© Hubert Peffer
published in The Draft Horse Journal, Spring, 2002

Though the drug Premarin, made from the urine of pregnant mares, is a very common prescription drug in Europe against osteoporosis, few people know that this is a horse-related product. Most have simply never heard about pregnant mare urine (PMU) as there is no processing plant and nobody is collecting pregnant mare urine on the European side of the Atlantic.

On the other hand, another horse product, this one from lactating mares, is actually a best seller...horse milk! Fermented, horse milk (3-8% alcohol) has been the national beverage in Mongolia since time immemorial. Until WW I, it was a common sight in Europe to see door-to-door street vendors vying for sales of donkey milk, directly from the producer (a jennet that was milked on-site) to consumer (mostly babies with gastrointestinal problems). Even now, the very prominent Italian Journal of Gastro-Intestinal Medicine strongly recommends donkey milk for babies with such problems!

Belgium, approximately the size of Maryland and origin of the Brabant draft horse, specializes in horse (and a few donkey) milk dairy farms, most of them situated in the Flemish/Dutch speaking part. This is also where 60% of the nearly 10,000,000 inhabitants of this small European country live. They are situated between their big neighbors of France, Germany and the Netherlands. With a mostly rich alluvial soil and a mild climate, heavy horses have always felt right at home in Belgium.

After a serious decline in registrations during the 1990s, the Brabant Horse studbook is doing much better today with approximately 1,000 registrations a year. At least part of the credit for their revival belongs to the horse milk business.

Vacuum milking itself also takes about a minute per mare. Overall production for one mare is 1.3 gallons a day. Despite the fact that most horse milkers start with ponies (one has nearly 200 New Forest ponies, a breed imported from the U.K.), the most important horse dairy farm of the country works exclusively with Brabants for two main reasons: 1) security–most pony milkers have been seriously kicked at least one time during milking. Frans and Nadine de Brabander, who run a successful horse dairy farm near the little town of Lier, have never had any problem with their heavies, and, 2) milking a horse requires the same effort as milking a pony, but gives you twice the amount of milk (1.35 gallons vs. 0.65 for a pony, per day).

Another good reason for using Brabants is the strong demand for their foals, partially because they are well-mannered and used to being manipulated. One blue-roan colt, bred by the de Brabanders, is actually doing fine for his new owner, Matt Lahti of Floodwood, Minnesota. All foals are sold after weaning (mostly 8 months), even the fillies. Frans de Brabander prefers to buy lactating mares (always registered Brabants) and sell the foals after weaning.

Manually stimulating the mare, which is absolutely necessary, takes approximately one minute. As soon as milk is dripping, the vacuum pump takes over the milking process. The de Brabanders have always owned a few Belgian Warmbloods and were, at one time, very involved in show jumping. Their interest in horse milk started in 1997 when a family member was severely afflicted with an intestinal problem known as Crohn’s disease. They made a trip to Holland to purchase some horse milk and, after two months of consuming .06 gallons each day, his condition was greatly improved. They started milking their own Warmbloods, but it did not come without risks of being kicked. This is what prompted them to switch to Brabants. Nadine soon gave up her job to stay at home and tend to the milking and horse chores. A few months later, Frans did likewise and their dairy business has been very successful ever since.

Today, the de Brabanders milk an average of 30 Brabant mares, starting each day by separating the foals from their dams at 3:30 a.m. so the mares will be ready for the first of five milking sessions of the day. The first session is usually at 7:30 a.m., followed every 3 hours with another. Around 8 p.m., mares and foals are put back together for the night. They stay together for an even longer time if Frans and Nadine enjoy a very rare day off. The farm is open to visitation every day and they currently receive two or three buses of visitors each week.

Hard working and proud of the results, Frans and Nadine de Brabander in the dairy house. Milking a mare starts two months after foaling, as soon as solid food intake by the foal is optimum, until month eight, when the foals are weaned. And, as we are talking about solid food, this is always as natural as possible (good home-grown grass, hay and corn silage). The ingredients of commercial feeds are always checked by a lab. During the 6 month milking period, no drugs are administered to the mares and, if a mare has to be treated for an illness, she is pulled out of the milking circuit. Additionally, milk samples are taken every month by a governmental lab and checked for hygiene, composition, etc. The fresh milk, filtered for impurities, goes into a standard milk cooler, at which point it is ready for consumption or further, optional processing, such as freeze drying (an $80,000 investment in U.S. funds) for milk powder, anti-allergic non-perfumed cosmetics (skin creams, lotions, aftershave, soap) and even horse milk liquor (delicious!). No cheese is produced from horse milk due to its low fat content. Until recently (before freeze drying), most of the daily production was sold frozen. A daily .06 gallon (1/4 liter) dose consumed for four weeks is recommended by most dieticians. The price for a one month supply (28 x 0.06 gallon) is $45, which gives us an average price of $25 a gallon (again, in U.S. dollars).

Fresh milk, filtered immediately goes into the milk cooler. The recently introduced powdered horse milk is packed in 1 lb. cans for home consumption or in small 1 ounce vacuum-sealed plastic bags for travellers, which finds a good demand from sportspeople, business folks, etc. Mix one bag with good quality water (approximately .06 gallon) and you have your daily recommended ration, simple as that. Cold water is necessary because horse milk may never be heated above 95°. Given the recent events, this form of horse milk could be a problem while travelling through customs. (Says the custom officer, ”What’s that white powder, sir?“ Answer: “Horsemilk, Officer, just horse milk.”) Regardless, there is a strong demand for horse milk powder from all over the world, but our guests want to keep their dairy to a size that they can manage by themselves. Their primary concern lies in quality, not quantity.

Unlike the bovine dairy industry, where a cow can be bred to calve at any time of year, it’s much more difficult to ensure a year-round supply of fresh horse milk. In spite of trying to breed mares for varying foaling times, most mares are more readily brought into estrous during the late spring and early summer seasons. It tends to make the business more of a seasonal one, such as PMU collection, rather than bovine milking. Freezing and freeze-drying any excess milk (if there is any) can help to fill the “winter gaps.”

Now comes the final question: Why equine milk? Do you know that the Austrian Empress Sissi never travelled without a bunch of jennets providing her with enough milk to fill a bath tub each day? The first reason for drinking horse milk is, of course, not cosmetic but medical, especially for metabolical, gastrointestinal and liver problems, but also for recovering after surgery and severe illness, cholesterol problems, allergy to cows’ milk, stress, skin problems, stiff joints or just to keep fit and well. Horse milk strengthens the body, boosts the immune system and increases a person’s energy and vitality. In the case of metabolic disorders, it stimulates internal cleansing. A word of caution–people having allergies to horses should, of course, be very careful before drinking horse milk. Allergies to horses, horse hair and horse milk is an unfortunate reality for some.

During draft horse shows the public can see horse milking and even have a glass of the precious liquid. Horse milk is very close in composition to human milk except in fat and calories. Cows’ milk consists of 3.7% fat, while human milk is 3.5%. Horse milk, however, is just 1.25% fat, most of which is polyunsaturated (the “good” kind). Furthermore, horse milk contains just 44 calories per 100 grams (or 3.5273 oz.), compared to 64 for cows’ and 70 for human. Additionally, lactose (milk sugar) is higher in horse milk than in cow and human milk, as is albumin, the latter of which is very beneficial for improving digestibility. Analysis such as this provides only figures to ponder, but one thing is for certain–most people feel much better after drinking horse milk! Given that the industry results in happy and healthy customers, happy mares, happy foals and happy horse milkers, horse milk just may be a gift from heaven.

For more information about the de Brabander’s milking operation, visit their web site at www.horsemilkfarm.com.