How I Changed My Mind About the PMU Industry

The Keystone Draft Futurity completely changed my preconceived ideas about the controversial PMU industry.
Mares and foals at MM Ranch in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of MM Ranch.

Mares and foals at MM Ranch in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of MM Ranch.

The final Keystone Draft Horse Futurity took place on Sept. 20, showing and celebrating a very classy group of 2-year-old draft horses who completely changed my preconceived ideas about the controversial PMU industry.

I had heard the stories — we all have, I’m sure — of mares tied and trussed up in uncomfortable collection harnesses; packed into dark, musty barns like feedlot cattle; denied water and kept constantly pregnant to keep producing their precious urine for uses in the pharmaceutical industry. The foals were just an inconvenient by-product, quantity over quality, shipped off for the slaughterhouses as soon as they were weaned.

In middle school, I remember giving my first 10-minute formal presentation in front of 50 classmates about the “horrors of the PMU industry.” (I also remember one of my teachers grilling me on getting information from “bleeding heart” animal rights activists rather than credible sources, but, hey, I was in eighth grade and just learning how to use the internet.)

I didn’t think much about the PMU industry in recent years until this autumn, when my friends Thane and Kristle Bunce and Eagle Harrington from the local draft horse scene invited us down to Meadville, Pa., for the final Keystone Draft Horse Futurity at the Crawford County Fairgrounds. Three weeks ago they acquired a very nice 2-year-old who was eligible for the futurity, broke him to drive in 19 days (!) and were ready to go.

A few days before the show, I hopped on the internet again (my research skills slightly more honed than they were when I was in middle school, rest assured) and figured out what this show was all about. The futurity was for 2-year-olds who had gone through a weanling sale at Meadville, returning to show in halter, cart and an obstacle pattern. All of the horses at the sale and show were products of North American Equine Ranching Information Council (NAERIC) member farms in Canada — equine ranching in this case referring to farms who produced pregnant mares’ urine, or PMU.

There goes our boy!

As we pulled into the show grounds, mixed in with a small convoy of trucks and trailers bearing horses as well as carts, I glanced around at our competition. This wasn’t going to be an easy walk in the park as I had originally thought after meeting Thane’s horse Challenger, or Paton’s GMC Challenger, as he was known. The other horses (predominantly black Percherons, though there were two other Belgians and a Clydesdale) were all impressively well-matured for 2-year-olds and good quality animals. They were a far cry from the cast-off industrial-produced animals I admit I had been expecting to see: This was simply a really nice group of young horses.

The champion of the day, Creekside Xray — an impressive 2-year-old!

MM Ranch, Curt Paton’s family farm, bred Challenger; I caught up with Curt after the show to get a little more insight into the industry. My research had showed me a much different picture than what I had remembered, and Curt helped fill in the holes. “We’re horse breeders first,” he reminded me, rather than PMU ranchers. The family has owned the ranch over the generations since 1902 but only picked up the PMU contract in 1966.

The Patons believe in breeding for disposition, or as Curt puts it, “function over fashion.” PMU collection serves as a secondary income for the MM Ranch, helping the family continue its tradition in breeding quality animals. Paton-bred horses have placed in the top three in major NAERIC futurities in Canada; a pair of Paton horses are pulling the trolley in the Kentucky Horse Park. One individual horse is now part of the top-notch Hammersmith Hitch. Curt and his family have a strong sense of responsibility for their horses and the horses they breed: They want to see them sold to good homes, and they love to see them in successful careers.

The urine collection actually works well in the natural schedule of a cold Saskatchewan winter. When it’s 40 below and blowing snow, the horses are spending most of their time in the barn. The winter corresponds with the collection schedule for the pregnant mares. Curt reminded me that working in close quarters with the mares is another reason that the Patons breed for good dispositions!

As in any facet of the horse industry, there will be some bad apples who spoil the reputation of the rest, which could easily happen in the PMU industry, but the Patons appear to be among the best. With a standing invitation to come up and visit the next time I’m in Saskatchewan, I’d expect nothing less.

Reserve Champion Lone Oak 12 Gabby, driven expertly by our friend Charlie Spelling through the obstacle pattern.

The Keystone Draft Horse Futurity, overall, was a great day. Challenger placed fourth overall, and I was floored that 13 2-year-olds were all able to trot in harness with four or five others (the cart class was split, wisely) and perform a mentally-taxing obstacle course without blowing (m)any fuses.

Unfortunately, the Keystone Futurity has lost its funding, so the program won’t be continuing in this area. But new draft horse futurities are cropping up all across Canada, showing that equine ranchers continue to hold themselves to high standards for producing quality animals. While I’m not quite prepared to go buy my own colt and get started, I’ve seen enough to change my mind for the better about the equine ranching industry.

What do you think, HN? Weigh in with a comment below.

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