Written by: Dr. Nora Chavarria
Is sheath cleaning really necessary?
While sheath cleaning is an important aspect of care for male horses, it may not be required as frequently for some animals as it is for others. Generally, once or twice a year will suffice. It’s a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your horse’s sheath and penis during a routine wellness check or dental exam to determine how frequently it’s needed. If your horse is sedated for a procedure, like teeth floating, that’s a good opportunity for your vet to check for “beans.”
Beans are hard lumps formed when dirt combines with shed cells from the penis and then builds up in little pockets at the end of the organ. If the horse is unable to expel these beans on his own, they can grow large enough to restrict the urethra, leaving him unable to pee. While most horses have beans that don’t cause problems, be sure to call your vet if you notice that your horse is posturing to pee, but then only dribbling or releasing small amounts of urine here and there. This behaviour can indicate an enlarged bean, an infection in the sheath or even a bladder stone.
When examining and removing any beans that may have formed, your vet can also check the sheath and penis for any abnormalities. For example, the squamous cell tumour is a fairly common skin cancer that’s found in the genital area. It’s often treatable if caught in very early stages, but an aggressive tumour that’s not caught early enough can result in the penis having to be amputated. Owners should also call their vet if they notice any red spots, raised skin or small tumours on the penis – particularly the pink part.
Once the vet has recommended a cleaning schedule, horse owners can usually do the actual sheath cleaning themselves. The sheath is basically the skin sac that covers the retracted penis. This sac builds up with smegma, a waxy substance that includes both dirt and shed skin cells. The smegma also contains a biofilm of bacteria that protects the skin and the genital area from infection. While some horses don’t have a large accumulation of smegma, others quickly build up a thick crust of material that can lead to infection.
Although many commercial products are available for sheath cleaning, lukewarm water is probably the best cleaning agent for softening the built-up crusts of dirt and then rinsing the sheath. Just use a towel to gently pat the area dry. The sheath doesn’t have to be squeaky clean; just a gentle clean is all that’s needed. An aggressive cleaning may harm the skin and make the area vulnerable to infections.
Because horses are sensitive in their genital region, owners should gradually introduce them to the idea of having the area touched.
The training process can begin with feeding your horse a favourite treat after riding – that’s often a time when the penis hangs out, making the sheath more accessible. While grooming your horse, you can start by gliding one hand underneath his belly back to the sheath. Each time he allows you to touch that area, there’s an opportunity to move your hand a little further into the sheath and eventually start peeling off any crust. If your horse becomes agitated, just stop and leave him alone until the next opportunity.
It’s also a good idea to have another person there as a distraction. If someone can talk to your horse and stand by him as he eats feed, that may be enough to keep him quiet during the process.
Although most geldings and stallions become accustomed to the procedure and will eventually allow their owners to use just a wet cloth for the procedure, it’s best to have a vet remove any beans – a process that generally requires sedation.