It’s something everyone has an opinion about: “It’s disgusting. I’d never touch it!” “That’s the vet’s job! I don’t know anything about it.” “It’s no big deal. He lets me clean it all the time. “ “He LIKES it!” “Something needs to be done to THAT?”
Of course, I’m talking about winkie washing, weiner cleaning, donk dousing, and biscuit bathing. Seriously though, properly removing the debris from a horse’s sheath and penis is part of preventive care that most geldings require.
Male horses naturally secrete a waxy, moisture holding substance within the sheath called “smegma”, with variations in the amount produced, depending on the horse. Combined with dirt, dead skin cells, and sweat, it can accumulate into a thick paste. The smegma and cells that come from the penis often cling to it and flake off like parchment or rippled potato chips. (Make you want to switch to pretzels?) In the wild, stallions would have opportunities to become aroused and potentially breed. This behavior likely would shed and expel most accumulations. (Commercial breeding stallions have their penises gently cleaned prior to live cover or artificial collection to prevent infections and keep the ejaculate schmutz-free). Removing their sex drive by castrating makes them much safer to be around, but doesn’t allow them to “self-clean”.
Most geldings need a sheath cleaning once or twice a year. The horse typically holds his penis retracted up inside the sheath until he needs to urinate. Many react violently by kicking or biting when that sensitive area is touched or approached. We typically tranquilize them so the penis drops down, allowing visualization and thorough cleaning, and decreasing the danger to the cleaner. Using a mild soap, water, and cotton, the “dirt” is removed, and then the area is rinsed very well.
So, all the gradue and chunks have been removed. He’s been “de-beaned”, right?
Not quite. The “bean” is a common name for a specific collection of smegma in the tip of the penis. The tube that drains the urine from the bladder is called the “urethra”, and it protrudes slightly from the center of the head of the penis. Just above the urethra is a recess, a space, called the “urethral fossa”. (In Latin, “fossa” means a depression, or hollow.) This area extends to the left and right over the urethra, making it BEAN shaped. Smegma can accumulate within the space, and has to be manually removed. Hence the term “de-beaning”.
Sometimes there is just a small amount of gray or white waxy substance in the edges, or a few round to oval shaped aggregations. In severe cases, the debris can accumulate to the point that the large mass compresses down onto the tip of the urethra, squashing the opening and making urination painful. Typically these horses have a flat spray instead of a stream when urinating. Again, this must be removed manually, and is much easier with the penis extended in a relaxed, tranquilized horse.
(Insert your own joke here about a three bean salad, bean burrito, refried beans, beanie weenies, etc.)
Problems can also occur with excessive sheath cleaning. There are normal, commensal bacteria on the skin and within the sheath, and when these are removed, it’s possible that abnormal bacteria or yeast (or overgrowths of normal bacteria) can take over. I have cultured an E. coli out of several of these: a common infection of most body systems in the horse. A gray-black, tarry discharge is typically produced, which seems to be localized at the base of the penis. This is frequently found on the inside of the upper hind legs, and is a challenge to remove from the hair. It can be even more difficult to remove from inside the sheath. Prevention is the best medicine in this case: once or twice a year sheath cleaning should suffice.
If your horse is one who allows you to tackle this chore, good for you! Remember that the “bean” is not obvious and the urethral fossa has to be explored with a finger. I’d suggest you wear gloves, as the odor will linger on your hands despite vigorous scrubbing and scented soaps. BE CAREFUL and don’t get kicked, stepped on, or worse. It’s a frightening feeling when you’re bent over, diligently cleaning, and you feel the wet impact of a set of bared teeth hitting your rump as he quickly reaches back to express his displeasure. Hope he doesn't clamp down…
If possibly getting elbow deep in your gelding’s dirty sheath doesn’t hold much appeal for you, the professionals are happy to take care of it.
Remember, ask to see the bean…