Like most animals, horses have two general gender classifications: male and female. Male adult horses are referred to as stallions, while female adult horses are referred to as mares. There is a third classification that you’ll find commonly used in the equine world as well: the gelding.
What is a gelding horse? It is a male horse that has been castrated. Geldings can refer to adult male donkeys or mules as well.
Many horses, especially purebreds, are evaluated for their conformity and performance to determine if they meet breed standards. If they score high in these evaluations, then they’ll be permitted to contribute to the diversity of the breed. If they do not score high, then breeding rights are withdrawn.
Unless there is an expectation that a male horse will be or has a good chance to be used for breeding, it should be castrated as soon as possible. Male colts can be gelded before their first birthday. All that is required is a descending of the testicles into the scrotum.
History of Gelded Horses
Gelding is a procedure that has been carried out for thousands of years. Some of the first written works that describe gelded horses come from Aristotle. His writings are dated around 350 BC.
The Scythians are thought to have gelded their horses as well and it is thought that this civilization may have been the first to emphasize this procedure with their herds. The Scythians noted that gelded horses were calmer on the battlefield. They were less prone to call out to other horses, allowing for a strategic attack.
Geldings were also easier to keep in groups since they were less likely to fight each other.
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How Are Horses Gelded?
The gelding procedure is rather simple. Many horses can be treated with what is called a “standing castration.” The horse is given a local anesthesia and is sedated. Then a small incision allows the testicles, a portion of the spermatic cord, and the epididymis to be removed.
Only a veterinarian is permitted to carry out this procedure. In most instances, the veterinarian can come to the horse to perform the procedure, but some may require a visit to the local clinic.
Caring for the horse after the procedure is fairly straight-forward. The incision area must be kept clean. The horse should rest, but still be permitted to have light, supervised exercise. It is not unusual for owners or handlers to hand-walk horses after they have been gelded for the first week. It’s a good opportunity to look at the incision site to see if there are signs of swelling.
Antibiotics are usually prescribed to proactively prevent an infection setting in after the surgery. Some owners may need to implement a fly-control procedure to keep the area clean while the horse recovers.
Most horses recover from being gelded without any complication. Infection or having the incision open are the two most common complications that are seen.
It usually takes 3-4 weeks for the horse to heal normally from the gelding procedure. It may take another 3-4 weeks for the testosterone levels in the horse to reduce so the behaviors of the horse are impacted.
Although gelding is considered to be a permanent procedure, in some instances, it may be possible to reverse it. Some geldings only have their cord and testicle connections severed, not removed, so repairing the cord can restore the horse to full stallion status. Although rare, there are several documented instances where this has been successfully accomplished.
Geldings are often reversed to reduce a severe bottleneck within a breed.
Unless there is a complete removal of the reproductive components, a gelding has a very small chance of producing offspring still.
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Why Should Gelding Be Done Early?
Stallions can also be gelded, but the results are not always the same. Once the horse is castrated, there is a change in the hormones that are produced within the horse’s body. They tend to be more even-tempered after being gelded, especially when it occurs at a young age. If older horses are gelded, they may retain some of the unwanted stallion behaviors because their bodies were exposed to a surge of testosterone.
Gelding early can also change the development profile of the horse. Once high levels of testosterone are produced, stallion characteristics, such as a crested neck, begin to develop. Gelding can stop this process.
The lack of testosterone that occurs with gelding can also stop aggressive or dominant behavior from developing within the horse. Most geldings are not interested in the act of breeding, which limits behavioral confrontations that can be dangerous to horses, handlers, or their owners.
Gelding a horse can also prevent mood swings that come with the seasonal changes. Horses are a herd animal, so there are certain months where they have an urge to be free and roam. Once gelded, those seasonal urges are reduced. That makes them easier to ride and handle, making it a safer choice of horse for those who are just beginning to learn horsemanship.
Because a gelding horse cannot procreate, there is never a worry about having unwanted offspring. It allows the best horses to be kept for breeding without diminishing the individualized value of each horse.
Why Should Gelding Be Done Late… If at All?
Gelding early can minimize behavioral issues with male horses and lower the risk of problems developing with a home herd. The benefits of a calmer horse come at the cost of having a horse that doesn’t have the same levels of athletic prowess and impact.
For owners who are looking for a horse with stallion-like qualities, but don’t want to take on the risk of an unintended pregnancy, gelding later in the horse’s life can be beneficial. The horse will retain the stature developed before he was gelded while losing the ability to produce offspring.
Gelding a horse early in its life can also change the growth profile of the horse. It is not unusual for gelded horses to grow taller if the procedure occurs early in life compared to later in life.
Some horses also suffer from a condition called “cryptorchidism.” These horses are called “rigs.” Although they are gelded, it is only a partial gelding because only one testicle descended. Rigs are sometimes able to produce offspring and will often retain many stallion-like qualities. To be a full gelding, a second procedure would be required. This can be avoided when male horses are gelded later in life instead of in their early years.
What is a gelding horse? It is a good option for anyone getting to know a horse for the first time. Many geldings are friendly, affable, and easy keepers – no matter what their breed may be. That is why they are recommended for beginners.