PMU Ranching: Use or Abuse?

AAEP Statement On PMU Ranches: "Through on-site investigations and peer review of ongoing research, the American Association of Equine Practitioners believes the collection of urine from pregnant mares and care of their offspring as prescribed by the recommended Code of Practice represents responsible management of horses to produce a commodity for the benefit of mankind that should not result in abuse, neglect, or inhumane treatment of horses."

Editor's note: On Jan. 10, I was part of a tour to four pregnant mare urine (PMU) ranches in Alberta, Canada. The tour was conducted by Norm Luba, executive director of the North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC), which is a non-profit coalition of PMU ranchers in Canada and the United States. Included in this tour group was a PhD in animal welfare; a horse specialist with the Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development department; a founder of the Performance Horse Registry; and a director of international livestock programs at a U.S. university. This group attended the Horse Breeders and Owners Conference in Red Deer, Alberta, following the tour.

The temperatures in the area at that time ranged from -12 to -40 (Fahrenheit). Livestock we passed along the roadside, cattle and horses, were left mainly to fend for themselves, with drifts reaching the top of three-strand barbed wire fences in many places, and large round bales of hay often the only shelter from the windy conditions. Snow covered the backs of horses and cattle as they foraged through the fields.

Prior to this trip, I had been interested in the controversy surrounding PMU ranching. I was in the audience at the American Veterinary Medical Association's Welfare Committee meeting last fall, when PMU ranching was one of the hottest topics of debate. Animal rights and welfare groups were on hand, as were representatives of the ranchers from the provinces and states (North Dakota) where PMU ranching is a way of life. I read through a 2.5-inch stack of information from a variety of sources, including confidential reports from veterinarians and welfare group representatives who inspected PMU ranches in 1995. There also have been published reports from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, who were represented by Nat Messer, DVM, on inspection tours in 1995, 1996, and 1997.

We were scheduled to visit five ranches, but it was after dark by the time we reached the fourth, so the last visit was scrubbed. The ranchers had been advised that we were coming, even though we were as much as three hours late. I have chosen not to name any people or ranches visited during the tour not because I was asked not to, but because I want readers to focus on the environment, not the people.

Following are my observations.


There was little or no odor. That was the first surprise when you walked into the PMU barn. With that many horses stabled inside a closed barn on a cold day, past experience told your brain that the barn should smell to high heaven. It didn't. The same wasn't true of the room where the urine collection tank was situated. It wasn't the strong ammonia smell that is associated with a dirty barn, but rather a musky odor that permeated the air and held fast to everything it touched.

I had been given copies of dozens of photos taken by those who inspected the ranches during the 1995 collection season, giving me an idea of what to expect. It would be hard to imagine walking in unprepared for the number of horses in some of these operations, where there might be 200 or more mares under one roof. They were quiet, well-ventilated, clean barns for the most part. Most were better than stables used to house pleasure horses as far as ventilation was concerned. The barns differed from conventional stabling in that they were equipped not with box stalls, but with narrow tie stalls to restrict movement because of the harnesses used to collect the urine.

Mares were secured with a variety of halters and tie ropes or chains. Most featured quick-release snaps or other release mechanisms on the rope or chain, but some ropes looked as if they would have been difficult to get untied if the need arose in a crisis. I didn't try to untie any, so that is speculation on my part.

The horses, in general, were quiet. Some were more disturbed by our presence than others, reflecting more, I think, on their management than their living quarters or occupation. The horses were quieter in barns where they were handled more; the horses in barns where they were handled less were more "spooky." If you walked into a vacant stall next to some mares, they merely turned their heads as far as their ropes permitted and looked you over. Other horses danced in place and seemed frightened. However, even the mares which weren't pleased to have their space invaded were quiet to the touch when handlers replaced harnesses or moved their tails to the side to check equipment.

Taking photographs was allowed without hesitation, as the accompanying photos show. Some mares objected more to this than others, snorting and blowing after the flashes. Others acted like a child's pet and pricked their ears at the light and sound.

Mares had hay or straw available in a flat trough or individual manger 24 hours a day. That not only supplied nutrients, but provided a measure of boredom relief. There was evidence of chewing and cribbing on some of the wooden or metal structures near the mares' heads, but no horses were seen to crib during our visits. Mares also were fed grain or pellets. No mares appeared underfed. Few mares were seen to be overweight. Some of the draft mares appeared to be well-covered over their ribs and loins, but since I'm not around pregnant draft mares very often, they could have just appeared heavier compared to the smaller breeds observed earlier in the day.

Mares of all shapes and sizes were used for urine collection. Everything from registered draft mares, to half-drafts, to registered Quarter Horses, Paints, Appaloosas, and Thoroughbreds, to warmbloods and grade mares. Many ranchers felt that the drafts or draft crosses, even though they were larger, had a better temperament for the confinement. One rancher disagreed, saying that Thoroughbreds were actually quite good in the barn.

The first ranch had mostly light-breed mares, registered and unregistered, for use in breeding to warmblood stallions. This rancher said that the rush for foals with "color" had begun to diminish, although the ranch still stood a quality Paint stallion, which had placed in the top 10 in the World Paint Horse Show. Some mares in that barn were leased by their owners to the ranch for PMU production in order to have the mares inside and cared for during the winter.

Time Off Line

Turnout and time off line is an area of controversy. There are guidelines contained in a Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Horses in PMU Operations, which was first published in 1990 and has been revised since that time, mostly in response to public criticisms toward the industry and from suggestions made by those involved in inspection tours. But for turnout, the Code of Practice, put out by the ministers and commissioners of agriculture in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota, merely says that: "All horses on a PMU farm should be provided with as much exercise as is necessary for their welfare." That ranged on the farms visited from six hours every three days, to being out one week out of every five, to turning them out "as needed if they look uncomfortable or sore."

For the most part, the mares' feet looked to be in good shape. They generally got trimmed when they went on line and when they came off line. Vaccination and worming schedules were not uniform, although the Code of Practice recommends that every PMU operator treat horses for internal and external parasites when required, and have mares dewormed when they are put on line in the fall and as often as necessary afterwards. The Code also suggests that every horse be vaccinated against sleeping sickness and tetanus, but that was not the case at all the farms. Some farms vaccinated against Rhinopneumonitis because of the threat of abortion as well as respiratory disease. Abortion rates were said to be low, one to two percent, by one rancher.

Watering Systems

Another area of concern prior to the trip was availability of water to the mares on line. There had been reports that mares were watered infrequently in order to concentrate their urine and increase profitability. Wyeth-Ayerst, the company that buys the urine in order to make estrogen products, including Premarin (see sidebar page 33), changed its policy on payment and collection in order to address this practice. Before, they paid for gallons of urine; now, they pay by grams of estrogen, and the company pays for twice-a-week pickup of the urine.

While automatic watering systems are used on most ranches today, there are still some ranchers who reportedly water by hand. The automatic watering systems dispense a set amount of water, usually a few liters, 16 or 20 times over a 24-hour period. The goal is not to restrict water intake by the mares, but to have enough water in front of them at all times to quench their thirsts, while at the same time not giving them a full water holder in which to play.

One ranch that had draft horses was trying a new automatic waterer with a covered float so the mares could have water at all times, but not flood their stalls by playing with the float. The rancher was very happy with the system, and other ranchers said they would like to install those types of waterers.

The watering system in place at most ranches involved a line of tubing running over the mares' stalls that allowed for individual adjustment of the amount of water dispensed. The ranchers said mares' waterers were checked throughout the day, and adjustments made based on demand by individual mares.

Barns and Stalls

Size of stalls, flooring, and barn specs are covered by the Code of Practice. Stall size is based on size of mare, with maximum width required of five feet for mares more than 1,700 pounds, and minimum width allowed set at 3 1/2 feet for mares under 900 pounds. Most barns used round or square metal tubing for barriers between stalls. The ranchers commented that the round tubing was found to cause fewer injuries to horses.

Nicks and cuts on the hocks and lower legs of horses were seen due to mares kicking the partitions between stalls and from scraping their legs getting up and down. Ranchers found that putting solid partitions on the bottom between stalls helped mares get a foothold for getting up and down, and that putting rubber coverings around the sides of the bars on the backs of the stalls kept mares from injuring themselves when they stomped or kicked the partition.

Mares "stocking up" in their legs due to standing for long periods were not seen very often on our visit, although there were several reports of that problem from the 1995 inspection tour. One rancher commented that mares with bad feet or legs, or which were prone to lameness problems when standing, usually self-selected out of the program.

Flooring used in stalls was a matter of management choice. Some swore by wood flooring, others by concrete with rubber mats. They seemed to choose what had worked best in their individual management situations. Bedding mostly was shavings or straw, but trying to keep any type of bedding under these mares was a constant chore.

Can They Lie Down?

The ability of mares to lie down has been a matter of concern to animal welfare groups. The tie ropes are supposed to be of a length that allows mares to lie down comfortably, according to the Code of Practice. Because of the construction of the tie stalls, the mares are able to lie only in sternal recumbency, not flat on their sides. There has been concern raised over whether the tie ropes were in fact long enough to permit mares to rest their heads on the floor. No mares were seen lying down during our visit, although ranchers said mares often lay down, especially at night.

Because of the width of the stalls, mares' legs probably would have to go under the partition and into the next mare's stall to some extent, even if they were lying sternally. The use of solid boards across the bottoms of the stalls would be a help to the mares not only in getting up, but in keeping them contained in their own stall and not be stepped on by the mare in the next stall.

At the first ranch, there were more than 120 stalls available in the barn, which was about three-quarters full. Some mares were in their turn-out time, other empty stalls were just a reflection of a tightening of contracts by Wyeth-Ayerst. Every ranch kept an over-supply of pregnant mares in order to keep the number on line at a constant figure. Extra pregnant mares were kept in outside pens, paddocks, or fields, as were barren mares, yearlings, and stallions.

Barns were designed so the mares either had their heads facing each other across a wide concrete manger, or they were tail-to-tail. Most of the barns we visited had the head-to-head construction. Animal behaviorists in past reports said they felt this was a better method because of the herd nature of horses and being able to see many other horses at one time. Mares were kept in the same stalls even if they were turned out and brought back in, which allowed them to be kept with their "buddies" and in a familiar stall.

Collection Harnesses

The harness used to collect the urine was well-designed. The tubing connecting the soft rubber collection cup to the harness was very flexible and a mare would have no trouble lying down with the harness on. The cup itself did not fit directly over the external genitalia, but was properly situated just below the vulvar opening to catch the urine as it fell.

The harnesses did become displaced, and workers re-fitted the cups while walking the rows behind the mares. Stalls are supposed to be designed so the attendant can move safely beside the mare in the stall, but some seemed a tight fit with human and horse. The soft rubber tube that led from the collection cup to the floor guided the urine to an underground holding area, where it was pumped to the collection tank in an adjacent room.

There were a few mares with hair rubbed off where the harness was draped around their tails. I say draped around because the harness isn't actually attached to the mare; it is suspended around her by overhead suspension hoses that go through overhead pulleys. Catheterization is not used on the mares--that is simply a story that has been spread, probably by animal rights groups.

Breeding Season

The breeding season for the PMU mares is controlled. Stallions are placed with groups of mares no earlier than June 1, and they are removed no later than the first week in August. Foals are not supposed to be weaned prior to 90 days of age, and no foals are allowed under the Code of Practice to leave the premises of a PMU operation
before the first of September of any year.

Most mares are bred by natural cover. One ranch with about 300 total mares on the premises, and more than 200 on line, had 25 stallions. Two of the stallions were registered Paint horses; 19 were registered Quarter Horse sires; and four were draft sires. Another ranch was using live covers on some mares, and artificial insemination on others. The semen was imported from Irish jumpers and warmblood sires.

Some ranchers kept fillies to raise replacement mares; others sold all foals each year and bought replacement mares. One ranch that had mothers and daughters on line at the same time had developed a system of "breaking" youngsters to the routine. At about six months of age, the fillies were halter broken and taught to stand in a tie stall. They usually were bred and put on line as three-year-olds.

Reports from the 1995 inspection tour noted that there were mares inspected on some farms which were barely halter broken and were difficult to handle or lead.

Foals From PMU Ranches

The foals of PMU mares are a big concern to general horse people. There are about 40,000 foals produced each year by PMU ranches, and they all hit the market near the first of September. Production sales on individual ranches, private sales, and special sales at regional auction firms are the normal ways these foals are disbursed.

When the industry started in 1965, the foals were considered a by-product of PMU ranching. They often sold for $25, and wound up going to feedlots to be readied for the horse meat market.

Many people in PMU ranching today are the second or third generation of their family to be involved in the industry, which is considered important to the economy of the provinces. Luba of NAERIC remarked that the younger people in the industry now not only are horse people--raising, showing, and competing in various sports--but consider the future. In other words, they have realized that a better-bred foal will bring more money, and they are investing in better mares and stallions, marketing, and sales.

Kevin Moore, who with his father operates Moore's Auctioneering Ltd. in Alder Flats, Alberta, has conducted production sales for PMU ranchers for years. He said the biggest thing he noticed in the past was that most foals were sold for the meat market. "Ten years ago, probably 80% were going to feedlots," said Moore. "Now, it's probably only 15% going to feedlots."

He said horse meat buying was still a big industry, but since people were breeding better foals, they are too expensive for the meat market.

"These foals are getting in the range that meat buyers can't touch them," he added. "These foals are selling for $500 to $3,500 and higher. Feedlot buyers look at price per pound, and whether it is a draft cross or Quarter Horse (because of the growth potential). The limit is about $250-$300 for the feedlot, so very few are going to meat.

"It used to be these draft crosses were used for feedlots, but now the dude ranches and mountain trail riding people are buying them up. With better breeding, it is easier to sell them."

Moore's Auctioneering held sales for about 18 ranches last year in the first three weeks in September. He said that in 1996, they sold 1,640 foals, which was down about 400 from 1995. There were 300 head of registered stock that sold for $300-$3,200, with an average of more than $800.

A demographic study of PMU ranchers reported that about half of the foals raised were sold privately, which includes on-ranch production sales.

The Performance Horse Registry (PHR) is working with the PMU industry to improve the quality of foals. The PHR is a group affiliated with The Jockey Club that registers half-Thoroughbreds (or those with more than half-Thoroughbred blood) as performance or sport horses. The group has obtained several Thoroughbred stallions that PMU ranchers have bought or leased in order to breed foals eligible for registry. There is a push on now to inspect mares at ranches and help owners determine which ones should be used in this program. They usually are half-draft or one-quarter draft crosses which show some refinement.

Ned Bonnie, who has been working with the Performance Horse Registry since its inception, said you can't raise or buy a sport horse weanling in the United States for $1,000. At the PMU ranches, he said you can see the mares and sires as well as the foals before you buy. He and some partners bought 26 weanlings and had them shipped to Kentucky to see how they would look as they grew. He said the demand for the foals has been such that most of them have been sold.

"Many sport horse producers were breeding to Thoroughbreds, anyway, and they weren't aware of the Performance Horse Registry," said Bonnie. "Now they can register and track the performance and pedigree of these foals, and it creates immediate value for the owner. This is especially good for buyers, because the mares at these ranches stay in the program for a number of years so you can go back and buy half or full siblings."

Inspections of Farms

The Code of Practice says that agents of Wyeth-Ayerst have the right to inspect any and all of the producer's facilities for the collection and storage of PMU at any time. It also requires that every producer, at his or her own expense, have all horses involved in PMU production inspected by a licensed veterinarian at four- to eight-week intervals during the collection season.

Two veterinarians who have PMU clients and inspect ranches are Roxy Bell, DVM, MSc, Diplomate American College of Theriogenology, who with her husband operates a private equine practice in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, and Darrell Dalton, DVM, who has a private equine practice near Red Deer, Alberta. Dalton is on the board of the Alberta Equine Industry Development Council, and Bell was among the members of the Veterinary Inspection Review Board for NAERIC.

The Veterinary Inspection Review Board was begun last year in response to concerns of the public. This board conducts three inspections per year of each PMU farm contracted to Wyeth-Ayerst. These inspections take place while mares are on line. A standardized form has been developed and modified to evaluate the health of the horses. The ranchers can hire any veterinarian to conduct the inspection.

Veterinarians also are called to farms to care for sick or injured mares (typical problems are colic, abortion, injuries, and teeth maintenance), and to do pregnancy checks in the fall (by rectal palpation). Dalton said he checks from 2,000-3,000 mares each fall, and there are about 10,000 PMU mares in Alberta. The average number of mares on line at ranches in Alberta is about 100 per barn, although Dalton said he had three ranches with 350 mares in each barn.

In September, weanlings are sold and mares are pregnancy checked. Mares are moved into barns in late September, and the collection process starts in October. Wyeth-Ayerst representatives travel to the barns and inspect them at least once each month.

Most mares go on line at 90 days of pregnancy or more, since the breeding season is from June 1 to Aug. 1. Pasture breeding with 12-20 mares per stallion is practiced in most areas. Bell said most farms get 90-93% of mares in foal with pasture breeding.

Bell said the lack of stable vices in these mares is interesting. She said even the Thoroughbreds selected had the temperament that they didn't develop vices. She thought much of this was because the mares are fed "free-choice" hay and straw, so they have food in front of them all the time and are "grazing" as nature intended.

"I have seen absolutely no deliberate mistreatment of horses in PMU situations," said Bell in conclusion. "There shouldn't be any more stigma attached to providing health care (products) than milk."

"It's a highly regulated, highly inspected industry and there has been a witch hunt in the industry that is undeserved," said Dalton. "These are hard-working people who care for their horses."

Government Involvement

Les Burwash, supervisor of the horse section in the Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development division, and Bob Coleman, also a horse specialist, said their roles with the PMU industry include research and extension, much of the same things they do for the entire horse industry. In the past three years, the horse specialists have been evaluating foals for ranchers to help them in producing more valuable offspring. They also consult with the ranchers on feeds and feeding. The division puts on an educational program every April. Last year's topics included dentistry, fire prevention, and nutrition.

"The positive part is when an industry is being challenged, it forces the industry to move forward," said Burwash. "For example, they are the first horse group to have a Code of Practice for basic horse care.

"People have to realize that PMU production is intensive agriculture, and the way it is managed is humane and the horses are well cared for."

Other Equine Industries

Mara Coote-Freeman, president of the Alberta Equine Industry Council, is a breeder of warmbloods, Anglo-Arabs, and Standardbreds. John Miller has been involved in the Quarter Horse business since 1950 and is an AQHA judge.

"I can remember years ago when PMU first started," said Miller. "As everything else, things have gotten better. I've been lots of places where horses are not kept anywhere near as good as in PMU barns."

Horse industry representatives have been worried over the years not because of the existence of PMU ranches or treatment of mares, but mainly because the number of foals produced has such an impact on the general horse economy.

"When the horse market dropped several years ago, PMU was going up and they got a lot of good mares," noted Miller. "But they didn't use good studs. Some people now realize if they have a good stallion, the foals bring $2,500 rather than $250."

Coote-Freeman said she has visited many PMU ranches, and that if you look just at housing, "they are in the top 50% of barns in Western Canada. Some people are critical that (PMU ranchers) don't have barns that meet specs (from the Code of Practice), but I built a new barn, and I don't keep it as good as they do. The standard has been raised because of the specs from the company and compliance by the ranchers."

The problem seems to be in perception, said Miller.

"It's a reaction to what the animal rights people have put out," agreed Coote-Freeman. "Everyone who was negative and has seen a barn has turned around."

There is a bit of jealousy, however. "It's hard to compete when the urine pays for the mare's keep and you get a foal," said Coote-Freeman, who has bought PMU foals for her operation. "The PMU producers have really upgraded their stock--they even have had some national champions."

A new market in the area is pinhooking. That has created a class of jobs that didn't exist before in Alberta, said Coote-Freeman.

As for the horses themselves, Coote-Freemen summed it up this way: "There have been a lot of changes over the last five years, and people are doing things better, from the selection of the mares that are on line to stallions. Those of us involved in the horse industry know you can't make a 1,500-pound horse stay there if it doesn't want to. And you know you can't go through a season with an unhappy horse on line because they disturb the whole barn."

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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