Nothing in the horse world is quite straightforward. Instead of calling the different aged horses simply “foals” and “adults”, we went and complicated things by adding “colt”, “filly”, “mare”, “gelding” and “stallion” to the mix.
Although I can probably write an entire dictionary on horse terms, I’ll stick to answering any questions about geldings in this article.
But first, let’s get to the most obvious answer to “What is a gelding?”.
A gelding is a male horse that has been castrated – similar to how you neuter a male dog. He can no longer be used for breeding purposes and is typically a much calmer and nicer horse to ride.
There is much more to a gelding than that basic definition, so keep reading to find out the history of the practice and why racehorses often undergo this procedure.
Defining a Gelding Horse
As I mentioned, a gelding is a male horse that has been castrated. Before the gelding procedure, he was considered a stallion.
A young horse is typically gelded before it turns a year old. Once the horse is over a year, it becomes feisty because of testosterone – it will fight other male horses, be a bit aggressive, and be downright stubborn.
Of course, not all stallions are rude like that, so I am generalising here. However, not all geldings are wonderful, calm-riding horses, either.
But, usually, a gelding is much easier to train, handle and ride.
Geldings versus Stallions
So, how does castration affect our horses?
Well, again these are just general statements, as each horse is a little bit different from the next. But, geldings tend to grow a bit taller than stallions. They are much calmer and do not exhibit stallion-like behaviours.
Stallions are able to reap the positive (and negative) benefits of testosterone for much longer, and some believe they are much more muscular because of this.
Some riders don’t enjoy riding mares during their heat cycles when they can become a bit moody, and a gelding is a much wiser choice for riders who do not want to deal with temperamental horses.
Of course, in wild herds, the male horses remain stallions, but their environment allows it. Today it’s rare to find a domesticated stallion being turned out with other stallions or geldings. Being un-castrated means your horse will mostly live a solitary life.
Why Do We Geld a Horse?
Most of us find it relatively simple to control a horse. We simply pull on the reins to stop it, give it a squeeze to get it going, slip on a halter after a ride, and lead our horse to where we want it to go.
What we take for granted is that a horse is 500 to 1,000 kgs of muscle and bone.
Get yourself an ill-mannered stallion, and suddenly you will not have such an easy time riding and leading your horse.
And that is the main reason why we geld a horse.
I’ve visited stables before where stallions come with their own set of rules. Only certain people are allowed to interact with them, only certain horses can be stabled near them, and don’t even think you can ride him past the mares’ paddock.
By removing the testicles and reducing the testosterone levels in a male horse, you are left with a calmer and more manageable horse that is great for beginner riders.
History of Gelding Horses
Perhaps I’m slightly biased because I find all things about horses rather fascinating, but the history of gelding is very interesting.
Let me first draw the attention of Lord of the Rings fans: remember the riders of Rohan that dominated the planes on horseback, and had a somewhat startled-looking white horse on their flags?
J.R.R. Tolkien based these fearless riders on the Scythians, a culture that lived in Central Asia between the 9th and 7th centuries BC. These horse experts wanted well-behaved war horses that could be kept together in large groups, and so they gelded their stallions.
Aristotle also mentioned geldings in his writings in 350 BC, so safe to say this practice has been going on for thousands of years.
Why are Racehorses Gelded?
If stallions have more muscle and a will to fight, then why are our top racehorses gelded?
It’s a good question, especially if you consider that owners would want their winning racehorses to be able to produce offspring that are even faster – and make a lot of money from breeding them.
So why forgo all this cash by gelding your horse?
Firstly, as I mentioned, stallions are not exactly the easiest horses, and racehorses need to be well-trained and relatively well-mannered riding horses.
Stallions are not banned from horse racing, but there are some races where only geldings, or only stallions, are allowed to compete.
When it comes to breeding racehorses, stud colts are usually kept on stud farms where they become full-fledged stallions. Their offspring are then gelded and used for racing. If the offspring performs well, it reflects on the stud, who can then earn its keep by producing more star racehorses.
The Gelding Procedure
Gelding a horse is quite straightforward, and a vet will perform the gelding operation at the stables.
The horse is sedated (no one wants a kick in the face), and either local (for standing castration) or general anaesthesia (for lying down) is administered.
The testicles, epididymis and some of the spermatic cord are then removed. This is all done through a small incision. The actual operation only takes about 15 minutes, and your horse will be mostly recovered from the anaesthesia within 45 minutes.
Caring for a gelded horse
As it’s such a minor procedure, caring for your gelded horse is also quite straightforward.
You might need to give it some antibiotics to keep infections at bay and keep the incision clean.
Your horse can undergo some light exercise during the recovery period; just a short walk will do. You’ll notice that the effects of the male hormones tend to subside within a couple of weeks, leaving you with a happy, healthy and huggable horse.
Controversy Surrounding the Practice
Not everybody supports the act of gelding, although there really aren’t any disadvantages to the practice, apart from not being able to use your horse for breeding purposes.
Still, some cultures don’t geld their horses.
Arabs have traditionally used mares as war horses or working horses. Stallions were kept apart from the main herd, and only the top males were used for breeding.
Jewish law prohibits the castration of any animals, and therefore there are no geldings in Jewish societies either.
What is the Gelding Equivalent for Female Horses?
When a female horse is sterilised, it’s called spaying.
However, where gelding is a common procedure, spaying of female horses is incredibly rare. Spaying is a very invasive procedure where the entire uterus is removed in a vet clinic. It’s only done in instances where the horse’s health depends on it or when the mare is aggressive towards other horses and people due to hormone imbalances.
A female horse can become moody and unruly during her heat cycle, but that is never a good reason for spaying. It can have long-term health impacts and long recovery times, and is very expensive.
What happens when a horse gets gelded?
Male horses are considered gelded when they are castrated. Their testicles, epididymis and a portion of the spermatic cord are surgically removed.
Can a gelded horse still breed?
No, gelded horses cannot be used for breeding and are no longer fertile. Both of the horse’s testicles, as well as the supporting structures, are completely removed.
What is the best age for gelding a horse?
Colts should be gelded after three months but before they are one year old. The earlier you geld a colt, the better. Otherwise, it might start acting aggressively towards other horses and learning some bad behaviours.
Can a stallion and a gelding live peacefully together?
On rare occasions, yes, but it’s generally not recommended. Stallions can be aggressive towards other males and are best kept with mares and foals. Geldings can be kept together with other geldings or mares, as their temperament is calmer than that of a stallion.