AskDefine | Define gelding

Dictionary Definition

gelding n : castrated male horse

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See geld, Etymology 2.



  1. a castrated male horse
  2. any castrated male animal
  3. a eunuch


castrated male horse
castrated male animal
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Extensive Definition

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. The word comes from the Old Norse geldr ("barren"). 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.

Geldings as war horses

Geldings were once prized by classical steppe warriors as war horses because they were quiet; without mating urges, they were less prone to call out to other horses, easier to keep in groups, and less likely to fight with one another. These qualities are still valued today, particularly on modern cattle ranches where working horses are commonly kept in groups and also need to be ready to go at a moment's notice.

Famous geldings

Famous racehorse geldings include Red Rum and Desert Orchid, who raced in the UK; 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, and the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, Funny Cide as well as his half brother, winner of the 2005 Whitney Handicap, Commentator. Famous geldings in movies and television include Mr. 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 also removes lower-quality animals from the gene pool. Horse breeders choose to leave only their best animals as stallions; lesser specimens are gelded, to improve the overall quality of the breed.
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%, while others would be more radical and state that only 0.5% should be bred. 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. 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.
Geldings are preferred over stallions for working purposes because they are calmer, easier to handle, and more tractable. Geldings are therefore a favorite for many equestrians, especially amateurs. In many horse shows, due to the dangers inherent in handling stallions, requiring experienced handlers, youth exhibitors (and occasionally, women) are not permitted to show stallions in classes limited to just those riders.
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. 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.

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. A particularly fine horse that is gelded may remove outstanding traits from the gene pool, an issue that occasionally is raised when a gelding does particularly well, such as when Funny Cide won the 2003 Kentucky Derby.
Hesitation to geld a horse may occur out of concern that a gelding, once past its athletic prime, will be of no economic value for anything but the horsemeat market; whereas a stallion can be used for breeding purposes even if injured or too old to be athletically competitive. However, the consideration of whether a male horse is of a quality suitable for breeding stock must not be overlooked. Furthermore, though some nations have an active horsemeat industry, many geldings are actually retired to pasture and allowed to live out a normal lifespan.
Some cultures historically did not and still seldom geld male horses, most notably the Arabs. 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. Culled males are often sold away to other cultures, some of which lack the cultural taboos against gelding horses, while others simply slaughter them for horsemeat. Gelding was not practiced by the ancient Israelites and was forbidden in the Bible.
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, some individuals are concerned that the process may cause pain for the animal or somehow lessen their vitality or spirit. 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. Gelding a horse does not reduce its athletic potential or strength, but the reduced aggressiveness of the animal may be viewed as a minus in some competitive endeavors.

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, 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. 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).
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, 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 allowable 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). 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. 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.

Castration techniques

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." 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), respiratory dysfunction (V/Q mismatch), and cardiac depression. These complications occur with sufficient frequency that castration has a relatively high overall mortality rate.


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 (UK: oedema).

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).
  • 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.
  • Peritonitis from bacteria entering the abdominal cavity through the cord is a rare complication.
  • 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
  • Hemorrhage (bleeding) ranges from the relatively common and insignificant occasional drip to the uncommon but potentially life-threatening blood loss.
  • Evisceration (a condition where the abdominal contents "fall out" of the surgical incision - this is uncommon, and while the survival rate is 85 - 100% if treated promptly, the mortality rate is high for those not dealt with immediately.


See also

gelding in Danish: Vallak
gelding in German: Wallach
gelding in French: Hongre
gelding in Dutch: Ruin
gelding in Japanese: せん馬
gelding in Norwegian: Vallak
gelding in Polish: Wałach
gelding in Russian: Мерин
gelding in Finnish: Valakka
gelding in Swedish: Valack

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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