Newcomers to the horse world are shocked to discover that most male horses are missing critical pieces of equipment. To these novice horse handlers, the practice of horse castration seems barbaric and cruel. However, if the procedure is inhumane, why do people continue to castrate their horses?
The castration of domestic horses is not cruel. While there can be some post-surgical pain, the procedure is not painful due to the use of local anesthetics. Castrated horses are safer to work with and have a better quality of life than uncastrated stallions.
The idea of castration can seem to be the height of cruelty, and yet loving horse owners continue to castrate their stallions and colts. What argument do they use to support the castration of horses?
Is It Cruel To Castrate Horses?
Castration is the surgical removal of a horse’s gonads, i.e., testicles in male horses.
Depending on the horse and the attending vet, the procedure may be performed in a standing or recumbent horse using sedation or general anesthesia.
Removal of the testicles causes a:
- Permanent decrease in the horse’s testosterone levels with a resulting decline in masculine behavior and muscle mass.
- A permanent inability to successfully sire foals, i.e., impotence.
While the castration sequelae may seem cruel when framed according to human understanding, horses do not share human perspectives. Many castrated male horses are happier and have a better quality of life than stallions.
Are Castrated Horses Upset Because They Cannot Sire Foals?
To humans, the right to have children is a fundamental right; it is as inviolable as the human right to freedom of speech and movement. Horses do not have the same concept of the future as humans and thus do not require offspring to leave as a legacy.
For stallions and geldings, the ability or inability to have foals is independent of the horse’s happiness.
Does A Castrated Horses Asexuality Harm It?
A sticking point for many people is the subconscious influence of sexual identity as a construct of self-identity. To humans, the loss of gender-specific characteristics and sexual fulfillment is a violation of the self, which they cannot justify.
However, horses do not have the same perceptions of self that humans do. Horses live in the moment and interact with the world in a pure, uncomplicated manner.
Regardless of whether a horse is castrated or uncastrated, it will interact with the world according to its physical urges and motivations, not based on how it views itself. A castrated horse does not think of itself as a lesser being because it does not possess testicles.
Is Horse Castration Cruel Due To Lack Of Consent?
Another point of contention is consent, as horses cannot consent to castration. Many people argue that the permanent physical alteration was imposed on the horse, regardless of the horse’s wishes.
Owners cannot discuss the pros and cons of castration with their horses. Like the guardian of a minor, the owner must decide on behalf of the horse.
Based on observation and physiological stress reactions, the horse industry has concluded that castrated horses are not only safer and easier to work with but are also more relaxed and less stressed than uncastrated horses.
The decision to castrate a horse is made with the best intention based on the current body of evidence.
Is Castration Painful For Horses?
Castration can be performed in one of two ways:
- The standing horse is sedated, and a local anesthetic is injected into the testicular area.
- Under general anesthesia, the horse is placed on its side, and local anesthetic is injected into the testicular area.
The sedation and local anesthetic used in castration numb the surgical site; the horse does not feel pain during the surgery. The horse may experience swelling along its sheath, groin area, and thighs post-operatively.
The first 3 to 4 days after castration are the most painful; however, veterinarians will give the owner painkillers for the horse. To reduce inflammation, owners are encouraged to exercise the horse and hose down the swollen areas with cold water.
Within three weeks, most horses are fully healed and none the worse for wear.
Why Do People Castrate Horses?
Some people may feel baffled by the owner’s decision to castrate a horse, but there are more reasons to castrate a horse than to leave a stallion intact.
Owners may choose to castrate a stallion:
- To reduce aggressive behavior and excitability around other horses, i.e., make the horse easier and safer to handle.
- Due to testicular trauma, cancer, or neoplasia.
- To prevent the breeding of unwanted or inferior foals.
- To prevent the continuation of hereditary diseases, i.e., prevent future foals struggling with a disabling genetic condition.
- The stallion is stressed, which can increase the risk of fatal colic.
- To improve athletic performance. A stallion who cannot focus on its handler will perform better as a gelding.
- If they do not have the facilities to keep a stallion.
Owners may choose not to castrate their stallion, if:
- The stallion is breeding quality, i.e., superior conformation, temperament, and performance record.
- The stallion is polite and well-mannered.
- They have the facilities to keep a stallion.
- The stallion has no hereditary weaknesses to pass on to potential offspring.
Do Castrated Horses Have A Better Quality Of Life?
Castration is not cruel, but does it offer any benefit to a horse?
What Are The Physical Benefits Of Horse Castration?
When a colt is born, its testicles are located within its body cavity. The colt’s testicles descend through the inguinal canal and into the scrotum as it grows. However, one or both testicles fail to descend in a small percentage of horses.
A horse with an undescended testicle is called a cryptorchid or rig.
The risk for testicular cancer is significantly higher in horses with undescended testicles. Castrating a cryptorchid and removing both the descended and undescended testicles eliminates the risk of testicular cancer.
Not only are testicular injuries, torsion, neoplasia, and cancer painful, but they can be life-threatening to stallions. In these cases, removal of the testicles is indicated as a life-saving procedure.
What Are The Social Benefits Of Horse Castration?
Horses benefit from castration if their owners cannot or will not allow their stallion to live like a horse. Horses are social creatures that need other horses to feel happy and content. A horse who is kept isolated from other horses will become stressed, frustrated, and depressed.
Many stallion owners keep their stallions confined in stables and small paddocks where they cannot interact with other horses. The owner may separate the stallion from other horses because:
- The stallion is a valuable horse, and the owner is afraid of the horse being injured.
- The owner fears the stallion injuring other horses or becoming unmanageable.
- The owner does not have the facilities needed to create a small herd where the stallion can be kept.
Castration reduces the stallion’s natural aggression and makes it easier to integrate the ex-stallion into an established herd of horses. The castrated horse no longer picks fights, and thus the risk of injury to himself or others is significantly reduced.
Castrating a horse is not cruel; a cost versus benefit analysis reveals that the benefits significantly outweigh the physical, mental and monetary costs of castration.
Geldings are safer to work with and can live outdoors in mixed herds without risking the birth of unwanted foals. A gelding’s aggression levels are typically lower than a stallion’s, reducing the risk of injury to the stallion, people, and other horses.
By contrast, many stallions are kept isolated and stabled, only being allowed out to work or breed; these stallions often develop extreme behavioral issues linked to chronic stress, frustration, and boredom.
While philosophers can debate the ethics of castration, the fact remains that most geldings have a better quality of life than many stallions.