To Geld or Not to Geld

Most horse owners who have found themselves with a really fine colt in their barn have faced this dilemma: Geld him or keep him as a stallion?

It's tempting to envision raking in those stud fees. And there's a certain romantic appeal in the idea of having a proud stallion. But the reality is that there are only so many true genetic superstars.

For the vast majority of colts, gelding is the kinder option. The process of gelding (castration) leads to fewer handling headaches for owners because geldings are more even-tempered and less combative than their unaltered brethren. Many horses perform better in the show ring, on the trail or at the racetrack as geldings without the distraction of raging testosterone.

The decision to geld a colt is an individual one, but here are some facts about the surgery and its consequences.

What is Gelding?

One of the most commonly-performed equine surgeries, gelding has been practiced for at least 2,000 years. The procedure, which removes the testicles – the major source of testosterone, the hormone that stimulates male sexual behavior – will prevent a horse from reproducing and reduce or eliminate his aggressive tendencies.

That's not to say that every gelding becomes sexually inert. Studies have estimated that up to 50 percent of geldings retain some element of sexual behavior, though it's usually subtle – a tendency to herd other horses around, or become unusually attached to a mare. This may happen because although the testes are the major testosterone-producing glands, a small amount of testosterone also comes from the adrenal glands.

When Should You Geld?

The ideal age to geld a colt has always been a matter of debate. It can be performed as early as a few days after birth or several years later. The most common time frame, however, is in a colt's yearling year, when sexual behavior begins to surface.

Technically, there is no reason not to geld a young colt. Gelding well before puberty means your horse usually will not develop sexual behaviors and habits. It also may be less traumatic for the horse because there is less tissue to remove and a smaller incision.

How Is It Done?

One of the simplest of equine surgeries, castration usually is performed on the farm, with the help of mild sedation and a local anesthetic. The veterinarian will make two parallel incisions over the length of each testicle; sever the caudal ligament that attaches the testes to the body, and the spermatic cord, which delivers sperm from the testes to the penis, and remove the testes and the epididymus (the tube where sperm is stored) from each scrotal sac. The procedure usually takes less than 10 minutes. The incisions are left open to drain.

Occasionally, if there's a handling risk in doing the surgery standing, or if the procedure is likely to be more complicated (as it may be with a mature stallion), gelding can be performed with the horse anesthetized, lying on his side.

Recovering From the Surgery

Recovery usually is uncomplicated. Cold hosing and gentle exercise – hand walking or turnout in a grassy pasture – are the best ways to keep the incisions draining properly and to minimize the inevitable swelling. Some veterinarians also prescribe oral phenylbutazone for a few days to help ease the horse's discomfort and/or systemic antibiotics. It's important not to let the wounds close prematurely. Bacteria and inflammatory fluids trapped inside the cavity could cause rampant infection.

Though most new geldings won't produce viable sperm after one week, it's wise to keep them isolated from mares for at least 3 to 4 weeks.

Look for the following signs that post-surgery complications have developed:

Much has been made of the idea that some geldings are "proud cut" – the idea being that some vestige of the testicular tissue has been left behind, resulting in a gelding that acts "macho." But in practice, it's virtually impossible to leave some testicular tissue behind because testes are self-contained structures. Most researchers agree the "proud cut" gelding is largely a myth.