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Pets Large & Small

Vets vs Guys

Dr. Kim Brokaw DVM

(March, 2011) With spring just around the corner, it is the start of castration/gelding season. Our editor (Mike) warned me against writing about this topic. Apparently guys find the thought of women cutting off testicles a bit intimidating. Even the instrument has an intimidating name, the emasculator. However, it is an important topic to address.

There are numerous unique traditions and folklore associated with castration such as only cutting on a waning moon and throwing the testicles onto the barn roof. If the testicles stick to the roof, the horse will be a fast runner. If they fall off, he will be slow. While I certainly have no objection to castrating a horse on a waning moon, the most important part is to work with the horse and get him castrated at an early age. Most of the barns I go to have horses whose owners work with them everyday. The horses are fed, brushed, and interacted with multiple times per day and get used to obeying humans and trusting them. In these horses the surgery usually goes very smoothly. I heavily sedate the horse, but keep him standing up as opposed to lying down under general anesthesia. The procedure is quick and with the addition of a local numbing agent, hopefully relatively painless. I can usually sedate and castrate a horse in less than half an hour. Howís that for a pick-up line for a first date?

I have also gotten called out to the occasional farm where the stallion is feral and has been running around breeding mares for the past 5 years. Now, the owner wants him castrated. Just by nature of the horse being older, the surgery is going to be more difficult and higher risk for complications. The closest I have come to getting seriously injured by a horse involved the castration of a minimally handled six year old draft cross. While I had him sedated so much that he could barely stand he was still able to forcefully kick my scrub bucket out of my hand. After that, I decided that it would be best to put him under general anesthesia. Due to his size he was harder to drop in an appropriate location and ended up going down half in and half out of the barn aisle. While the surgery went smoothly, the recovery from anesthesia was going to be more difficult. I instructed my assistant and the owner that if the former stallion did anything other than get to his feet and walk calmly into the stall, they were to run out of the barn. Luckily I was able to hold his halter, get him to his feet, and get him safely into a stall, while they ran out of the barn.

It wasnít much after that horse that I got called to do another castration. The stallion, who we shall call Kick, had been living in a 20 acre field for the past several years. He had several crops of foals on the ground. Recently, Kick, had taken to kicking his owners, so they gave him away. His new owner called me and wanted to get him castrated. I had only been in practice for about six months so I assumed certain things. For example, I assumed that if someone called me out to their farm to castrate their adult horse, he would have been handled routinely by people. If there was an unusual situation, such as they could barely get within 5 feet of him, that would be something the owner would mention on the phone. Shortly after arriving on the farm, I realized that was not the case. This is my recollection of the encounter.

  • Me: Hello. Can you tell me a little about Kick?
  • Owner: Well Kick was given to me and I am hoping that castrating will calm him down.
  • Me: Has he received any veterinary care in the past?
  • Owner: No because we canít touch him.
  • Me: Where is he now?
  • Owner: In the field. We are hoping you could sedate him so we could get a halter on him.

The problem with this is that I do not own a tranquilizer gun. I explained to the owner that usually I like to do a physical exam and at least listen to the horseís heart before I sedate him for the surgery. I knew that I was not going to get a physical exam and truthfully would be lucky if I could get close enough to inject some sedatives into his muscle. I discussed the increased risks associated with castration in this horse. A possible sedative reaction, bleeding out as they had nowhere to confine him afterwards, and other operative complications were not unlikely. As Kick was barely handleable he would require general anesthesia so there was also an added risk of breaking his leg in recovery. The owner said that they understood the increased risk and were willing to take it. They also informed me that if we were unsuccessful in getting him castrated his old owner was going to shoot him. That put a little more pressure on in that now I knew I had to somehow catch this horse, sedate and castrate him, or he was going to be shot and killed.

Kick was bribed with food and we were able to get him close to the fence. I had already decided that for safety reasons we were all going to try and avoid going into the field with him until after he had some sedatives in his system. The food worked well and we were able to give him an injection of sedatives in the muscle. This slowed him down enough that more sedatives could be given IV, which was then followed by administration of medications to induce general anesthesia. Kick lowered to the ground easily. I quickly scrubbed, blocked, and removed his testicles. In addition to the usual crushing method to prevent bleeding, I also sutured the blood vessels. I knew that chances of being able to touch this horse again after he woke up was slim to none, and I was going to take every precaution to avoid bleeding. The surgery went smoothly, now it was time for the tricky part of recovery. Frequently I will hold the halter and help the horse to his feet. This time, I knew my presence would hinder rather than help the situation. Instead I opted to just let him stand up on his own and hoped for the best. While he did stagger and stumble when getting to his feet, he didnít take any bad falls and recovered well. A couple years have gone by and I still see him out in his field when I drive by.

Sometimes, even a high risk situation such as gelding a feral, unhandled, horse turns out well. More often, it doesnít work out smoothly. So please get your youngsters gelded before they become unmanageable. Iíd be delighted to come out and geld your well handled youngsters. If you have a 5 year old stallion who kicks, bites, strikes out, and canít be caught, Iíd be delighted to give you the phone numbers of some of the other local vet practices.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw