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Any one who owns a gelding or a stallion should be aware that they have some special hygiene requirements.  The equine penis secretes smegma to clean and lubricate the penis.  The origin of the secretions is still disputed.  However, it is known that smegma is composed of exfoliated skin cells, oils, and moisture.  The equine penis, when retracted, is contained within the sheath.  Therefore, the inside of the sheath will also become coated with smegma.  A feature unique to the equine penis is the urethral diverticulum and fossa.  This cleft like area around the urethral opening becomes an ideal location for smegma to accumulate.  This accumulation is often referred to as a “bean” due to its oval shape.

So if Smegma is naturally occurring, why do we have to clean it?!

Some horses produce large amounts of smegma.  Over time, the accumulation can begin to coat the sheath and ventral abdomen, making the hair gummy.  This can become a minor grooming annoyance.  More significantly, the smegma can take on an extremely unpleasant odor.  It is one of those smells that once you have experienced it, you never forget!  Most significantly, an over-accumulation of smegma in the urethral diverticulum can put pressure on the urethra, causing pain or obstructing the flow of urine.  Some horses will manifest their discomfort by rubbing their tails, trying to scratch their sheath on whatever is convenient, such as shrubs and fences, not dropping their penis to urinate, or straining to urinate.

How often should I clean my horse’s sheath?

How often you clean your horse’s sheath and penis will depend on how much smegma he produces.  Just as not cleaning your horse’s sheath can result in problems, so, too, can cleaning it too much.  The penis has beneficial bacteria on its surface.  The skin in this area is also very thin and sensitive.  If you clean it too often or with harsh cleaners you can kill off the good bacteria or cause the skin to become dried out, inflamed, or cracked.  This will allow bad bacteria to flourish and cause a skin infection.

Most horses should have a thorough sheath cleaning every 6-12 months. A thorough cleaning will also allow you to examine the sheath and penis for any signs of neoplasia such as sarcoids, melanomas, and squamous cell carcinoma, habronemiasis or infections.

Ok, I need to clean his sheath.  How do I go about doing it?

The cleaning process can be a challenge in some horse.  Many horses find the whole experience quite unpleasant (as do many horse owners!).  If your horse is upset by the procedure, it is best to have your veterinarian come out to sedate him.  This will relax him and make him drop his penis out of the sheath.  It will then be easier to clean the entire penis and check for a bean.  Only mild products should be used for cleaning.  Ivory Soap has been a staple for many years.  More recently Sheath cleaning products containing gentle ingredients such as mineral oil have become available that help to soften the smegma to facilitate its removal.  Plenty of warm water should be used to rinse away any soap or product you use.  Avoid using betadine or chlorhexadine products unless directed by your  veterinarian, as they are too harsh for routine cleaning.

So none of this applies to the mares, right?!

Wrong!  Let’s not forget the mares when it comes to cleaning those personal parts.  Although mares don’t product smegma in-between their teats, they do accumulate dirt, sweat, and dead cells there.  This accumulation can become flaky, itchy, and a place for bad bacteria to fester.  Mares will often cause self-trauma trying to scratch their udder on shrubs or fences, much like their male counterparts.  You can use the same products on mares to soften and remove the debris between their teats.  Use the same caution in approaching the procedure as you would with cleaning a gelding or stallion’s sheath.  Some mares are very sensitive and will not tolerate the procedure.  Call your  veterinarian to come sedate her.  Safety for all is priority number one.

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