One frequent question horse owners are asked by non-riders is “What is a gelding?”
Definition of Gelding: A gelding is a horse that has “been gelded” – the equine equivalent of the “neutering” procedure performed routinely on dogs and cats. A gelding horse is much calmer and easier to train than an ungelded stallion- who’s hormones can make them difficult to manage. Geldings often make excellent first horses and kids horses.
Some people choose when to geld a colt based on how they want the horse to grow. Theories conflict, however, on how gelding affects the maturing horse.
Some believe that, by definition, gelding a horse before sexual maturity redirects growth energy towards growing in height, while others insist that the hormonal changes experienced by stud-colts as they mature into adult stallions create better, more defined muscle tone and better-developed muscles at the crest of the neck.
Only horses that have been evaluated as healthy, sound mind, trainable, and well conformed should be allowed to remain stallions, particularly since stallions are significantly more difficult to handle, house, and care for. Read more about evaluating colds for stud horse candidates.
Stallions tend to develop thicker necks- a trait some find desirable
Geldings are popular mounts for riders who enjoy riding for pleasure or trail riding, and also are popular as show horses. Male horses resulting from breeding programs intended to produce racehorses or elite show horses are far less likely to undergo the gelding procedure, since these horses are ridden exclusively by professional riders who can handle stallion behavior and because, if successful, breeding these horses can be a way that horse farms make money.
The Gelding Operation
The definition of gelding surgery is the surgical removal of a horse’s testicles. The veterinary procedure of gelding a stallion is a moderately invasive procedure that is usually done under general anesthesia but can be done on a “farm call” by a vet who comes to the farm.
The gelding operation is a very common procedure but can have elevated risks if the horse has matured into an adult stallion. Complications such as colic, herniation, infection, or reactions to the anesthesia can occasionally make the operation fatal.
What’s the Female Horse Equivalent of Gelding?
When a female horse- a mare- is sterilized, it’s referred to by the same name used for dogs and cats: Spaying. However, spaying isn’t very common. Unlike what it’s like for gelding a horse, it is actually very dangerous for female horses to be spayed. Horses are very large animals who, because their health depends on their ability to move, stand, and walk, have relatively low rates of veterinary surgery survival compared to other mammals.
While the gelding surgery can be done under light anesthesia on a farm call, with a horse up and able to move within a few minutes to an hour after gelding surgery, when a mare is spayed the mare must be put under deep anesthesia in a special veterinary clinic with an operating room designed for large animals. When vets spay a mare, the entire uterus is removed and the operation is, as it is for female humans, a very invasive surgery that is more expensive and has a longer recovery time than gelding.
Are Female Horses Spayed?
Spaying female horses is possible but the practice is very uncommon.
Female horse spaying a surgery that is usually only performed when the mare has experienced life-threatening reproductive health issues or has hormonal cycles that make her difficult to ride or handle (for example, throwing riders when ridden while in heat or behaving violently towards other horses).
Spaying a mare is a very invasive surgery that requires that the horse be taken to a veterinary hospital with an equine operating room. The complexity and longer recovery time result in a significantly higher expense for spaying mares than for gelding male horses, and this expense contributes to the rarity of spayed female horses.
Typical Gelding Temperament
Although mares have their die-hard fans, and white mares in particular have a solid fanbase for their unique appearance, many riders prefer geldings. Research has determined that there is little if any consistent difference in the temperament of geldings vs mares, but rumors persist. Modern folklore about geldings a 2018 study in the Czech Republic found through a survey of 1,233 mostly-female and mostly-very experienced riders that beliefs about gelding temperament persist, stating:
“In a forced choice selection of a positive or negative descriptor from a series of nine paired terms to describe horse temperament, a greater proportion of respondents assigned geldings positive ratings on terms such as calm, trainable, reliable and predictable. In terms of suitability for the three equestrian disciplines of show-jumping, dressage and trail-riding, participants overwhelmingly chose geldings for trail-riding, with mares being least preferred for both dressage and show-jumping disciplines.”
This conflict in the research on horse genders including mares, geldings, and stallions tells us that riders generally prefer geldings- and trust geldings to be calmer, more predictable, and less temperamental than their female counterparts. Researchers concluded that this bias could have an impact on horse well-being and welfare- since “unchosen” mares might be more likely to be abused or neglected due to their lower perceived value.