expand markets, although that wasn't always the case in the early days.
In those days, when the industry was rapidly expanding, the emphasis was on number of mares in production, rather than quality of the mares. Many of their offspring, as a result, were of average quality at best, and a number of them wound up in feedlots being conditioned for slaughter.
Critics assailed the PMU industry, maintaining that collecting the urine while the mares were in tie stalls was inhumane, and that the placement of foals very often fell into the same category.
Stung by the criticism, an organization representing PMU ranchers with the rather long handle of North American Equine Ranchers Information Council (NAERIC) came into being. While far from the sites of production, the headquarters were established in the middle of prime United States horse country--Louisville, Ky. The organization was to be the industry's public relations arm, and Norm Luba was hired as executive director in 1995.
Luba has a lifetime of experience in the equine industry and is skilled in public relations. His wife, Lorraine, is a veterinarian. He quickly put a staff together in Louisville and went to work to improve the PMU image. Under Luba's leadership, NAERIC has had a profound and positive impact on the PMU industry, with residual benefits for the Canadian and American horse industries in general.
"In the beginning I wondered what this Yankee could tell me about the PMU business, but Norm has been very good for us. He has made a big difference," says Curt Paton.
Another PMU producer who survived the cuts, Lloyd Cancade of Kennedy, Saskatchewan, credits Luba with getting him started in CanAm Sport Horse, a production program that is growing for him and for others who are involved in breeding horses for eventing, fox-hunting, dressage, jumping, and mounted police work.
Cancade was breeding draft and draft-cross mares to Quarter Horse stallions in an effort to produce a strong working ranch horse, but was finding a limited market for them when, in his words, "Norm suggested that we think of new approaches."
For Cancade, the "new approach" involved buying Thoroughbred stallions to breed to his draft and draft-cross mares to produce horses that have become very popular in sport horse circles.
Cancade, a third generation horse breeder, says, "I think one of the reasons they tapped us for the PMU program is because we didn't have to buy any mares. We already had them." Cancade became involved in the PMU program in 1973, but his father and grandfather before him were horse breeders. The Cancades have 85 mares on line during the collection season.
Through NAERIC, the PMU industry began addressing issues for which it had been criticized. Finding suitable markets for the foals was one of the goals. Producers were urged to upgrade their breeding programs to produce more marketable horses.
Wyeth got into the act by inaugurating the Payment Incentive Program (PIP), which would match the purse or prize money won by NAERIC-registered horses in competitive venues.
The company earmarked $1 million for PIP. The prime requirement was that the breeder register the horse with NAERIC so that the horse could be identified throughout its show or racing career. The second requirement was that the show at which the horse competed had to be approved by NAERIC in order to participate in the distribution of PIP funds.
Although the program was successful in making foals and older horses that had been "grandfathered" in more saleable, it also backfired to a degree.
The majority of horses involved in the PMU program were--and are--"light" horses, with Quarter Horses leading the way. Draft horses are next in line, with Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds in the minority. However, because of some hefty purses in the races in which NAERIC-nominated horses were placing, the lion's share of the PIP money was going to the minority instead of the majority.
The program was tweaked so that a race had to be won before the prize money was matched, bringing a balance back to the program.
The PIP program remained in effect through 2005, but as of Jan. 1, 2006, it was replaced by a new program called NAERIC Advantage, which will continue to add to prize money won at approved shows and, in some cases, offer prize money when a particular event might offer ribbons only.
To date there are approximately 30,000 horses in North America that are registered with NAERIC.
Some of the events included in the program are hunt classes, Western pleasure, barrel racing, cutting, ranch horse, roping, reining, pole bending, trail, working cow horse, dressage, eventing, jumping, racing, team penning (if affiliated with a breed registry, such as AQHA or APHA), halter classes, and longe line classes.
NAERIC also focused on some of the concerns expressed by the animal rights segment. The organization asked the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) to visit farms and offer input and guidance concerning treatment of the PMU horses. Three veterinarians representing the above organizations were sent on a mission to visit and evaluate the PMU farms. The three were Messer of Missouri, representing AAEP; Arthur King, DVM, who was serving as president of the Ontario Equestrian Federation; and Colin A. Roberts, BVSc, PhD, senior veterinary advisor for ILPH.
The three veterinarians made their visits in November 1996 and in May 1997, then they issued a consensus report.
The three inspectors offered suggestions for continued improvement, but had this to say: "The ranchers took pride in their animals and Wyeth-Ayerst (the official name of the company at the time) showed a commitment to continuing to improve the standards of equine welfare on the farms. Based on our inspections, the allegations of inhumane treatment of horses involved in PMU ranching are unfounded. Generally, the horses are very well cared for. The ranchers and the company have responded in a progressive and proactive manner to both professional and public interest. Observations for improvement have been taken seriously and continue to be acted upon by Wyeth-Ayerst and the PMU ranchers. The public should be assured that the care and welfare of the horses involved in the production of an estrogen replacement medication is good, and is closely monitored."
The Code of Practice that must be followed by PMU ranchers lists wide-ranging requirements set forth by Wyeth and with which the PMU ranchers must comply in order to keep their contracts. To make certain that there is compliance, inspectors charged with enforcing the code visit each PMU ranch twice a month.
"They check everything," Curt Paton says of the inspectors. "They even check the floors of trailers that you are using to haul the horses."
When these requirements were put in place for the Canadian PMU industry, others in the horse industry in Canada were worried that the same regulations might be required of them. Suddenly the industry that had been accused of abuse and neglect was being maligned for being too stringent and possibly causing problems for others in the horse industry.
Another requirement in place for PMU mares is that they receive exercise by being turned out on a regular basis during the collection season. It appeared in conversations that many of the mares received more exercise than the required two hours every two weeks.
"We have mares that tell you when they want to be let out," says Cancade. "They won't eat their grain, and they'll just stand there and look at you. Once we turn them out, if it's cold, they'll only be out there a short time and they'll want back in."
Today, there is little criticism of the PMU program in general. "We have addressed every concern that has been raised," Brickley says.
In 2000, Brickley and his wife, Lois, were honored by the Saskatchewan Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals with its Producer of the Year Award for their "total package of humane production practices."
Kim Gee, who with her husband, Grant, runs a PMU ranch near Virden, Manitoba, is outspoken concerning the care provided for horses involved in the PMU program.
"We take better care of our horses than some people do their kids," she said. "Our barns are nicer than a lot of homes. And our barns are clean. We sweep our barn floor four times a day. I don't know how many people's houses get swept four times a day."
"My family has accused me of being more interested in the horses than in them," says Bob Brickley with a chuckle. "I feed hay and check every mare between 11 p.m. and midnight. I couldn't sleep if I didn't make that final check."
He's back in the barn at six the next morning.
Each mare is in a tie stall with the urine collected in a loose-fitting, lightweight pouch that is held in place by a system of pulleys and is not directly attached to the mare. The pulley system is connected to a light harness worn by the mare so that when she urinates, the flow is directed into the pouch. The mare is allowed a full range of movement, including being able to lie down. Urine collected in the pouches must be dumped regularly unless a pipeline system has been installed that allows it to flow directly into the holding tank. In the holding tank, the urine is cooled and stored until bulk trucks arrive to transport it to the plant in Brandon.
The tie stalls are wide and spacious, and according to visiting equine behavior specialists they are superior to box stalls, considering the social structure of horses, which are herd animals.
Requiring wider tie stalls and other improvements as part of ongoing changes in the Code of Practice resulted in some financial loss on the part of former producers. Some of the improvements, says Danny Willows of Alberta, a former president of NAERIC, were required only a year before some of the ranchers were eliminated from the program. The company, he says, was generous in its buyout program, but he and some other ranchers had to chalk up the cost of improvements as a financial loss. Today, Willows' PMU barns sit empty.
Willows is an example of a rancher who was involved in raising horses before he became a part of the PMU program, and continues now that he has been cut from the PMU program. However, instead of having 80 to 100 mares foaling, he only had 35 foals hit the ground last spring.
Like the Cancades, Willows and his wife, Dorothy, are raising sport horses by crossing Thoroughbred stallions with draft and draft-cross mares. They also raise some Quarter Horses, with an emphasis on barrel racers. After being cut from the PMU program, Willows says, he expanded his cow herd to help make up for the loss of income.
It is standard procedure for PMU producers to pasture breed their mares and to have them foal outdoors. Conception rates appear to be high with light horses, especially crossbreds, and lower for draft horses. Brickley, who raises registered Quarter Horses, for example, only breeds through two heat cycles and still has a 92-95% conception rate. A mare that doesn't conceive, he says, is generally the first to be culled, unless special circumstances prevail.
Paton doesn't do as well with his Belgians. Problems during foaling are greater with draft mares and foals. By mid-May of this year, he had already lost three foals during a spate of bad weather, and he had dealt with retained placentas in a couple of mares--something that seems to be more of a problem with draft mares than with their lighter counterparts.
The foaling pasture at the Paton Ranch is a spacious field with a river running through it where the mares also are fed supplemental hay. Paton checks his mares at first light each day, then visits the pasture on and off throughout the day during foaling season.
During breeding season, Paton normally places one stallion with 15 mares. Last year he had an 87% conception rate. He does not breed replacement mares until they are three years of age. All of the mares in the PMU program are pregnancy checked by a veterinarian before going on line.
During the off-season, the stallions generally run together in a pasture that is far removed from the mares. "When there aren't any mares around, they get along good," says Paton.
During a visit to the Paton stud pasture, the mammoth Belgian studs came over to check out the visitors, but they were docile and friendly.
As a stallion gains experience in pasture breeding, says Brickley, he is less apt to have confrontations with mares that are not quite receptive. "The stud sometimes will wait until the mare seeks him out, then he'll breed her."
However, it takes time for a stallion to develop that expertise, especially if it is a Thoroughbred that was raised in a stall setting rather than in a pasture.
Brickley tries to make certain that young stallions are turned out with only a few young, non-aggressive mares during the first breeding season.
Not all of the Brickley stallions are in the pasture. One, Kids Second Clu, is at a breeding farm in Minnesota, where he stands for a $1,500 stud fee. He placed in the top 10 as a 3-year-old at the 2000 AQHA World Championship Show in Oklahoma City. The stallion's first daughter, bred by the Brickleys, became a national show winner and sold for $29,500 at the 2002 World Championship Quarter Horse Show Sale.
Once foaling is completed, the mares are sorted into separate pastures in preparation for breeding season. Normally, the stallions are turned out with the mares on May 28 and can remain with them until August.
As a practical matter, most producers remove the stallions earlier than that. The foals are generally weaned in September and offered for sale.
Then comes the marketing challenge.
Selling PMU Foals
When he was in the business, says Danny Willows, he and his family held a production sale of weanlings each fall. Now that he no longer is a producer, they no longer hold a sale.
However, he says, satisfied buyers from the 17 years that sales were held still come to the ranch to make purchases. During their last production sale after being closed down, the Willows also offered many of their mares for sale. A number of them, he says, wound up in Texas as embryo transfer recipients.
Cancade and his wife, Melanie, go into the fields before weaning and video the mares and foals. When requests for sport horse foals start coming in, he responds with videos and has had excellent luck selling his foals. Before turning out mares and foals, he trims the mane of each mare, so that they all grow out to an attractive, even length when it is time for making the videos.
Brickley teams up with a couple of other producers and offers his foals, other than those earmarked as special offerings because of pedigree and quality, at a joint sale in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Paton sells by private treaty and is working on a program that will involve keeping some of the youngsters past weaning age and even until they are started as teams.
Canadian Equine Slaughter
It has long been a concern that many of the PMU-culled mares and foals will wind up at slaughterhouses or at feedlots being prepared for slaughter. For sure, some of them do, but not all that many, says Benny Kropius, a representative of Bouvry Exports, the slaughter plant in Fort Macleod.
When the first cuts were made, he says, there was an influx of horses from some of the PMU farms that had been shut down, but the numbers have returned to normal. Bouvry slaughters about 40,000 horses per year at its Alberta plant, and perhaps half as many at its other plant in Quebec.
A third slaughter plant in Ontario, owned by another company, has closed.
Bouvry operates a feedlot in Canada that can handle up to 15,000 horses and another in Shelby, Montana, that can feed up to 2,000, but it normally has between 1,300 and 1,500, says Kropius. The Shelby feedlot also serves as a holding area for horses purchased in the United States for slaughter at the Fort Macleod plant.
Beginning in December of 2006, Kropius pointed out, double-decker semi trucks no longer can be used for transporting horses in the United States.
They will be replaced, he says, by one-level trucks that can accommodate 23-24 full-size horses as compared to the 35 that could be hauled in the double deckers when transporting horses.
The horses intended for slaughter at the two main feedlots are fed a diet of alfalfa hay and oats. Mares that are pregnant are placed in pastures for foaling, with the grass being supplemented with hay and grain where needed. The plant doesn't slaughter pregnant mares.
The Bouvry company has dabbled a bit in raising some of its own horses for feedlots, but that remains a miniscule portion of the slaughter population, according to Kropius.
He says the dynamics of the slaughter population have changed. In the past, he says, it was common for fewer people to raise more horses. Now, he says, there are a great many people who have a few horses. As a result, there is a trickle from many sources for the slaughter plant rather than large numbers from equine population centers.
While some Canadian animal rights activists have taken stands against horse slaughter and the feedlots, the Canadian plants have not been under the same kind of attack as the three that still operate in the United States, where efforts have been ongoing to close them.
Approximately 30% of Canada's 900,000 horses are in Alberta. It is the only province that has two horse specialists on the payroll, one of whom is Burwash. Alberta also has about 30% of Canada's cattle population, says Burwash, and the two go hand in hand. A number of horses are used on ranches, he says, and quite a few people are involved with horses in competitive endeavors in Alberta.
In January of 2005, the Alberta livestock industry took steps to provide additional protection for horses. It launched a new educational initiative that involved a collaborative effort titled Alberta Farm Animal Care, a partnership representing Alberta's major livestock groups, the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Alberta Agriculture Food and Rural Development.
The goal of the new group is to educate horse owners, clarify horse welfare standards, and advocate for better enforcement tools for those standards.
While abuse of horses is not widespread in the province, Burwash says, the recently launched organization is aimed at reducing it to an even lower level.
The proverbial ship representing Canada's horse population appears to have survived a major "storm," and horse owners in general--PMU ranchers included--are setting a positive and resolute course ahead.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.