Twelve years ago, when New Milford's Frank Weller was filming a documentary on a group rescuing Premarin horses from processing farms in Canada, he witnessed a sight he said he'll never forget.

Premarin foals are a product of the $2.5 billion pregnant mares'-urine industry, where mares are put into stalls and impregnated so breeders can collect their urine for use in Premarin, an estrogen-therapy drug manufactured by Pfizer, Weller said.

"I was fascinated by the fact that so many horses were being thrown away," Weller, an actor and filmmaker, said. "They were born to die basically."

In 2002, Weller created Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary, a New Milford nonprofit organization that saves Premarin horses from slaughter by helping them get adopted. Weller has since rescued more than 400 horses.

Mares' urine used for hormone-replacement drugs

Urine collected from pregnant mares is full of estrogen and is used in a hormone-replacement drug for women, such as Premarin, PremPro, PremPhase, and most recently, Duavee.

Patty Wahlers, founder of Washington-based The Humane Organization Representing Suffering Equines, spent years rescuing Premarin horses.

Wahlers once cared for 15 Premarin foals at her Washington farm.

During their 11-month pregnancies, mares are either confined in stalls all winter or all summer, with catheters attached to collect the urine, Wahers said.

When the foals are born, some are used to replace their mothers, but most are auctioned off to slaughterhouses, Weller said.

"Almost 100,000 foals are born every year for slaughter," he said.

Weller and fellow rescuers first went to horse auctions in Canada to bid on the Premarin foals, but found it emotionally difficult for rescuers.

"The first year was hard because there was so much agony for the horses and rescuers," Weller said. "These horses would run through the tents very fast and there were just so many of them."

Weller found a better way to rescue the horses by going straight to the farmers. The Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary now pays farmers up front the market price for a pound of meat, which could be from $1.50 to $1.95.

By paying the farmers, the foals can stay at the farm with their mothers until Weller can find a suitable home.

"We have had a lot of doors shut in our faces," Weller said. "It's was a win for the farmers, because they don't have to round them up. It's a win for horses. and it's a win for rescuers."

Impact on horses and women

The Premarin industry hasn't only hurt the horses, but women taking the drugs have been adversely affected.

Eight years ago, Premarin products ranked second among top-selling drugs in the United States, Weller said.

But in 2002, a study by the Women's Health Initiative found the drugs containing Premarin increased women's chances of getting breast cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and dementia.

Once the study went public, a majority of women stopped taking pregnant mare-urine drugs and many doctors no longer prescribe them.

"Premarin was the first drug of its kind to take off," said Susan Wagner, president of Equine Advocates in Chatham, N.Y. "In 2009, Wyeth merged with Pfizer and 70,000 PMU horses were on lines. Now there are 20 factories and 90,000 mares standing on PMU lines in China, but America still has the largest consumption of PMU drugs."

Dr. Elizabeth Lucal, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Sharon Hospital, said PMU drugs are an easy way to substitute for human hormones since horses are mammals and have the same types of hormones as humans.

"I've prescribed it, but my biggest concern is how it is processed," Lucal said. "What I don't like about it is the same reason why I buy organic chicken. It is an industrial use of animals, and there are enough synthetics that I don't think you need to use the equine pills."

PMU drugs are not her first choice when prescribing hormone-replacement therapy. The medication Lucal prescribes depends upon the patient's symptoms, but in certain cases, the PMU drugs are better covered by insurance, she said.

"Medication has a big history in animals," Lucal said. "Now that we have synthetics, you don't need to use this, but as a drug, it is an equivalent to any hormone drug out there."

Using mares' urine is not the first time drugs have been made from animal products, Lucal said. Insulin used to come from cows and pigs.

"At first, we thought we were saving horses, but we actually saved a lot of women when they realized what it was doing to horses and what is was doing to them," Weller said. "When you snap one of the PMU pills open, it actually smells like a barnyard."

PMU drugs were first approved by the FDA in 1942 and again in October 2013 with a new drug, Duavee.

Duavee is a combination of Premarin and bazedoxifene to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis. The new drug is on the market and is available for prescription.

"The women I have met who were on it and it works aren't going to get off it," Whaler said. "It's their body, it's their choice. The best thing you can do is save as many horses as you can."

High price for rescues

The rescuing process isn't cheap for these nonprofit organizations. The Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary needs to pay for testing and veterinary visits, plus transporting the horses from farms in Canada to homes in the United States costs the most. Premarin foal adoptions cost $1,600 per horse, Weller said.

Even after rescuing the horses, it is hard for the animals to adjust, Weller said.

"They are hard to train, because they have never been handled before, Wahlers said. "All the ones we have ever taken were in their teens and they were all terrified."

When Erin Shaughnessy was 7 years old, her parents adopted two Premarin horses from Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary. She has since trained them to be rideable.

"We started by fostering two horses and they were just babies, and then we got so much more involved," Shaughnessy said. "Clancy and Valentine were very sweet and just had such good spirits and we fell in love."

After Clancy died, they adopted another horse from Weller to keep on their New Milford farm.

Adelka Polak, of Sherman, rescued two horses from Equine Angels Rescue Sanctuary 10 years ago. After she moved to a large farm, she adopted the horses to occupy the space.

"We weren't horse people before we got them," Polak said. "They run and play and roll around. They are just beautiful, sweet and social creatures."

Premarin mares had a reputation for being unbalanced because of their upbringing, Weller said. He hopes by rescuing the animals and finding loving homes, they can live normal lives.

"We look at them more than just livestock -- they have spirit," Weller said. "They have gone to war with us. They have gone to sport and discovered so much with us."

smagnoli@newstimes.com; 203-731-3350; @SkylerDNT