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A Good Life for Horses at the Duchess Sanctuary

The Humane Society of the United States

By Pepper Ballard

Ringed by mountains rich in laurel and oak that’s draped with Spanish moss encouraged by the humid summer weather of southwest Oregon, the Duchess Sanctuary south of Eugene is set back on a dirt road miles from civilization. Due to the cold, damp Pacific Northwest winters, the rounded mountain tops in the distance are capped with snow. The diverse terrain of the 1,120-acre property of deep forest and wide-open pasture is home to a range of wildlife, including deer, opossum, raccoon, coyotes and a variety of birds.

As if the views weren’t tranquil enough, the sight of the facility’s nearly 200 horses is awe inspiring

The horses are the main residents of Duchess, owned and operated by The Humane Society of the United States. Today the horses roam the pastures in peace and comfort after a life of cruelty and neglect. While some were rescued from public lands or cases of abuse, most are mares who spent half their lives confined and impregnated in the name of science.

A Rough Start

Those horses were victims of the pregnant mares’ urine—or PMU—industry. Many of the elderly mares had spent six months of the year for 20 years attached to urine collection devices in stalls that prevented them from turning around. The mares were kept pregnant so their urine could be used to produce Premarin®, a once commonly prescribed estrogen replacement therapy used to relieve hormonal deficiency symptoms associated with menopause or hysterectomy.

At the height of the drug’s popularity, tens of thousands of mares were producing the potent ingredient. But in 2004, an important federal study—the Women’s Health Initiative—raised serious questions about the benefit of estrogen therapy, and the pregnant mare urine industry plummeted.

When that happened, many of the mares were no longer considered useful and were typically being sent to slaughter.

A Constant Companion

Since their rescue, the Duchess PMU mares and their young have had a constant in ranch manager Jennifer Kunz, who moved with the PMU mares to the sanctuary from the Knightsbridge Farm Draft Horse Sanctuary in Alberta, Canada. She had spent four years managing the PMU herd at the Canadian facility, operated by The Ark Watch Foundation—Duchess Sanctuary’s largest donor.

Over the past decade, she facilitated the placement of more than 1,000 PMU mares and foals, grew close to their plight and couldn’t bear to be apart from them.

“It’s amazing to see them go from tiny little creatures attached to their moms, to full grown horses playing with their friends," Kunz said. “I’ve known all of the younger horses since birth and assisted many of them coming into the world. You could just spend hours watching them.”

At Duchess, there are no reminders of the mares’ previous lives. The only gates they now know are distant fences that keep them safe. And the abandoned horses found on public lands will never go hungry again. Consistent good quality feed and care has allowed those formerly skeletal horses to blossom into shiny, healthy animals, spending their days napping, eating, and playing.

Food, Food and More Food

Caring for the majestic animals takes ranch staff the better part of the day. Starting at 7 a.m.—6 a.m. in the summer heat—and ending about dusk, the horses’ days revolve around food.

First, staff feed the special needs horses in what’s called the “Old Lady’s Paddock.” Here elderly, handicapped or otherwise injured horses congregate in designated enclosures that allow for special diets, easy access and observation.

Some of the horses may have bad teeth, while others are arthritic. And some are just old:  The oldest horses are more than 30, and the special needs horses are typically in their 20s.

Between the special needs horses who get two feedings a day, and the larger herds—comprised of about 165 horses—these horses eat about 6,500 pounds of hay each day during the winter months.

The larger herds—the PMU mares and their offspring—are greeted and fed in their separate enclosures. The quarter horses and mustangs, called the light herd, are fenced in another.

Property Improvements

In addition to the recently added Old Lady’s Paddock, other improvements include the installation of new fencing to create more turnout areas and better grazing for the horses. Internal roads have been improved with better water run-off provisions, shelters have been built in the pasture areas, and water tanks have been installed.

A special chute has been designed and will be installed late this summer to hold the animals still so that a farrier – or specialist in equine hoof care – can safely provide proper foot care.

And long-term planning includes ecologically sound range management practices to preserve and enhance property usage.

Melissa Rubin, vice president of The HSUS’ animal centers, said the improvements are part of ongoing efforts to maintain a world-class facility for horses in need.

“These mares and other abused horses have a safe haven at the Duchess Sanctuary,” she said. "At The HSUS, we look to establish and adopt policies that keep horses from coming into dire circumstances to begin with, but when that happens, we’re able to help the animals and provide them the peace and comfort they so deserve—a place where they’ll always be safe.”

A Proper Retirement

At Duchess, every horse is named, and, since Kunz’ observation of the herd is backed by her familiarity with it, she also identifies relationships among the horses, be it best friends or family members. And the knowledge of their painful histories is always on her mind: If they weren’t holed up in a Premarin stall for half their lives, they were likely rescued from wild horse round-ups.

“I couldn’t imagine any animal who has endured so much pain to be allowed to go to slaughter,” she said. “At Duchess Sanctuary, the attitude is that these horses have earned a peaceful retirement.”

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