PMU Ranches and Stewardship

PO Box 911108, Lexington, Ky., 40591-1108; E-mail There will be quite a few people wanting to communicate with me after reading this column, so I thought I'd get the housekeeping part out of the way early so we can all concentrate on the topic at hand--PMU ranching.

I listened to the animal rights and welfare people at the American Veterinary Medical Association meeting last year rant and rave about these "hapless mares" and the "horrid life they live" in confinement just to produce a product used in human medicine. I saw a tape of a Canadian Broadcast Company program that made PMU ranchers look like Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians--no redeeming qualities to be found.

At the same time, I discussed the issue with veterinarians I respect and people I have known for years in the horse industry, and they said that PMU ranchers were responsible horse owners. Those involved in the industry admit there have been problems, but they are quick to point out that changes have been made. It didn't hurt that the company which is the sole buyer for pregnant mare urine also recognized that the industry could do a better job and made changes to encourage more uniform treatment of mares.

I also said that I would go and visit some farms when the mares were "on line" during the winter months, and I have. On page 26, you will read a report based on my visits to four PMU ranches in Alberta, Canada, and interviews with the people involved. This was an arranged tour, with the farms selected for me; but I was free to wander off by myself and see everything in each place visited. And in this column, I'm free to offer my opinion about the treatment of the mares I saw.

For those of you who would like me to condemn the practice of pregnant mare urine ranches, you're going to be disappointed. For those of you who want me to say it's a swell life for a horse, well, that isn't going to happen, either. But like most activities that involve horses, there is a middle ground, and I am of the opinion that in general, these PMU ranchers are horse people who care about their animals beyond their contracts to sell urine to Wyeth-Ayerst.

First, let me tell you a little about myself. I grew up around working horses and cattle. We ate the beef we produced. I've worked with horses, showed them, groomed them for a living, and now write about their health. My children ride. My friends ride. The state I live in is the Thoroughbred cradle for the world. You can't go anywhere in Kentucky without being reminded of horses and the role they play in our lives.

From this background I developed the idea that we humans are stewards of the land and all it contains, including horses. This means I believe we should use horses for our benefit, pleasure, and sport, and because of that use, we are responsible for their health and well-being.

I've thought long and hard about how to explain the feelings I came away with after visiting PMU ranches in Alberta. When I got home and while watching my kids and other beginning riders taking lessons, it occurred to me that every use of horses probably wouldn't be viewed as fair to them if you believed they had all the same rights as people. But I don't believe that.

Those school horses have a job to do--teaching beginners how to ride. The mares used in PMU ranching are the same. They have a job to do as selected by their owners, and if they don't have the attitude for it, believe me, they can't stay or they would drive all the other horses, and people, crazy.

It probably didn't hurt my attitude toward the PMU ranches that the temperature in Alberta at one point was -40 (Celsius or Fahrenheit, take your pick) during my visit. Two or three feet of snow blanketed the countryside, at times the drifts barely leaving the tops of fences visible. While there were some homesteads we passed that offered run-in shelters for their horses, most of the time the local folks' idea of a wind-break was the round bale of hay left for the livestock.

So, does that mean those horses living a "natural life" outside were treated inhumanely? Should those horses be inside during that weather? At the same time, the animal rights people say the pregnant mares used for urine production should be outside. I have a feeling that if you had untied the production mares and opened the barn doors, they would have stayed inside.

The counter argument is that if there wasn't pregnant mare ranching at all, deciding whether to let mares outside for exercise would not be an issue. That's fine, except that PMU ranching is a viable and legal agricultural industry in North America. And until it is declared illegal, then what needs to be done is what is being done--watching carefully to make sure the mares and their foals are treated as humanely as possible within the confines of their jobs.

The foals were, for years, thought of as a by-product of PMU ranching. They sometimes brought $25-$50 each, most of the time going to feedlots where they would be raised for slaughter. That time also has passed. Most ranchers now view those foals as a product as important as mare urine. Many already have registered Paint, Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, warmblood, and draft horses which are used as PMU mares. Other ranchers are working to improve the quality of mares on line, and are using better stallions.

But when you have about 40,000 foals all hitting the market near the first week in September, there are concerns about where to find enough buyers. Innovative production sales and marketing are proving to be the answer. Combine a better-quality foal--raised inexpensively because its dam was paying her way through winter--with marketing and you'll find that in our booming equine market, there are buyers. I predict that the PMU ranches will become a significant source for the growing number of sport horses used in the United States in the next five years.

So, my feelings are that PMU ranching can be done without detriment to the mares or their foals if the ranches are closely supervised and if they continue to progress at the rate they have in the past few years. The PMU ranchers I met while in Canada should not be subjected to scorn or ridicule from people who don't know or use horses, and especially not from those of us who do.

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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