Understanding Your Gelding and Using Common Sense When Cleaning His Sheath

Most of us ride geldings or mares because they are safer to handle than stallions. Geldings are preferred by some people over mares because geldings tend to be more mellow and predictable (emotions more on an even keel) compared to some mares that are “witchy” during their heat periods.

Riding a gelding for 4-H roping contest

Riding a gelding for 4-H roping contest

Geldings are preferred by some people over mares because geldings tend to be more mellow and predictable because their emotions are more on an even keel when compared to some mares.
© 2015 by Heather ThomasNew window.

Mental/temperament issues in geldings

Gelding a horse doesn’t automatically change an aggressive stallion into a mellow fellow, however. Each one is an individual. His mental attitude may be influenced by the age he was gelded. A horse gelded as a foal may have a different mindset than one gelded after he was mature and already breeding mares.

Also, castration does not completely eliminate production of testosterone because this hormone is produced in other areas than just the sex organs. Various individuals will have varying levels of this male hormone. This can affect behavior, causing some geldings to be more aggressive or “studdy.”

Oldtimers blamed this on being “proud cut” (failure to remove all the tissue involved with the gonads at the time of castration) but even with meticulous surgical removal some geldings retain some stallion-like behavior. This can also be the case if the horse is a cryptorchid (one testicle retained inside the body) and only the descended testicle has been removed.

The key to getting along with your gelding (and to have him get along with other horses) is to know him well, and manage him accordingly. Most geldings can live in a mixed gender group—mares and geldings—and get along fine.

Some are jealous and aggressive and may fight other geldings or cause too many problems within the herd. Some try to breed the mares when they are in heat, even though the gelding is not fertile. An overly aggressive, studdy gelding will cause less trouble if you keep him by himself.

What you should know about cleaning the gelding's sheath

Some geldings manage their whole lives without ever having the sheath cleaned, but others develop buildups of old secretions and dirt....

The sheath of a gelding may need cleaned occasionally. A dirty sheath, with build-up of debris from dirt and urine can lead to infection or urinary problems. Glands in the lining of the sheath produce a dark secretion (smegma). Sometimes these secretions build up and form a soft, wax-like deposit or dry hard flakes.

Some geldings manage their whole lives without ever having the sheath cleaned, but others develop buildups of old secretions and dirt (especially in a dusty environment), which can irritate the sheath and penis. If the sheath lining becomes irritated, soreness and swelling may make it hard for the gelding to let down his penis to urinate.

If the buildup is not periodically washed off, it may form a clay-like ball at the end of the penis. It accumulates in the urethral diverticulum--a small pocket just inside the urethra (the tube that carries the urine)--at the end of the penis. This ball, called a “bean,” will be lodged in this pocket just inside the opening of the penis. A bean can cause infection or interfere with passage of urine, if it becomes large. You can feel into the diverticulum with the end of your finger, to tell if there’s a bean in there.

If there is, it must be removed or it will get larger and interfere with urination. The horse might spray urine in an obstructed stream, or just dribble. Or he may start to urinate, then stop suddenly, due to the discomfort caused by the bean; he may try several times to urinate before he finishes. The bean can become as large as a walnut and can cause infection.

Did you know?

Another common cause of sheath swelling is parasites. Parasites also make horses’ tails itchy. So if you notice your horse rubbing his tail and he has a swollen sheath, the latter condition isn’t causing the former. Both can be cured by deworming with an ivermectin-containing product.

A small bean can be worked out with your finger, but a large one may be difficult, and painful to the horse. He may have to be tranquilized by your veterinarian so he will relax the penis and let it down, and won’t be resentful about the procedure.

A few horses develop beans regularly. These horses can be helped by regular cleaning to prevent the buildup. Some geldings need cleaning every few weeks; others get by with a thorough cleaning once or twice a year.

Still others have no problems even if their sheaths are never cleaned. Know your horse, and be able to help him if necessary. Look at your gelding’s penis when he lets it down to urinate; if there’s a buildup of dried flakes and scaly material all over its surface, he probably needs to be cleaned.

Sometimes a painful sheath and penis will cause a horse to show signs of colic if he needs to urinate but can’t. If painful beans cause constant discomfort, he may be cranky or seem to have a bad disposition--just because he is hurting.

If your otherwise friendly, easy-going gelding becomes grouchy, it may be a clue he’s hurting. The older the gelding, the more likely he has a painful buildup that needs to be washed out. A 2 or 3-year-old is less likely to have problems.

If your gelding needs periodic cleaning, get him accustomed to having sheath and penis handled for routine gentle cleaning. Then you can prevent major buildups and remove beans that start to form, before things get so bad that you need a veterinarian to assist.

Consider this

If your horse doesn’t relax enough to let down or refuses to stand still for the procedure, don’t resort to more forceful restraints, such as a twitch. This will just stimulate his fear mechanism, making it harder to clean his sheath in the future. Instead, ask your veterinarian to sedate him and perform the cleaning for you.

A gelding who has never had his sheath handled may be resentful. But if you make a habit of firmly rubbing the sheath and soft skin between his hind legs each time you brush and groom him, he will get over being ticklish. After he no longer resents handling in this area, you can try cleaning his sheath.

With your hand lubricated with mineral oil or soap lather, put your fingertips together and gently enter the sheath with your hand. If the inside surface feels dry and there are some hard, brittle deposits, squirt a little mineral oil or vegetable oil up into the sheath with a soft-tipped rubber syringe to help soften and loosen the debris.

If the sheath needs cleaning, use warm water and very mild soap, gently using your hand to scrub away debris inside the sheath. You can check for beans at the same time. When the penis is drawn up into the sheath, its tip will be at the very back of the sheath pouch. Stick your finger into the opening at the end of the penis and you will find a pocket all around the end of the penis; this is where beans form. You can gently probe with your fingertip, and if you find a small bean you can easily scoop it out while it is still soft and small. A large one won’t be as easy, and you may need veterinary help.

You can use a large syringe (30 to 60 cc.) without needle, to gently squirt warm water (and a little mild non-detergent soap) into the sheath. Apply Vaseline on the end of the syringe so it can be gently inserted without discomfort. Have a bucket of clean warm water for rinsing, squirting clean water in several times to wash all loose material out of the sheath and to make sure there is no soap residue.

Often you can clean the sheath without all this, if your gelding relaxes his penis after a ride. He may leave it down long enough for you to clean it gently and quickly with a soft, wet cloth. A few quick cleanings when you are grooming him after a ride may be enough to prevent serious buildup. It’s also a good time to check for beans, since the end of the penis is visible. A little care in this area can often prevent major problems later.

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To learn more about Heather Smith Thomas and her experiences with horses, read, Horse Tales: True Stories from an Idaho Ranch a delightful collection of stories comprising a beautiful memoir about a remarkable life with horses and a heartfelt glimpse into ranch life in rural Idaho.

Interested in cattle, as well as horses, learn more by reading The Cattle Health Handbook, an essential medical reference for farmers and ranchers confronting day-to-day bovine health issues by Heather Smith Thomas, an expert on livestock with decades of first-hand experience. It covers every routine situation — and many not-so-common problems — likely to arise on a cattle ranch or dairy farm.