The following chapter “Cut Willie” is an excerpt from “Never Trust a Sneaky Pony” by Madison Seamans MS DVM, available from Trafalgar Square Books.
Mrs. Wiggins had been a good friend and client for many years. She often called me for advice or even just to let me know how one of her horses did at a recent show. Although she was a good horseman, she often sought advice from other horse people, trainers, veterinarians, and Dr. Google before she made a decision regarding one of her horses. Then, armed with a gold mine of conflicting information, she would call me, hoping for a simple answer to a complicated question.
The main problem with all the free advice is that it is often overpriced.
“Mrs. W” was a kind lady. She had a good sense of humor and took a joke well. Her skepticism about everything, however, had occasionally taken me to the edge of my already questionable sanity. She called me one day before I had left on my morning rounds.
“I’m calling you about Willie,” she began. “You know, my yearling colt. He’s getting bad about biting and striking at me with his front feet. I punish him for that, but he just can’t seem to help himself. He’s started to get interested in mares, and we’ve had to cut him out of the fences a couple of times.”
I replied with unusual succinctness, “There’s a surgery for that.”
“Really?” she said, with more interest than I had expected. I guess she was thinking some new miracle cure that had just been discovered up at the state college.
“How much does it cost?”
“’Bout a hundred dollars.”
“Will it really work? I mean, is it successful and is it dangerous?”
“Mrs. Wiggins,” I said smoothly, “you can’t buy a dangerous operation for only a hundred dollars!”
“Do you mean castrate him?” she exclaimed with surprise that surprised me.
“Yep.” I do my best Gary Cooper first thing in the morning.
“Well…I don’t know. Don’t you think we should wait another year? I mean, I wouldn’t want to stunt his growth. I don’t even think that he’s ‘dropped’ yet,” she said.
These were good questions commonly asked by soon-to-be-gelding owners. There are many myths about the descent of the testes into the scrotum of colts and of their long-term effects on stature, musculature, and behavior. I get most of these calls when colts are about two, because, like teenage boys, they will often show symptoms of testosterone toxicity at this age.
The “gonads”—ovaries or testes—in fillies and colts are formed very early in pregnancy and are located just behind the fetal kidney in the abdomen of the developing foal. In fillies, the gonads stay behind the kidneys and become the ovaries. The testes of the colt, however, will descend into the scrotal sac before birth. Although there are exceptions to the rule, a colt born without testicles in the scrotum will not “drop” at any magical age. There are several terms used to describe colts with one or both testicles undescended. “Ridgelings,” “high-flankers,” “cryps,” and “one-lungers” have all been used to describe what veterinarians call “cryptorchids.” Surgery for the removal of retained testicles is a little more complicated than a routine castration, but it should be done because the retained testicle will continue to make testosterone, the hormone responsible for stallion behavior, even though it cannot make sperm cells. A horse with one or two retained testicles will be just as obnoxious as a normal stallion, but sterile, unless one testicle is on the outside.
“My colts were never cut before they were two or three and they have always been big and muscular,” Mrs. Wiggins commented. “But Willie is so full of himself, I may have to sacrifice some size so that I don’t have to shoot him first! Is there anything you can give him so that he will develop normally, but not be so silly?”
I explained to her that the muscle-building effect of testosterone, the male hormone, is lost as soon as the colt is gelded. Geldings always look like geldings, so there is no lasting effect from keeping them intact for a certain length of time. For example, some bodybuilders take anabolic steroids to improve their strength and muscle definition. These drugs are all synthetic forms of testosterone, and if used repeatedly, they are very dangerous. Unfortunately, they must be used repeatedly in order to be effective because, like the naturally occurring hormone, these compounds are constantly being removed from the body. Once the hormone is removed, there is no lasting effect on muscle development.
There is, however, a lasting effect of testosterone on adult size. The presence of sex hormones in both males and females will stop long bone growth at puberty. This fact was well illustrated by my friend Butch Bordeen, who was a kid in my sixth-grade class. Butch was big, strong, and not destined for the Dean’s List, but he was the envy of every boy in the class because he had to shave. By the time we were all in the ninth grade, everybody called him “Shorty” (only behind his back).
Colts that are castrated before the onset of puberty (usually about twelve months) will grow taller than their unaltered herdmates. The reason that some stallions may look bigger than many geldings is that they are way overweight. After all, fat is the prettiest color of a show horse.
Although testosterone disappears from the bloodstream within twenty-four hours after surgery, it can take up to a month for the psychological effects to sink into little colt brains. Rarely, a colt will continue to act like a stallion indefinitely. These horses are called “proud cut,” but there is no known reason why these colts continue stallion-like behavior. One old myth contends that “if you don’t cut ‘em right, they’ll still squeal like a stud.” In reality, if both testicles are removed and the horse survives the surgery, he was “cut right.” No other tissue in the equine body makes testosterone.
Mrs. Wiggins was surprisingly silent during my explanation of pubertal physiology and offered little argument. I attributed this to my brilliantly thorough treatise on the subject.
“I’m really not worried about him not getting very big because you cut him too early,” she remarked. “I’m afraid of the anesthesia. My friend lost a horse that way. Do you have to knock him out?”
“We can do him standing with a mild sedative and local anesthesia,” I explained, “but he’ll feel more of it than if a general anesthetic is used. It’s up to you, but there is usually nothing to worry about.” I realized too late that the quickest way to make somebody worry was to tell them not to. When somebody says, “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” what happens?
“This is one of the oldest known surgical procedures,” I tried again. “It was practiced in Egypt over four thousand years before the invention of anesthesia and is usually quite safe.” I didn’t know for sure if Egyptians anesthetized their surgical candidates, but my guess was that they didn’t.
“I don’t know.” She was still apprehensive. “You keep using the word ‘usually.’ Are you sure you know how to do this? How many colts have you successfully castrated?”
“Everyone I ever cut stayed castrated,” I said, unable to resist a smart retort. “I never get a repeat patient for this type of surgery.” I hoped my humor would reassure her that this was well within the range of my capability.
After a long, thoughtful pause, Mrs. W asked me if we could set up a time to make a gentleman out of Willie sometime in the next few days.
I arrived at the appointed time and began preparations for the anesthesia and surgery. Willie was upset because he had missed his breakfast, per my instructions, and he seemed to know that something was up.
Mrs. Wiggins was apprehensive. “Maybe we should wait for another day,” she said. “I think it looks like rain,” though most everybody thought that we were in the midst of a three-year drought.
During the next two months, Mrs. W made and canceled two more appointments for the proposed brain surgery on her prized colt, Willie. Late one Sunday night, I received a call from her. I usually only answer emergency calls on Sunday, so I figured that she must have a real problem.
“Doc,” she almost screamed, “I want you to come cut this @#$%^& colt right now!”
“Well, I’d like to help you,” I began, “but I rarely perform emergency castrations on Sunday night. Do you think he could wait till tomorrow morning? I’d like for him to be off feed for about twelve hours before the anesthesia,” I explained. “That way there’s less chance that he will colic after he recovers.”
Finally, she made and kept an appointment. This time, I was ready.
I arrived on time, as usual, and arranged my surgical instruments and shining stainless steel buckets with precision. I answered Mrs. W’s onslaught of questions with the skill and finesse of a true professional, and then I exacted my revenge.
I took out a surgery book and turned to the section marked “Equine Castration” and pretended to read it with interest. After about five minutes I slammed the book shut and said, “This ain’t gonna be too hard. Where is he?”
After she resumed breathing, we both had a good laugh. The surgery was uneventful. Mrs. Wiggins followed the postoperative care of cold-water therapy over the surgical wound and forced exercise for twenty minutes twice daily with her usual dedication. Willie is alive and well and doesn’t aggravate the mares anymore.