Before & after,
Simple Surgery is the Kindest Cut of all
Ken Marcella, D.V.M.
Think seriously and extensively about letting a male horse remain
entire. Think especially seriously about owning a breeding
Most veterinarians and breed associations advise that only the
best animals should be kept for breeding purposes. Adequate
facilities and training are usual prerequisites to correctly
handling a stud. Some stallions can be worked and ridden like
other horses, but most exhibit more aggressive behavior and can
be unpredictable. Stallions are often kept by themselves because
they tend to be dominant over mares and geldings, and fights
often occur unless they are separated. This necessary separation
is the most difficult thing for animals that normally live in
When your cute little colt becomes a pawing, nipping, 800-pound
collection of testosterone, it's time to consider the "change of
life." Castration is one of the most common surgical procedures
performed in equine medicine.
Castrating at an early age makes sense because young colts are
easy to handle, the testicles are smaller and the incision can be
sutured closed. That means less swelling and a resultantly good
cosmetic appearance. Horses castrated in their weanling year do
not develop some of the musculature and neck and facial features
associated with stallions. These early geldings keep finer
features, thinner necks and lighter muscle mass, though they can
grow taller than they might if left entire.
Many castrations are performed on colts between one and two years
old, and due to the larger size of the testicles, the incisions
must remain open. Since open incisions are more susceptible to
fly irritation, spring and fall are the preferred times of the
year, before or after fly season. (In general, avoid extremes in
weather because they slow healing and can add to post-surgical
Veterinarians use two castration techniques. "Up" castrations are
done with the tranquilized horse standing. Additional anesthetic
is injected into the nerves of the testicular cords. The surgeon
stands near the horse, leans over and removes the testicle using
a special piece of equipment that cuts the cord, crimps and seals
the blood vessel and removes the testicle.
Horses are given a short-acting general anesthetic for "down"
castrations. The veterinarian usually ties up one of the horse's
hind legs and performs the surgery while kneeling over the prone
Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages and owners
should discuss the choices with their veterinarian. Neither
technique is universally better than the other.
A new technique using a clamp-like devise applied to the
testicular cord is being tested at the University of Georgia
Veterinary School. It is attached to a regular power drill. The
drill spins the clamp, which twists the cord until it breaks.
This technique effectively seals off the blood vessels. There
seems to be less swelling than in the standard procedures, with
no increase in complications.
Horses are generally born with their testicles in the scrotal sac
or they descend through a small hole or "ring" in the belly and
are in the sac shortly after birth. Occasionally, one or both
testicles will remain in the abdomen or only partially emerge
through the ring. These testicles may drop down at a later date;
some never descend.
A horse with undescended testicles is called a cryptorchid, and
general anesthesia and surgical exploration of the abdomen is
necessary to castrate successfully. New laproscopic techniques
utilize a long, thin camera and long, thin instruments inserted
into small incisions in the belly wall to perform the removal of
these retained testicles. This saves the horse from the stress of
opening the abdomen - and the resultant longer recovery.
Proper planning and care can increase the chances of a successful
There are many different terms for horses that have testicles in
other locations. Colts with testicles through the ring but not in
the sac are called ridgelings or rigs. A horse with a testicle
through the ring and under the skin of the upper thigh or groin
is called a high-flanker.
If the testicle is not completely removed, the horse will look
like a gelding but may still behave like a stallion. Small
remnants of certain testicular tissue can still produce the male
hormone testosterone and, while the resulting "gelding" cannot
reproduce, it may exhibit many typical stallion-like behaviors.
Such an improperly castrated horse is often called proud-cut.
Improper removal of all the testicles is not the only possible
complication of equine castration. In fact, there are many
potential problems related to this simple procedure. Castration
in the horse is one of the most common causes of litigation
against equine veterinarians.
Occasionally, the ring that the testicle drops through to get
into the scrotum is abnormally large. Once the testicle is
removed there is nothing blocking this hole and pieces of
intestines can drop into the hole and out the newly made
There are large blood vessels associated with the testicles and
bleeding can be a serious complication. Because the castration
incision must be left open to drain serum, except in very young
colts, infection is another common complication.
But for all these potential problems, thousands of castrations
are done each year, and most are uneventful. In fact, a routine
castration can seem so simple and uncomplicated that it is
sometimes easy to forget that problems can occur. Proper
planning, care and attention to surgical technique can increase
the chances that the procedure will be successful.
Horses are usually turned out in a small paddock following
castration and allowed to walk slowly as their anesthetic wears
off. Incisions should be monitored and kept clean and free of
flies. Cold water hosing may be recommended to help keep the
wounds open and draining.
It takes time for the levels of testosterone in the system to
drop. Some geldings may take a month or more before showing a
decrease in stallion-like behavior.
Consult an astrological chart before you castrate your colt?
Astrological prediction is more than two thousand years old, and
despite no scientific backing for its benefits, many 21st century
owners and breeders - even veterinarians - still take a look at
the Farmer's Almanac astrological timetable when planning
castrations. When a castration is done with the signs, there will
be less bleeding and swelling, they say.
According to these adherents, if you want to castrate a colt you
should look for a day when the moon is near Pisces and the signs
are in the legs.
Many equine (The Thoroughbred Times among others) and
agricultural magazines still publish monthly sign charts.
Astrological charts serve as a reminder of when myth and magic
governed our lives. But the fact that they survive - that so many
people still think about the signs before starting a project -
indicates the kind of hold myth and magic can have. Consult the
signs? Why take a chance, proponents argue.