Two Weeks at a Canadian PMU Farm

Article and Photos by Anne Van Dyke

My husband, Rich, and I are heading back home to Texas; the past two weeks on a Canadian PMU farm was a trip on an emotional roller coaster with exciting highs and depressing lows.

I first heard about PMU farms years ago on the news. PMU, pregnant mare urine, is used to produce the hormone replacement therapy drugs (better known as Premarin and PremPro) taken by millions of women. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they’ve been in existence since 1942.

Last year a study conducted on the side effects of these drugs caused a huge uproar when it was halted early because the results indicated an increased risk of breast cancer. With these findings, doctors everywhere stopped prescribing HRT drugs causing a chain reaction in the PMU industry resulting in a 65 percent reduction in the number of PMU farms.
Then comes the flood…the flood of thousands of former PMU horses now without a purpose, maybe without a future.

Many of these mares, weanlings, yearlings and others will go to market, to the canner. The reality is there are just too many of them to find a place for them all.

Canola Field

Having met and spent time with several of the farmers, it is very important to me that people understand; these farmers are not monsters as some people think. In fact, with only one exception, everyone we met was very gracious, caring, giving, and kind. They welcomed us into their lives and homes with openness and honesty. Over the dinner table, they shared their feelings about how the cuts had affected them. They wondered what the future holds in store, what other changes are to come and what would they do to make ends meet. If only they had known, they wouldn’t have built that new barn, or house, or bought that tractor. While some farmers do have other incomes like grain or cattle, many relied solely on the income from the PMU aspect of their farms. PMU had been their way of life for over 30 years. We heard of the tragic end of some farmers who took the cuts so hard they could no longer cope. The cuts were sudden and created much turmoil for many families.

These farmers found a public need and a way to support their families. I have a tremendous amount of respect, admiration, and affection for these folks and consider many to be dear friends. As a whole, the farmers do care very much about their animals and take good care of ferently than the average horse lover does. To some of the farmers, their horses are like cattle are to other farmers.

Many families really put their heart into the horses themselves. While their horses were still kept in a natural herd environment, these horses were cared for with more attention to detail. Each horse had a name and the farmer could recognize each horse on their farm by it’s name, tell you who they were out of, what their personalities were like, what they passed on to their foals. It was very impressive. And we’ve found a consistent quality in the temperament of all the horses from certain farms.

There are farmers who have a rigorous breeding program where they carefully select the mares and studs that they put together. They would show their horses or breed for a certain style whether it was draft horses, mostly Percherons and Belgians, or light breed horses. One farm in particular had mostly APHA and AQHA mares and studs that were all well bred, quality horses.

And there are also the farmers who were only in the business for the urine. Their horses were nothing more than a means to an end, exactly like cattle. They didn’t have names, only numbers. They were never handled with a loving touch. While not abused in the sense we would normally think, many of these horses feared man and the touch of man. But, they were still cared for in their basic needs.

And, most of the farms had really fat, healthy, shiny horses…but some had horses that were so poor it broke my heart to see them. But that is the same with any other horse venue. Some people take better care of their animals than others.
In Texas, most of the farms or ranches are identified by acres. In that area of Canada, the farms are so large they distinguish their land by sections not acres. One section is 640 acres or one square mile and it’s nothing for a farmer to have a section here, one and a half there and a quarter there with pastures that are miles long. We know of one pasture, one fencing, that was 2 miles wide by 7 miles long. Can you imagine looking for a band of horses on a pasture that size?
We were in many of the PMU barns, which are huge, clean, well-insulated, metal structures of various lengths. There is typically an aisle down the middle for easy access to the mares for feeding and watering. Plus there is a wide aisle behind each row of tie stalls on both sides of the barn for cleaning and moving of horses. Some barns have an automatic feeding system as well as an automatic watering system with state of the art stainless steel waterers. The collection devices are made of a sack and soft tubing that would be suspended behind each mare. An intricate pulley system allows each mare to lay down when she wants. The mares are required to be exercised on a regular basis and strict regulations are monitored constantly. The farmers must diligently adhere to all rules or risk losing their contracts and they are monitored constantly by field representatives for the pharmaceutical company.

While my heart ached at the thought of hundreds of mares in hundreds of barns staying all winter long in these tie stalls, it is a routine that the mare is familiar and comfortable with. Many of the mares when offered the chance to get out for exercise actually prefer remaining in the barn where it is much warmer. I guess that is understandable since the Canadian winters will often have temperatures that are 30 to 40 degrees below zero with deep snow.

And speaking of Canadian weather…

We understood that it does occasionally snow in Canada in May, and I guess you might say we were blessed with that experience also. We’d only been there a couple days when we heard there was snow forecasted. It had been beautiful t-shirt weather to that point, but it sure started getting cold. It was below freezing many nights. And we woke up one morning to lots of snow. Of course, to central Texans who don’t deal with snow for the whole winter, it was beautiful.
The first day it snowed lightly off and on all day, which made it impossible to go look at horses. We helped with chores and spent the day catching up on rest. The next day was a doozey; to me it seemed like a blizzard. I was told it has to be below zero to be officially a blizzard in Canada, but being from Texas, it sure felt like a blizzard. I will tell you, it was darn cold with the snow so heavy and blowing so hard that you could hardly see beyond the driveway. And of course, chores still had to be done. So it was bundle up (we borrowed heavy coats) and trudge through the snow to feed horses. Several bands of horses had to be checked and they all needed oats and hay. Three different times that day snow had soaked through the boots I was wearing and I was sure my feet were frozen solid. I can not imagine having to do that every day for the long Canadian winters.

Rich and I were to feed the mares and foals in the paint band the first morning after the snowstorm while the farmer took hay to another band with his tractor. After we dumped the oats around, we noticed that one mare hadn’t come up with the rest. She was standing over by the fence line at the road. I took the truck out around through the entrance and drove down the snow-covered road. Her newly born filly had managed to get out of the fence and was standing outside the fence by the road. I parked the truck and trudged through knee deep snow drifts to see what I could do to get the little gal back in the fence. No such luck…she took off prancing down the fence line with her mama close in tow on the other side. I had to go enlist Rich’s assistance and we eventually ushered her in the pasture through a gate out by the roadway…all was well.
That same day, we went with the farmer to check on his band of Percheron mares that were a short drive from his farm. He noticed one mare seemed to be in distress and away from the rest of the herd. Sure enough, she’d been in labor but the huge colt she tried to deliver was stuck with just the two front feet and his head sticking out. Try as hard as she could, she couldn’t pass the colt. In this vast expanse of countryside you don’t just run to the phone and call the vet. These farmers have to be self-reliant. In this case it was necessary to drive back to the farm to get the equipment needed to corral the mare and pull the dead colt. It was my job to stay at the mare’s head and try to keep her still where she was tied to the corral panel. I will never forget the wrenching vocal sound she made as the dry colt had to be forcibly pulled; but, she would not have survived otherwise. And today she is fat and healthy.

While the guys went for the equipment, I stayed behind to see if I could ease myself up to the mare and get her caught before they returned. That in itself was no easy task, especially with the snow still on the ground in some places and the mud resulting from the melting snow in others. While I was able to get close enough on several occasions to put my hand on her neck and shoulder, I was never able to get a rope around her neck. Again, these mares are not gentle mares that you can just walk up to out in the pastures. They are used to being herded with quads and corralled when the farmers needed to move them or to doctor them in any way.

The beauty of the natural surroundings tempered the sadness of the event. There was a chilly breeze blowing with the warmth of the sun on my back and face as I turned following the band of mares and their stud from place to place throughout the pasture. I was probably the only human being for miles and miles around and all I could hear were the sounds of nature. The sounds of the horses as they moved about, pawing through the snow for the sparse grass underneath. The soft crunch and thud in the snow as the whole band trotted up, over and down a hill and through the trees; the earth vibrating with their movement. The sun was glistening off the snow crystals that remained on the horse’s heavy coats as they rolled. The soft nicker of mare and foal as they called to each other in greeting or concern. I’ll never forget it.
At each new farm the farmers would ask me, “What are you looking for?” I couldn’t tell them. All I could say was “There will be something. I’ll just know when I see her.”

One mare I picked because of her beautiful and stunning color, another for her conformation. I chose one mare for her pretty head and one for her way of going, another for her mane and forelock that were long, thick, curly and snow white. For some it was their expression or character, openness or curiosity. But mostly, on all of them, I looked at their eyes. And it was the eyes that drew me into their world.

Many of the horses that we saw had a distant look in their eye. A look of resignation in some cases; a look of fear; a look of resolve; a look of determination or survival. Haunted, distant, guarded.

But there were also the mares that would look at you with the soft open expression of a horse that is used to or at least wants to welcome human interaction. Big, soft, beautiful eyes full of curiosity, hope and longing.

One such mare caught my attention when we were looking at a band of mostly Belgian mares. Walking in the pastures with a herd of 20 or more Belgian or Percheron mares was interesting. At first, they all just blend together...all sorrel, all black or all grey. But as I continued to assess the mares, things began to stand out…maybe it was a look in her eye, a slightly different shade of color, her confirmation, a beautiful long mane, a pretty head and eye, or the way she attended to her foal. As I began walking through this herd looking over the nearly 30 mares, I noticed that one mare in particular, a very round blonde Belgian with a thick curly mane and forelock, was watching me with soft curiosity.

(A quick note, before I’d left on the trip I made a pact with myself that I would only buy the horses that “felt right”. Here was a place where I put that to practice.) At that time, I hadn’t planned on buying a Belgian, but this mare just kept watching me, and only me. Even as the rest of the herd moved away, she stopped, turned and continued watching me. Of course I told myself that, well, maybe this gal is meant to go home with us. Let’s see what she tells me. So I gradually moved to approach her. Remember, these mares are not normally approachable in the pastures. I eased my way toward her, giving and taking in movement, and trying not to appear to be a threat. She never changed her stance and never lost that soft look in her eye. She let me ease right up next to her and rub her neck. The farmer was even amazed. Needless to say, she’s now in Texas.

It was common to walk into a pen of yearlings or unhandled two year olds and have them crowd around you with eyes peering anxiously or curiously at you; dozens and dozens of pairs of eyes. The brave would slowly creep forward and stretch a nose forward to get a closer look. And sometimes, almost as one body, they would all crowd closer leaving you with little room to turn in any direction. Those behind you would grab a sleeve or coat collar or a sniff on the neck. But, if you moved, reached out, or did much more than slowly turn your head, they would all scatter like snow flakes in the wind. I had to chuckle in delight at their antics. Then back they’d come again for another look.

Sadly, some foals are fed specifically for slaughter, like cattle in a feedlot, so they’ll have the weight needed to bring the best dollar. Fat yearlings and weanlings are in demand and bring the highest dollar per pound. We bought four yearling fillies out of just such a place. When I called back to see about getting more, the rest of the horses in that lot, had already gone to market.

One morning, during the heavy snow storm, I went by myself to feed the band of Percheron mares. It was bitterly cold with the wind blowing snow and sleet parallel to the ground. There were 3 or 4 brand new foals that had been born in the snowstorm that night shivering with their little heads down and their tails turned to the wind. One newborn foal had lost its young mama in the frenzy of the mares eating. The first I was aware of it was when I turned and found this darling bay Arabian/Percheron foal plastered to my hip. Everywhere I went that baby stayed glued to my side. So trusting, she just wanted me to give her some warmth, comfort and security - so precious and heart warming…and sad. She was so cold and wet, I just wanted to hug her and warm her; which I attempted to do of course. I stayed with her until her mama finished eating and came to get her. That memory still brings tears to my eyes.

I was continually amazed at the hardiness of these mares and their foals. Though they were shivering during the cold and the storm, they all came through it with no problems. Even foals that were born during the storm itself were romping and playing the first sign of sun and warmth. Most of these horses are raised in a rough range type environment. We went out to the pastures to feed the herds during our stay and saw colts with flesh torn from their hindquarters where they had been attacked by coyotes and partial colt carcasses that had been picked over by the coyotes. Foals drown in the bogs where the horses watered because they were too small to find their way out.

But seeing the herd dynamics in action was also very rewarding. The stallions watched over and protected their bands diligently. Any intruder, man or beast, was carefully watched. Any mare that got out of line was quickly put back in her place. And by contrast, the mare with the dead colt was continually run out of the band by the stud since she was a danger to the herd. It was his job to protect the herd, and she represented a limitation and danger to the herd.

By contrast, some studs had the instinct to protect lineage. Just like some wild animal sires do. In one band we came across a new born foal that was badly injured because the stud had tried to kill her. All the other foals were fine.

Interestingly, the other foals were by studs that were part of his extended “family”; studs that he spent his winters with. (All studs on the farms are put together during the off season.) This foal was by a stud from a different farm. How could he have possibly known? But that was the only theory that made sense as to why he’d have tried to kill that particular foal. We tried earnestly for days to save the foal, I named her Destiny, but we heard that she died shortly after we’d left Canada.

Before approaching us, many of the mares would circle so they were downwind of us and they could assess us by smell. When we’d first approach the band, the mares would nudge and paw their foals with their front feet to get them to get up so they were safer and could quickly flee in case of danger. When we found the foal that had been attacked by the stud, many of the mares in that band came to investigate the foal as well. They all knew something was amiss. We also saw mares tending to wounds on other mares by licking them and mares circling the foals to protect them. When a foal got out of place, other mares would strongly nudge, not kick, them out of the way or towards their mama.

I did not go to Canada with a vision, or a dream, or a goal. I originally went to pick up a few driving mares for my carriage business. In the end I found so much more, a better understanding of the farmers, their business, and the indescribable beauty of a stallion with his band of mares and foals running free as God had intended.

Unfortunately there will be literally thousands of PMU horses that will be without a job come September of 2004 – that is the month when the foals will be weaned. Many of these horses have an unknown future at best. Some will go to slaughter, some will stay on the farms, and some will find other uses and go on to good training and companionship.

We would like to thank Anne Van Dyke for sharing her story. If you missed last month’s feature story “Canexas: A Texas PMU Connection”, please visit Canexas offers safe, well-adjusted ex-PMU horses pre-purchased from Canada for sale. Canexas socializes the horses and teaches them skills to provide them with a chance at a long and healthy future. For more information about Canexas, you can contact Anne Van Dyke at 210-912-7408

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