The decision to geld or keep a colt entire is one many owners will one day make when they breed or buy a young male horse. So why geld (otherwise known as castrate) your colt?
Here are some questions you need to ask yourself:
What is the future for the colt – will he be a riding horse for pleasure or performance?
You will need to be a highly skilled horseperson to ride a stallion amongst other horses for pleasure or performance and if your intention is not to breed, then a gelding will be much more pleasureable to keep.
What is his conformation and temperament like?
A colt is of no benefit to horse breeding if he doesn’t have an amenable temperament or correct conformation ie: no physical faults. There’s a saying that goes ‘A good colt makes a great gelding’.
Does he have proven bloodlines that are worth preserving? I know you can’t ride a pedigree but there are lines proven for certain types of perfomance, eg. endurance, jumping etc. so only keep him a colt if he has useful bloodlines that will be sought after, otherwise he will not attract breedings and it will be harder to sell his progeny.
Can you offer him quality of life if he’s kept as a stallion? This is the most important consideration from the horse’s point of view. A life of solitary confinement in his own paddock, yard or stable is akin to us being confined alone in our house, lounge room or toilet for the rest of our lives. If you can’t offer a stallion constant equine company and room to move then you will have to deal with all the behaviour problems that come as a result of unused energy, hormones and equipment! Please consider the future life of a colt as a stallion before you keep him that way.
Will injury keep him from being more than a companion gelding? Sometimes, if a colt is badly injured as a youngster, and the prognosis for performance is poor, then you may want to wait a couple of years before you geld him. That way you can see if youthful healing will help, and whether the injury will stand up to the work he gets as a riding horse. Even then, if he can’t be a performance horse, all the other factors must be weighed up as life being a frustrated stallion would be much worse than a companion gelding lounging around the pasture.
What is the best age to geld? Once you have taken into account all these factors and made your decision to geld (hopefully within the first two months of age) then you need to decide at what age it’s best to operate?
Any colt can be gelded from as early as a week old, provided he has both testicles descended and if you can find a vet willing to geld that young. Many vets prefer to wait until the colt is several months old as they feel they will handle the anaesthetic better.
Some vets will perform a castration under sedation with just the scrotum anaesthetised and this would be preferable for very young colts.
In the past though, it was more common to leave a colt until at least two years old before he was gelded. This most likely became the accepted age because that’s when a colt’s behaviour can become a problem around other horses.
On the other had, a stallion can be gelded at almost any age, but the stress on the horse and risk of complications increases with age.
The benefits of gelding young. Many owners are now gelding colts younger for good reasons; most importantly, they realise that the smaller the testicles, the smaller the operation and the easier it is on the horse.
Another step in the right direction is to geld a colt before weaning. While he’s still nursing he will not only have the comfort of his dam, but he will move around more and that reduces the risk of excessive swelling and therefore infection.
Another benefit of gelding young is that behaviour generally doesn’t become a problem and if your colt is running in a herd of mixed sexes, then you don’t risk an un-wanted foal. A colt can sire a foal as young as twelve months of age if he’s healthy and has a willing partner!
Possible problems. Sometimes owners worry that gelding at a young age will slow development and growth. Yes, this can happen when a colt is gelded during a growth spurt, usually between one and two years old, but if gelded before a year old, they often grow taller than expected.
An early gelded colt will also have a finer neck and more uniform body muscling while a mature gelded colt or stallion (after the age of 4 to 6) will have a thicker, crestier neck and heavier muscling. They may also develop sexual or stallion behaviours which sometimes equate to vices such as biting, rearing, self mutilation (out of frustration) and excitable behaviour around other horses, and even the ability to serve mares (without being a cryptorchid commonly known as a rig).
If your colt doesn’t have two descended testicles, you will need to wait for them to both descend, and if they haven’t by the age of two, it will mean a major operation to find and remove the un-descended testical. For info on cryptorchidism click here.
The time of year will dictate when best to geld your colt. It’s better done when the weather is cooler without being freezing, and the flies have gone. Mid to late autumn usually has the best weather and allows the colt to recover before winter sets in.
Preparation for the big day. So now you’ve decided when, it’s time to prepare well ahead of the operation date. Ideally you’ve been handling and touching your colt all over (including between the back legs) since birth.
If you haven’t, then at least a month before gelding, the colt will need to be educated to being caught, accept a halter, to lead and have it’s whole body touched. It’s also helpful to get him used to being sponged with water and hosed gently, especially around and between the back legs in case major swelling or infection after operation needs to be treated.
It goes without saying that your colt will also need to accept strangers (such as the vet) close to them and you can even simulate giving an injection by pressing the neck with a hard object such as a hoof pick. Remember to do this for short sessions and your aim is to have him standing in a quiet relaxed manner. It’s helpful to have a ‘horsey’ friend the colt hasn’t met, to visit and test his reaction to strangers prior to the vet coming.
It’s also wise to organise enough helpers for the big event – a handler for the mare and one for the colt is ideal.
Before you book the vet, check the long range weather forecast as it’s better to keep him outside after the operation (for movement and to reduce the chance of infection) and a spell of wet weather will only reduce his desire to move.
Make sure your colt is healthy and well – it’s not a good idea to geld a sickly or otherwise injured colt.
On the day of the operation, move the colt and his mum to a clean paddock so risk of infection is minimised when the colt lays down. The site of the operation should ideally be a clean, flat grassed area (shaded if it’s warm) and free of objects the colt could stumble into when recovering from the anaesthetic.
Other horses from their herd should be kept nearby but out of the operating area.
It’s helpful to have them all relaxed and settled in their surroundings well before the vet arrives so get them in a few hours beforehand and provide a feed of hay, making sure water is also close by.
When the vet arrives, halter both mare and colt and keep the mare close but out of the way while the vet does the operation. He may ask for assitance to hold a leg or keep an eye on the breathing monitor so choose someone who isn’t squeamish to handle the colt. The vet will generally give the colt a tetanus injection and an antibiotic after the castration.
After the operation, keep the mare and colt haltered until he is standing and walking well, and able to nurse again. If something frightens him while he’s under the effect of the sedation, he may hurt himself accidently by running into something. It would be kinder to have the mare and colt seperate from the other horses for a few hours to overnight providing they aren’t stressed by this, so the colt has time to recover from the operation a little before having to get out of anyone’s way or play with other youngsters.
Then it’s important for him to have plenty of natural movement (not enforced fast exercise) to help the wounds stay open and drain.
Keep a close eye on him for the first twelve hours after the operation and call your vet right back if you notice continual bleeding (it should have slowed to the odd drip within the first hour), or anything protruding from the wounds – that could indicate a herniation of the gut.
For the next two weeks after the operation you will need to check the scrotum with scrubbed clean or gloved fingers for excessive swelling, bleeding or (hopefully not) infection every day. By running your finger along the wound gently, you can help keep the wound open a little so it continues to heal from the inside first.
If the area seems to be overly swollen then gentle sponging twice a day with luke warm lightly salty water will help remove scabs that could be stopping drainage of the wound. There should be clear to yellowy-red serum dripping from the wound if all is normal. If you notice creamy pus oozing then call the vet to check if it has become infected. If so, there will be injections to give and washing the wound daily.
Gelding a stallion or older colt: If you are gelding a sexually mature colt or stallion, remember that it takes a couple of months for hormonal activity to stop and sexual behaviour to moderate so keep him separate from fillies or mares at this time. Semen is also stored in a resevoir that is not removed during the operation so impregnation may occur for up to a month after gelding.
It’s possible some may view a castration operation as the ‘un-kindest’ cut, but for a horse, gelding is the ‘kindest cut’ you can give him for a better future, hopefully with lots of interaction with other horses and people.
For more information on gelding visit Cherry Hill’s Horsekeeping web site here.