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Love of horses turns into ardor to save them

In the tall grass of a vast Winnipeg, Canada, field 1,800 miles from home, Andi Balser sat alone among the horses. Hundreds of foals galloped and grazed around her, each one doomed. Balser came to save as many as she could from slaughter. A curious foal sidled up to her, started licking her arms and her jeans. She’d already rescued too many — maybe more than she could find homes for. But this one, the one she’ll call Cricket, chose her.

When she was 5 years old, little Andi announced to her mother that she wanted to ride horses.

“Why?” her incredulous mother asked. Petersham, in Central Massachusetts, is a pretty rural place, but the Balsers were hardly a farm family.

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“I want to run really fast and jump really high,” Andi explained.

Young girls’ love of horses often fades, but not Balser’s. The decades did not trample her passion for the majestic creatures her 5-year-old self adored.

She went to school, she grew up, she got a fulfilling job working with traumatized boys and young men at a respected specialty school in Barre. But there was also a different kind of life — a life spent among horses — for which she never stopped searching.

On a frigid morning in January 2013, that search brought then 27-year-old Balser to a modest farm in nearby Athol. The farmer, a much older woman named Barbara Graham, had a handful of horses and needed a little help.

“You’ll get a kick out of her,” the friend who introduced them had told Balser, and here Graham was, sprightly and energetic, showing her around the small horse farm. The frozen pasture stretched out behind the house. On the left was a gated ring and a three-sided shelter beyond it. A simple wooden barn stood on the right.

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Graham introduced Balser to Scruffy, a disheveled little pony with the disposition of a kind old dog, and to the horses — Reba, Sasha Marie, Sunny D.

Balser did not know it yet, but each of the horses — and hundreds more, scattered around Massachusetts and beyond — owed their lives to the gray-haired firecracker bouncing around the pasture.

As the days and weeks passed and the women spent more and more time together, Graham revealed a story that shook Balser to her core, of a place where the animals she loved lived in what seemed to her an outpost of hell.

Disposable offspring

Born on a backcountry farm in Canada, Reba and Sunny were the byproduct of the manufacture of a common but controversial drug called Premarin.

A form of hormone replacement therapy typically prescribed during menopause, Premarin is made using the urine of pregnant mares (its name is derived from the key ingredient: pregnant mares’ urine).

So, inside long barns in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, row after row of horses stand in small stalls, tubes snaking up from under them into vessels nearby. It sounds like science fiction — some equine version of “The Matrix,” in which a superior species saps humans for their nutrients — but it’s true: The urine is precious.

Selling it can be lucrative, but keeping hundreds of horses pregnant every year to harvest their urine has an obvious byproduct: hundreds of foals like Reba and Sunny.

Barbara Graham of Athol with her first rescue from a Premarin farm, Reba, a 15-year-old Belgium that she got as a foal.
Barbara Graham of Athol with her first rescue from a Premarin farm, Reba, a 15-year-old Belgium that she got as a foal. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

And in Canada, where the slaughter of horses is legal and horse meat is widely available in the most French-influenced provinces, selling the resulting foals at meat prices is a pretty good secondary business. Thousands are killed each year.

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This was the fate from which Graham had saved hundreds of horses over the course of the last 20 years, traveling to Canada and befriending farmers who agreed to sell her a few foals, priced by the pound.

But Graham had not been back in nearly a decade. Time took its toll on her, for one thing. She was 70, and the 30-hour drives and heavy lifting were hard on her body.

She’d also run out of places to put the horses. After 10 years of begging people to buy the hundreds of foals she’d rescued — taking big losses in the process — everyone in the area had as many horses as they could handle.

“When I first started, there was a lot of interest,” Graham said. “But by then, I’d saturated the area.”

The last foals Graham rescued from slaughter were now at least 10 years old. She sometimes thought about the ones lost since, and longed to make the trip again. But the more time went by, and the older she got, the less likely it seemed.

Becoming soul mates

Saving things was in Graham’s DNA. After the General Electric plant where she worked closed down in 1998, she retired and devoted herself to being a foster parent.

Plain-spoken to the point of bluntness, Graham described the decision to take in dozens of children over the last 15 years as her own simple good fortune.

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“I was retired. I was fortunate enough to be able to do it,” she said. “When you see somebody going on to college and they invite you to the ceremony, it makes you feel good.”

But Balser could see that her new friend missed the trips to Canada, and the chance to save foals, even a few, from the slaughterhouse floor.

By early last year, Balser and Graham had grown inseparable. They talked every day, and Balser went to Graham for advice on whatever was going on in her life.

“We relate on so many different levels,” said Balser. “I guess we’re kindred spirits.”

So when a friend who had taken one of Graham’s earlier rescue horses said she was in the market for a new foal, the idea of making another pilgrimage to Winnipeg, this one together, arose.

Andi Balser and Barbara Graham had planned to save three foals during their first trip together to Premarin farms in Winnipeg, Canada, and ended up saving nine. They are planning another trip.
Andi Balser and Barbara Graham had planned to save three foals during their first trip together to Premarin farms in Winnipeg, Canada, and ended up saving nine. They are planning another trip.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The number of farms producing Premarin has dropped precipitously in recent years, as questions about the drug’s safety have emerged.

And some of the roughly two dozen farmers who supply Pfizer with Premarin’s critical raw ingredient won’t allow rescue groups on their land.

But Graham knew of three farmers who took good care of their animals, and who would sell their foals to her at the meat price.

Intrigued, Balser mulled whether she was taking on too much. Besides the time and energy commitment, the logistical and financial price can be steep. There are travel expenses, hauling costs, veterinary and border fees, and, of course, the price of the foals — about $400 each.

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But Graham’s passion for the project was enough.

“I know she wanted to go back so badly,” Balser said. “This meant so much to her.”

Balser canceled a Puerto Rican beach vacation with friends and started preparing for the trip. They had a home lined up for at least one foal already. Three, they thought, would be a good goal.

So instead of lounging on a beach with her friends, Balser was bound for Manitoba with a woman old enough to be her grandmother.

Grooming the young

Horse gestation lasts for nearly a year, and on Premarin farms about half of that time is spent in the stall where there urine is collected. Impregnated again as soon as possible, the mares are turned out to give birth and nurse their foals for about four months.

It was during this period that Balser and Graham arrived to choose a fortunate few from the sprawling fields.

“It was a week of amazement,” Balser said. She took hundreds of pictures and plastered them all over social media. From nearly 2,000 miles away, interest from would-be horse owners was growing.

Three foals became four, then six. In the end, they chose nine to bring back.

They arranged the complex and expensive process of shipping the animals home, and returned to Central Massachusetts intent on finding homes for every one of them.

“I was in awe of what she did in order to bring the horses back,” said Judy Cockerton, the founder of a nonprofit that offers animal-assisted programs for kids in foster care called Birdsong Farm. A foster parent who knew of Graham’s work with children, Cockerton agreed to buy one of the foals.

That foal, Violet, will turn 1 year old May 1. She won’t be ridden until she’s at least 3. Like the foster kids who come to visit her, Violet now has her own “everyday mom,” another horse who has taken Violet under her wing and is teaching the foal how to be a horse.

“It’s all about passing the baton to the next generation,” Cockerton said — whether that’s horses or humans.

Sitting among the many framed photos of horses that line the walls of Graham’s cozy farmhouse, Balser and Graham smiled at one another and traded knowing glances. They say they are planning another trip north this year.

“I guess I’m her protege,” Balser said, as Graham beamed across the table. When Balser’s mother met Graham, “my mom thanked her. She said, ‘Thank-you for letting her live out her horse dreams.’ ”

Balser kept Cricket for herself. Nearly a year old, the foal she bought by the pound pals around with one of Graham’s old horses under Balser’s watchful eye.

Soon, they’ll run and jump together.

Sarah Muntyan played with Violet, a Premarin rescue foal.
Sarah Muntyan played with Violet, a Premarin rescue foal.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.