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A gelding is a castrated animal — in English, the term specifically refers to a castrated male horse or other equine such as a donkey or a mule. As a verb, it also refers to the castration procedure itself. The word comes from the Old Norse geldr ("barren").[1] Castration, and the elimination of hormonally driven behavior associated with a stallion, allows a male horse to be calmer and better-behaved, making the animal quieter, gentler and potentially more suitable as an everyday working animal.



The Scythians are thought to have been the first people to geld their horses.[2][3] They valued geldings as war horses because they were quiet, lacked mating urges, were less prone to call out to other horses, were easier to keep in groups, and were less likely to fight with one another.

Famous geldings

Famous racehorse geldings include Red Rum and Desert Orchid, who raced in the ; Arkle, from Ireland; Phar Lap, who raced in Australia; and American geldings Exterminator, Kelso, Forego, John Henry, Lava Man, The Tin Man, 1985 Belmont Stakes winner Creme Fraiche, 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Funny Cide, his half brother Commentator, winner of the 2005 Whitney Handicap, and 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Famous geldings in movies and television include Mister Ed (Bamboo Harvester), and the two geldings that played the Lone Ranger's horse "Silver."

Reasons for gelding

A male horse is often gelded to make him better-behaved and easier to control. Gelding can also remove lower-quality animals from the gene pool.[4] Ideally, horse breeders choose to leave only their best animals as stallions; lesser specimens are gelded, to improve the overall quality of the breed.[citation needed]

To allow only the finest animals to breed on, while preserving adequate genetic diversity, it is recommended that only a small percentage of all male horses should remain stallions. Some sources place the percentage of stallions considered unacceptable breeding stock at about 90%,[5] while others would be more radical and state that only 0.5% should be bred.[6] In wild herds, the 10% ratio is largely maintained, though via a different mechanism, as a single stallion usually protects and breeds a herd of up to 10 or 12 mares, though may permit a less dominant junior stallion to live at the fringes of the herd.[7] There are more males than just herd stallions, but unattached male horses group together for protection in small all-male "bachelor herds," where, in the absence of mares, they tend to behave much like geldings.[8]

File:Win win relationship.JPG
Gelding a male horse can reduce potential conflicts within domestic horse herds.

Geldings are preferred over stallions for working purposes because they are calmer, easier to handle, and more tractable.[9] Geldings are therefore a favorite for many equestrians, especially amateurs. In many horse shows, due to the dangers inherent in handling stallions, which require experienced handlers, youth exhibitors (and occasionally women) are not permitted to show stallions in classes limited to just those riders.[10]

Geldings are often preferred over mares, because some mares become temperamental when in heat. Also, the use of mares may be limited during the later months of pregnancy and while caring for a young foal.

In horse racing, castrating a stallion may be considered worthwhile if the animal is easily distracted by other horses, difficult to handle, or otherwise not running to his full potential due to behavioral issues.[9] While this means the horse loses any breeding value, a successful track career can often be a boost to the value of the stallion that sired the gelding.

Sometimes a stallion used for breeding is castrated later in life, possibly due to sterility, or because the offspring of the stallion are not up to expectations, or simply because the horse is not used much for breeding, due to shifting fashion in pedigree or phenotype. Castration may allow a stallion to live peacefully with other horses, allowing a more social and comfortable existence.[11]

Under British National Hunt racing (i.e. Steeplechase) rules, to minimize the health and safety risk for horses, riders, and spectators, nearly all participating horses are geldings.[12] On the other hand, in Europe, geldings are excluded from many of the most prestigious flat races including the Classics and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.[13] In North American Thoroughbred racing, geldings, if otherwise qualified by age, winnings, or experience, are allowed in races open to intact males.

Reasons not to geld

To perpetuate any given breed, some male horses must remain capable of reproduction. Thus, animals considered to be the finest representatives are kept as stallions and used for mating. Though the criteria used can be, in some places, rather subjective, a stallion should have a superior appearance, or phenotype; a superior pedigree, or genotype, and, ideally, a successful performance record in the area of specialty for that particular breed.[citation needed]

Some cultures historically did not and still seldom geld male horses, most notably the Arabs.[14] These people usually used mares for everyday work and for war. In these cultures, most stallions are still not used for breeding, only those of the best quality. When used as ordinary riding animals, they are kept only with or near other male horses in a "bachelor" setting, which tends to produce calmer, less stallion-like behavior.[15] Sometimes there exist cultural reasons for these practices; for example, gelding of sacrificial animals was forbidden in the Old Testament.[16]

Gelding horses is generally approved of as a way to allow more horses to live comfortably and safely in close proximity to humans and other horses, and as an ethical means of population control, even within the animal rights community. However, a small number of horse owners are concerned that the process may cause pain for the animal or somehow lessen their vitality or spirit.[citation needed] While modern surgical procedures cause far less discomfort to the animal than more primitive methods, there is minor postoperative discomfort when the animal is in recovery.

Time of gelding

A horse may be gelded at any age; however, if an owner knows that he or she intends to geld a particular foal, it is now considered best to geld the horse prior to becoming a yearling,[17] and definitely before it reaches sexual maturity. While it was once recommended to wait until a young horse was well over a year old, even two, this was a holdover from the days when castration was performed without anesthesia and was thus far more stressful on the animal. Modern veterinary techniques can now accomplish castration with relatively little stress and minimal discomfort, so long as appropriate analgesics are employed.[18] A few horse owners delay gelding a horse on the grounds that the testosterone gained from being allowed to reach sexual maturity will make it larger. However, recent studies have shown that this is not so: any apparent muscle mass gained solely from the presence of hormones will be lost over time after the horse is gelded, and in the meantime, the energy spent developing muscle mass may actually take away from the energy a young horse might otherwise put into skeletal growth; the net effect is that castration has no effect on rate of growth (although it may increase the amount of fat the horse carries).[19]

Many older stallions, no longer used at stud due to age or sterility, can benefit from being gelded. Modern veterinary techniques make gelding of even a somewhat elderly stallion a fairly low-risk procedure,[20] and the horse then has the benefit of being able to be turned out safely with other horses and allowed to live a less restricted and isolated life than was allowed for a stallion.

Specialized maintenance of geldings

Owners of male horses, both geldings and stallions, need to occasionally check the horse's "sheath," the pocket of skin that protects the penis of the horse when it is not in use for urination (or, in the case of stallions, breeding).[21] This area may need to be cleaned, particularly in geldings. Not only can smegma, a waxy substance that includes dirt and dead skin cells, accumulate, but some geldings (and occasionally, stallions) may also form a "bean," a hardened ball of smegma inside the sheath or even the urethra that, in extreme cases, can interfere with urine flow. Although a gelding retains the same beneficial microorganisms in the sheath as a stallion, they seem to accumulate smegma and other debris at a higher rate, probably because geldings rarely fully extrude their penis, and thus dirt and smegma build up in the folds of skin.[21] Thus, it is recommended that the sheath be cleaned once or twice a year.[22] To clean the sheath, a specialized mild cleaner with grease-cutting properties is used, along with warm water and many clean (usually disposable) towels. Rubber gloves for the handler are recommended, as the job can be rather smelly and messy.[22]

Some horses object to sheath cleaning and require sedation, others will tolerate it if the groom is careful and patient, though light sedation may help the horse "drop" for easier cleaning.[21] Ideally, the horse will be desensitized by careful training to tolerate the procedure. To begin, a gentle stream of warm water is run into the sheath from a hose or a large, needleless syringe. This will loosen and soften some of the material and make it easier to remove.[21] The process requires either that the horse "drop" its penis or that the groom reach up inside of the sheath to pull the penis gently from the sheath by the glans (head) in order to apply cleaner and carefully clean the entire region.[21] The "bean" is often found in the urethral diverticulum, a pocket adjacent to the opening of the urethra, so that area must also be checked. While a veterinarian can clean a sheath, it is not a medical procedure and can be done by any person who learns the proper method.[23]

Castration techniques

File:Castration horse.jpg
An open castration being performed on a horse under ketamine anaesthesia
There are two major techniques commonly used in castrating a horse, one requiring only local anaesthesia and the other requiring general anaesthesia. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages.

Standing castration

Standing castration is a technique where a horse is sedated and local anaesthesia is administered, without throwing the horse to the ground or putting him completely "under." It has the benefit that general anaesthesia (GA) is not required. This method is advocated for simple procedures because the estimated mortality for GA in horses at a modern clinic is approximately 1–2/1000, and mortality in the field (where most horse castrations are performed) is probably higher, due to poorer facilities.[24]

For standing castration, the colt or stallion is sedated, typically with detomidine with or without butorphanol, and often physically restrained. Local anaesthetic is injected into the parenchyma of both testes. An incision is made through the scrotum and the testes are removed, then the spermatic cord is crushed, most commonly with either ligatures or emasculators, or both. The emasculators are applied for 2–3 minutes, then removed, and a careful check is made for signs of haemorrhage. Assuming that bleeding is at a minimum, the other side is castrated in the same manner. Most veterinarians will remove the testis that is held most "tightly" (or close to the body) by the cremaster muscle first, so as to minimise the risk of the horse withdrawing it to the point where it is inaccessible. The horse, now a gelding, is allowed to recover.

Standing castration can be performed in more complicated cases. Some authorities have described a technique for the removal of abdominally retained testes from cryptorchid animals,[25] but most surgeons still advocate a recumbent technique, as described below.[26] The other drawback to standing castration is the risk that, even with sedation and restraint, the horse may object to the procedure and kick or otherwise injure the individual performing the operation.[27]

Recumbent castration

Putting a horse under general anaesthesia for castration is preferred by some veterinarians because "surgical exposure is improved and it carries less (overall) risk for surgeon and patient."[28] For simple castration of normal animals, the advantages to recumbent castration are that the horse is prone, better asepsis (sterile environment) can be maintained, and better haemostasis (control of bleeding). In addition, there is significantly less risk of the surgeon or assistants being kicked. In addition, in a more complex situation such as castration of cryptorchid animals, the inguinal canal is more easily accessed. There are several different techniques (such as "open", "closed", and "semi-closed") that may be employed, but the basic surgery is similar. However, general anaesthesia is not without risks, including post-anaesthetic myopathy (muscle damage) and neuropathy (nerve damage),[29] respiratory dysfunction (V/Q mismatch), and cardiac depression.[30] These complications occur with sufficient frequency that castration has a relatively high overall mortality rate.[24] To minimize these concerns, the British Equine Veterinary Association guidelines recommend two veterinary surgeons should be present when an equine general anaesthetic is being performed.[31]


With both castration techniques, the wound should be kept clean and allowed to drain freely to reduce the risk of hematoma formation, or development of an abscess. The use of tetanus antitoxin and analgesics (painkillers) are necessary, and antibiotics are also commonly administered. The horse is commonly walked in hand for some days to reduce the development of edema.[32]

Possible complications

Minor complications following castration are relatively common, while serious complications are rare - according to one in-depth study, for standing castration the complication rate is 22%, while for recumbent castration it is 6% (although with a 1% mortality).[20] The more common are:

  • Post-operative swelling (edema) - minor and very common[33]
  • Scrotal/incisional infection - Local seroma/abscess formation is relatively common, when the skin seals over before the deeper pocket has time to seal. This requires re-opening the skin incision, typically with the use of antibiotics, but usually resolves quickly after this.[citation needed]
  • Peritonitis from bacteria entering the abdominal cavity through the cord is a rare complication.[citation needed]
  • Chronic infection leads to a schirrous cord - the formation of a granuloma at the incision site, that may not be obvious for months or even years[28]
  • Hemorrhage (bleeding) ranges from the relatively common and insignificant occasional drip to the uncommon but potentially life-threatening blood loss.[citation needed]
  • Evisceration (a condition where the abdominal contents "fall out" of the surgical incision - this is uncommon,[17] and while the survival rate is 85 - 100% if treated promptly, the mortality rate is high for those not dealt with immediately.[28]


  1. Thompson, D. F. (ed.) 1995. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. (9th edition.) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  2. Levine, M. A., Bailey, G.N. & Whitwell, K., et al. (2000). "Paleopathology and horse domestication: the case of some Iron Age horses from the Altai Mountains, Siberia" in G.N. Bailey, R. Charles & N. Winder (Eds.) Human Ecodynamics and Environmental Archaeology (pp. 123–33). Oxford: Oxbow.
  3. Parker, R.O. (2002). Equine Science. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning. ISBN 0766835316
  4. Rose, Reuben J. & Hodgson, David R. (2000). Manual of Equine Practice (2nd ed). Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, p. 371. ISBN 07-2168-665-6 & ISBN 978-07-2168-665-3
  5. Cherry Hill Horse Health [1], accessed 2150 13 July 2007
  6. Dabney, Ed. (date unknown). Stallions Aren't for Everyone. Gentle Horsemanship. Accessed July 18, 2007
  7. McCrory, Wayne P. (2002). Preliminary conservation assessment of the Rainshadow Wild Horse Ecosystem, Brittany Triangle, Chilcotin, British Columbia, Canada. Report for the Friends of Nemaiah Valley (FONV). Accessed July 17, 2007.
  8. Davies Morel, Mina C. G. (2003). "Stallion Management". Equine Reproductive Physiology, Breeding, and Stud Management. CABI Publishing. pp. 254. ISBN 0851996434. http://books.google.com/books?id=lUtXot0_h4oC&pg=PA254&dq=bachelor+herd+horse&lr=lang_en7Clang_es&ei=4msDSJX0HpvQswO3krE0&sig=3rX-cHfVD-2u_yW48u59E2yvE-8. Retrieved 2008-04-14. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bramlage, Larry R. DVM, MS (2003, May 29). Castration: Creation of a Gelding from a Colt or Stallion. American Association of Equine Practitioners:Newsroom. Accessed July 17, 2007.
  10. See, e.g., United States Equestrian Federation Rule Book, Accessed June 29, 2007 at http://www.equestrian.org , and Welsh Pony and Cob Society In-Hend and Under Saddle Showing Rules, Accessed 0830 29 June 2007 at http://www.wpcs.uk.com/society/showrules.html
  11. Hill, Cherry. "Horse Gelding and Aftercare." Accessed July 30, 2009
  12. Sporting World accessed 0900 29 June 2007 at [2]
  13. Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe [3] (accessed 1000, 5 July 2007), English language
  14. Wentworth Day Sport in Egypt (Pub 1938). See [4], accessed 2140 13 July
  15. Campfield, Jeremy (2007, June 25). Working with Morocco's Horses: Journey's End. The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Article # 9681. Accessed July 17, 2007.
  16. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities iv. 8, § 40; citing Leviticus 22:24.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Liphook Equine Hospital (2005). Fact Sheet: Castration. Accessed July 17, 2007.
  18. R Eager (2002) "Evaluation of pain and discomfort associated with equine castration" UFAW Publications
  19. Seong, PN; Lee, CE, and Oh, WY; et al. (2005). Effects of castration on growth and meat quality in finishing male Jeju horses. Journal of Animal Science and Technology 47.3:391–396.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Mason, BJ, Newton, JR & Payne, RJ, et al. (2005). Costs and complications of equine castration: a UK practice-based study comparing 'standing nonsutured' and 'recumbent sutured' techniques. Equine Veterinary Journal 37.5:468–472.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 "Cut Through Smegma." Horse Journal, August, 2007, p. 19-20.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Crabbe, Barb. (2000). Cleaning a horse's sheath. Equisearch.com. Reprinted from Horse & Rider, June, 2000. Accessed July 17, 2007.
  23. Harris, Patricia (1998). "Sheath Cleaning Without Fuss" from Horsequest.com. Web page accessed July 17, 2007.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Bidwell, Lori A., DVM; Bramlage, Larry R., DVM MS; and Rood, William A., DVM (2007). Equine perioperative fatalities associated with general anaesthesia at a private practice—a retrospective case series. Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia 34.1:23–30.
  25. Hanrath, M., and Rodgerson, D.H. (2002). Laparoscopic Cryptorchidectomy Using Electrosurgical Instrumentation in Standing Horses. Veterinary Surgery 31.2:117–124.
  26. Sedrish, Steven A. MS, DVM, Diplomate ACVS, and Leonard, John M. VMD (2001). How to Perform a Primary Closure Castration Using an Inguinal Incision. AAEP Proceedings 47:423–425. Accessed on July 17, 2007.
  27. Mair, Tim (1998). Equine Medicine, Surgery and Reproduction. Elsevier. pp. 167. ISBN 0702017256. 
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Searle, D, Dart, AJ & Dart, CM, et al. (1999). Equine castration: Review of anatomy, approaches, techniques and complications in normal, cryptorchid and monorchid horses. Australian Veterinary Journal 77.7:428–434, p. 430. Accessed July 17, 2007.
  29. Franci, P, Leece, EA & Brearley, JC (2006). Post anaesthetic myopathy/neuropathy in horses undergoing magnetic resonance imaging compared to horses undergoing surgery. Equine Veterinary Journal 38.6:497–501.
  30. Lyon Lee (2006) "Equine Anaesthesia", Centre for Veterinary Sciences, Oklahoma State University. Web site accessed June 28, 2007 at http://www.cvm.okstate.edu/courses/vmed5412/pdf/23EquineAnesthesia2006.pdf
  31. British Equine Veterinary Association guidelines, accessed June 11, 2007 at http://www.beva.org.uk/
  32. College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University Fact Sheet: Castration Concerns for the Equine Owner [5] (Accessed 1010, 5 July 2007)
  33. Railton, D (1999) "Complications associated with castration in the horse", In Practice 1999 21: 298–307

See also

  • Spaying and neutering (for animals)


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