Male Horse Hygiene

Male Horse Hygiene

If you own or care for a stallion or gelding, either you must become educated about sheath cleaning, or you should have your veterinarian or an experienced horse person handle the task.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

The sheath of a male horse needs to be periodically cleaned, but this chore is often neglected by horse owners. Some are reluctant to deal with it; others might not know how to go about getting it done. However, as the caretaker and owner of the horse, either you need to become educated about process, or you should have your veterinarian or an experienced horse person handle the task so your gelding is healthier, and ultimately happier.

The sheath is a double fold of skin that covers the drawn-up penis. A dirty sheath, with a buildup of debris from a mixture of dirt and urine, can lead to infection or urinary problems. Glands in the lining of the sheath, called sebaceous glands, produce a secretion called sebum. When this secretion mixes with dirt and sloughing skin cells, it forms a gray to black material called smegma. Sometimes these secretions build up and accumulate into a soft, wax-like deposit, or create dry, hard flakes.

Most male horses develop buildups of old secretions and dirt, which then irritate the sheath and penis and cause problems. If the sheath lining becomes irritated, soreness and swelling can make it difficult for the gelding to let down his penis to urinate. Dirt, sweat, and urine salts (and fat cells excreted in the urine) can collect near the sheath's opening, mixing with the smegma, and cause irritation. A dusty or dirty environment can worsen the problem.

It's not as problematic for a breeding stallion as for a gelding because the penis is usually cleaned prior to breeding or prior to semen collection with an artificial vagina. If the stallion is not used for breeding purposes, then the same problem can develop as occurs in the gelding.

Buildup and "Beans"

Besides just the sheath, if the buildup is not periodically washed off, dried smegma, mixed with dirt, sweat, and fat cells, surrounded by mineral salts from the urine, can form a clay-like ball of debris at the end of the penis. It accumulates in the urethral diverticulum, which is a small pocket near the urethra (the tube that carries the urine from the bladder). The ball of debris, commonly called a "bean," will be lodged in this pocket just inside the opening of the penis.

Removing a bean from a horse's penis.

A collection of debris (smegma, aka a “bean”) needs to be cleaned out of the cul-de-sac at the end of the penis.

A bean can cause infection or interfere with the passage of urine if it is allowed to become very large. In adult horses, this pocket is shaped like a kidney bean and can be as much as an inch across. You can feel into the diverticulum with the end of your finger to determine if there is a problem.

If there is a firm mass of accumulated material, it must be removed. If left there, it will only become larger and interfere with urination. A horse with a bean might spray urine in a partially obstructed stream, or just dribble. Or he might start to urinate, then stop suddenly due to the discomfort caused by the bean. He then might try several times to urinate before he finishes the job. The bean can become as large as a walnut if neglected.

A small bean can be worked out with your finger, but a large one might be difficult to remove; trying to get it will be painful to the horse and he'll resist. This is when you need to call in your veterinarian. The horse might have to be tranquilized so he will relax the penis and let it down. A large bean might have to be crushed into pieces with a finger or blunt instrument for removal, although this is not usually the case. Many horses find this uncomfortable and won't tolerate your efforts without sedation, so veterinary supervision might be necessary.

Some horses develop beans regularly. These horses can be helped greatly by scheduled sheath cleaning to prevent the buildup that would otherwise become a bean. Some geldings need a cleaning every few weeks; others get by with a thorough cleaning once or twice a year. Know your horse, and be able to help him if he needs it. Look at your horse's penis when he lets it down to urinate; if there is a buildup of dried flakes and scaly material all over its surface, he probably needs to be cleaned.

What to Look For

Signs that your horse needs his sheath cleaned include not letting the penis down to urinate, a swollen sheath, and flakes or deposits of smegma clinging to the sides of the penis or to his hind legs. Sometimes a painful sheath and penis will cause a horse to exhibit signs of colic or irritation. If painful beans cause constant discomfort, he might be cranky from the pain. Or the pain might make him seem colicky after a ride (because he needs to urinate, but can't do so comfortably). If your otherwise friendly, easygoing stallion or gelding becomes grouchy, you need to pay attention. The older the horse, the more likely he has a painful buildup that needs to be washed out.

Any difficulty in urinating should be looked into immediately. Swelling of the sheath can be caused by other problems besides dirt buildup (such as local injury or local eruption of a skin problem), and you need to determine what is causing the problem in order to treat it correctly. Veterinary attention is advised in these cases.

Training for the Cleaning

If your stallion or gelding needs periodic cleaning, get him accustomed to having the sheath and penis handled for routine gentle cleaning. Then you can prevent major buildups and remove any beans that start to form before they get so bad that you need a veterinarian.

A horse which has never had his sheath handled might be sensitive and resentful. If you make a habit of firmly rubbing the sheath (and the soft skin between his hind legs) each time you groom him, most will get over being ticklish. After he no longer resents handling in this area, try cleaning his sheath. The first few times, you might want someone to hold him for you, and stand him against a fence or barn wall so he cannot move away. Stand on his left side and face to the rear as you work on his sheath, staying as far forward as you can, so you'll be less apt to get kicked.

With your hand lubricated with mineral oil or a soap lather, put your fingertips together and gently enter the sheath with your latex-gloved hand. If the inside surface of the sheath feels dry and there are hard, brittle deposits, squirt a little mineral or vegetable oil up into the sheath with a soft-tipped rubber syringe to help soften and loosen the debris.

When done scrubbing, it is very important to thoroughly rinse the area. Make sure there are no traces of soap left in the sheath. Rinsing can be done by flushing with the hose for several minutes. Hold the sheath closed, let it fill with water, then release it, flushing out the soap. Any soap left inside will cause irritation. This is why only very mild soap should be used.

If your horse is not accustomed to water from a hose, use a large syringe (60 cc) without a needle to gently squirt water into the sheath. Prepare warm water with a little mild, non-detergent soap in it, and squirt that in first (putting petroleum jelly on the end of the syringe so it can be gently inserted without discomfort). Have a bucket of clean warm water for rinsing, squirting clean water in several times to wash all loose material out of the sheath, making sure there is no soap residue left.

You can check for beans while cleaning the sheath. When the penis is drawn up into the sheath, its tip will be at the very back of the sheath pouch. Stick your finger into the opening at the end of the penis and you will find a pocket all around the end of the penis; this is where the beans form. You can gently probe with your fingertip into this pocket, and if you find a small bean you can scoop it out while it is still soft and small. If the bean is too big to remove with the horse's cooperation, call a veterinarian. Hurting your horse will make it much harder to clean him in the future.

An easy way to clean the sheath if your horse is used to being hosed with water is to irrigate it with a garden hose, using very low pressure. If the water isn't too cold, the horse won't object to this once he becomes used to it. You might have to start with a slow trickle on his feet and legs on a warm day. Once he accepts water on his feet, work up the legs gradually, and eventually direct the water onto his sheath. Then he might allow you to direct the water into his sheath. A simple irrigation with the hose can wash away a lot of debris. For some horses, this might be enough cleaning if done periodically.

If a horse gets very dirty in his sheath, you might need to use soap or a commercial preparation for cleaning sheaths. Irrigate the sheath, holding it closed around the hose, so it will balloon with water. When the water is released, it will flush out dirt. (Be careful not to overdo the filling!) The inside of the sheath is then wet, and you can take a handful of mild soap and carry it into the sheath for more thorough scrubbing. Soap lather serves as lubrication and makes it easier to work your hand around inside the sheath. Wash the entire inside area.

Irritation and excessive secretions can be caused by too much scrubbing and too much soap. It's better to use a few flushings with water (and occasionally check for beans if your horse is prone to them) and less frequent soap washings, unless your horse really needs them.

Often you can clean the sheath and penis without a fuss, especially if your gelding relaxes and lets it down after a ride or workout. He might leave his penis down long enough for you to clean it gently and quickly with a soft, wet cloth. Leave your cleaning equipment (cloth and water, with soap if you need it) at the barn or corral where you unsaddle the horse and groom him, and if he lets down his penis or urinates, take gentle hold of it as he is finishing, and quickly clean it. A few quick cleanings like this when you are grooming him after a ride might be enough to prevent any serious buildup. It's also a good time to check for beans, since the end of the penis is visible. A little care in this area now and then on a schedule can prevent major problems later. Your veterinarian can assist you in your first attempt to clean the sheath and remove beans if you are uncertain of the proper technique to use.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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