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Watch Pregnant Mare Rescue's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

In the early hours of March 20, California was literally shutting down. World order was being re-written. And in the stalls of Lynn Hummer’s ranch, a pregnant bay mare named Mia was giving birth.

“She is the color of a seal, and the baby is a little mini-me,” says Hummer, who runs Pregnant Mare Rescue, a 14-year-old nonprofit that saves equine moms-to-be, often from a slaughterhouse fate.  The new baby — a filly — is named Sofie. “There’s something innately special about babies.”

In what feels like the end of times, Hummer’s work is a reminder that life continues to march on — and that certain essential businesses, like animal shelters and rescue groups, are still operating despite the coronavirus crisis.

When we spoke last week by phone, Hummer told me she hadn’t left her 3-acre ranch, in Watsonville outside Santa Cruz, in days. She’s currently caring for 5 rescue horses — 10 others are boarding at nearby barns or pastures — and she relies on volunteers for help in feeding, cleaning and healing the horses, who often come from abusive circumstances. As a result of the crisis, “I’ve got the volunteers staggered so when they come out, they’re here alone,” Hummer says. “They wash before they come here and they wash when they leave.”

[Related: The Story Exchange’s Coronavirus Crisis Coverage]

How She Started

Hummer has been doing the rescue work since 2006, shortly after she learned that thousands of unwanted horses, including healthy trail horses and former racehorses, are sent each year to auction houses, where “kill buyers” purchase them — a practice well-documented by the Humane Society. “Most people are led to believe that auction houses will ‘re-home’ your horse to a nice family, when in fact [most] end up with kill buyers, and then they’re driven to the slaughter plants” in Canada and Mexico, she says. The meat is often shipped to China, where people eat it. “It’s not for dog food and it’s not for glue, it’s for human consumption,” she said. “I was really taken aback, and I needed to know more.”

Shelter in place: New mom Mia bonds with Sofie, born March 20. (Credit: Pregnant Mare Rescue)
Shelter in place: New mom Mia bonds with Sofie, born March 20. (Credit: Pregnant Mare Rescue)

As she researched, Hummer, a lifelong animal lover, also discovered that mares are particularly susceptible to abuse during their lifetimes due to the production of estrogen-replacement drug Premarin. The drug, prescribed to menopausal women, is made from horse urine — the name itself stands for PREgnant MARes’ urINe.

For years, as has been widely reported, pharmaceutical company Wyeth (now owned by Pfizer) contracted with horse ranches in Canada where pregnant mares were confined to small stalls for urine collection. The horses were repeatedly impregnated, with foals taken to auction shortly after birth; the moms themselves were sent to auction when their production waned. The drug, popular in the 1990s, is now linked to cancer, although it is still approved by the Food and Drug Administration and continues to be prescribed.

“Once people found that I had a small ranchette and that I was rescuing horses, then the calls came in fast and furious,” she recalls. “What kind of mares can you take? Can you take untouchable mares? Can you take wild mares? Can you take Mustangs? How about the big drafts? Can you take a Premarin mare?”

In more recent years, Hummer says she’s seeing less Premarin mares, as production of the drug has reportedly shifted from Canada to China. Now, a growing number of wild Mustang horses in Western states are being rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, which critics say serves the interests of cattle ranchers. Close to 2,000 captured horses were sold in 2019, possibly to slaughter buyers, according to a recent New York Times article. “It’s a big, big, hot issue right now,” Hummer says. “They’re really driving them to extinction.”

[Related: This 6-Horse Startup Helps Kids With Special Needs]

Homes for Horses

The horses that Hummer rescues and rehabilitates are put up for adoption, and in the past 14 years she’s found homes for over 400 mares and foals. Most become trail or companion horses. Hummer says she became hooked on the work after she bought a pregnant quarter horse pony in 2005 for $300, saving the animal from slaughter.  “Then her baby came, and, oh, my gosh…it was just so magical,” she says “I thought, “You know what? I really can do this. I can save these mares.”

Hummer runs Pregnant Mare Rescue on a $150,000 annual budget, and most of that money comes from individual donors (she doesn’t take a salary). The work is incredibly rewarding, she says. “We let pregnant mares come in, have their babies, nurse their young in peace. We know they’ve come from a difficult place,” she says. “They’re so grateful, with the tails swooshing or the ears pinning.”

Since the coronavirus hit, “we’re hunkering down,” she says. “Our hay stash is good. Our bank account is good.” What’s more, she’s posted to Facebook and sent out a few newsletters and been rewarded with donations. “People feel good about wanting to make a difference,” she says.

When the world slowly comes out of quarantine, Hummer suspects more people will need the type of magic that horses can bring. She herself didn’t realize “their ability for patience and healing and their therapeutic value” until she started Pregnant Mare Rescue. Over the years, she’s seen everyone from grieving adults to children with autism or Asperger’s find a quiet peace around the horses. “What dolphins are to the sea, horses are to the land,” she says. “They’re able to really touch people on an amazingly deep level.

Check out more of the The Story Exchange’s coverage of social entrepreneurs. 

Read Full Transcript

Lynn: I was on the internet and I found this little pregnant Quarter Horse pony—very pregnant—who was $300. And she was going to ship to slaughter. She was in Fallon, Nevada. And an organization picked her up and said, “Can anybody take this mare?” And I hit the button, and went, “Okay, now I got a horse!” And oh my gosh, when her foal was born it was just so magical. I thought, “You know what, I really can do this. I can save these mares.”

TEXT: Lynn Hummer – Founder + President, Pregnant Mare Rescue – Santa Cruz, California

Lynn: Pregnant Mare Rescue is a temporary sanctuary for the mare and foal. Pregnant mares come in, have their babies, nurse their young in peace. We know they’ve come from a difficult place. Rehabilitate them by gentling them as best we can, and then finding them new homes.

TEXT: Lynn grew up with horses in the area that today is called Silicon Valley.

Lynn: I stopped college about seven weeks before graduating, and I joined a rock n roll band. And I played all up and down the West Coast. We were always doing benefits for local shelters, any animal organization or environmental organization that we felt akin to and wanted to raise money for.

TEXT: When Lynn was 30 she gave up music. She took a job in the new tech industry.

TEXT: She married in 1990 and had two children.

TEXT: In 2005 she and her daughter visited the Wild Horse Sanctuary in northern California.

Lynn: We’d been riding all day, and the wild horses are sometimes walking right along with you. They’d been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management from the plains of northern Nevada.

TEXT: Most wild and unwanted horses are sent to auction houses.

Lynn: Most people are led to believe that those auction houses will rehome your horse to a nice family, when in fact 90% of them end up with kill buyers, and then they’re driven to the slaughter plants across our borders. The meat is shipped over to China, where people eat it. So I was really taken aback.

TEXT: When Lynn got home she went online and found her first mare, Rose.

TEXT: She set up a not-for-profit, Pregnant Mare Rescue.

Lynn: I started with $300 in the bank. That was it. But I did everything. I wrote my mission statement, I did my paperwork, I created my bylaws, I submitted everything to the IRS. Once people found that I had a small ranchette and that I was rescuing horses, then the calls come in fast and furious. “What kind of mares can you take? Can you take wild mares? Can you take mustangs? How about the big drafts?”

Lynn SOT: So this is our mustang. There’s a real, real big issue right now with our wild mustangs. They’re really driving them to extinction and they’re removing so many of them at such a high, high rate.

Lynn: So, we have done it all. We’ve had untouchables, we’ve had wild, we’ve had damaged, abused.

TEXT: Lynn raises her annual budget of $100,000 from online campaigns and generous individuals.

TEXT: Her only paid employee is her barn manager.

Lynn: Most of the horses that we rescue end up being trailhorses, companion horses. They’re great for that kind of work.

TEXT: Pregnant Mare Rescue has saved and adopted out over 400 mares and foals.

TEXT: Lynn runs programs to bring the public, especially children, to interact with the horses.

Lynn: Horses are therapists. They are healers, they are best friends. When we’re busy, and running and driving and eating and shopping, they’re still being horses. They’re just there. They just are. Because of those gifts, they’re able to really touch people on an amazingly deep level. They’re just really magical. That’s how I feel about horses.

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