Brack and the Bean Talk
I am a holistic horse trainer and horseback riding instructor by trade. Over the years I have noticed male horses with behavioral issues that have caused them to be labeled as barn sour, herd bound, and in some cases dangerous. These behaviors are including but not limited to bucking, refusal of the saddle, refusal to pick up hind feet, inability to stride out, or balking all together. I am frequently asked to evaluate these horses to determine the underlying cause. What I have found in many instances is that the horse is in pain. I use the motto, “No training in pain.” So, this led me to pin point the cause of the behavioral issues. I have found a remedy by checking stallions and geldings for a dirty sheaths and the development of beans. Yep you got it I’m talking about good penile hygiene exams.
So, what is a bean and what constitutes a smegma filled or dirty sheath??? Let me break it down for you.
Smegma is a substance made up of dead skin cells and sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that is secreted by the horse. The skin cells mix with the sebum to form smegma. Some horses secrete more sebum than others so their smegma can be very grease like. Others can merely show dry flaky skin. This substance is natural and normally won’t cause issues. However if allowed to build up I have found will cause discomfort, irritation, and swelling of the sheath, also known as the prepuce.
A bean is a localized depositing of the secreted oil and dead skin that fills the sinus or cavity on the dorsal side of the urethra on the penis. This cavity is also called the urethral fossa. The bean can grow in size from a small pea to the size of a walnut. The smaller beans are usually gray in color and soft like clay. The bigger beans grow hard and darken to black in color. If the bean is big enough it can put pressure on the underlying urethra causing the urine stream to fan out and splatter like a crimped hose.
As a man it is hard not being anthropomorphic here, so I will say this. If the horse is uncomfortable it is not about you. Some horses do fine with some build up where some are more sensitive and experience discomfort with only a small amount. The same is true for the bean.
The rule of thumb for me is if the horse is cranky and he needs to be cleaned then I recommend doing so. I also, as a preventative measure, recommend checking your stallions and geldings at least once a year. If you have your horses’ teeth checked/floated once a year by your veterinarian this is also a good time to check for a bean.
As I mentioned above you can have your veterinarian help you with this as he/she can give the sedative which causes the horse to drop its penis all the way out which aids in the cleaning process.
However, if you are an experienced horseperson you can attempt this yourself if you feel that you can keep yourself safe. If you have any question at all, call your vet because you can do more harm than good to you and your horse. I will speak more about that later on here. But first let me tell you how it is done without sedation.
The first thing you want to find out is if your horses will allow you to touch his sheath without kicking your head in. I should say here that I always recommend wearing a helmet but it is insane not to wear one during this exercise.
I like to check to see if I’m safe by using an extension of my arm. You can get really fancy and build one of these with very little effort. Basically I have a stick with a glove attached to the end. I use this to “feel” if you will the reaction that the horse will make when I touch his sheath. I would rather have the fake arm kicked to bits than my real arm. If the horse is touchy I spend time desensitizing him to the touch. When he shows me that it is ok to feel around down there, I move on to the next step.
The next step is to make sure he is ok with water touching his sensitive areas. You can do this in one of two ways. The first way is to take a bucket of warm water and a very soft towel. Soak the towel and gently apply to the sheath while squeezing out the warm water. The second way, if you feel that he will not like the water, is to use a hose with a gentle stream of warm water so that you don’t have to be underneath him.
Once you know that he is ok with the water you can either use one of the sheath cleaning formulas available on the market, ojor mild liquid dishwashing soap. I like to lather the outer and inner sheath and let it soak for a few minutes to help break up the oily build up. Then I begin to gently remove the smegma either with my hand or the soft towel. It is ok to rinse and repeat if necessary. However, especially if this is your first time, I recommend you do this in stages so that your horse doesn’t get upset and behavioral issues present themselves. It is imperative that when you are finished that you completely rinse the sheath free from cleanser as it can cause irritation if left too long.
If you think you are done you aren’t. We haven’t talked about how to check for a bean, and if you find one how to remove it. So here begins the tricky part. If you are lucky during the sheath cleaning and your horse relaxes and drops out his penis you have won the equivalent to the lotto. I know it doesn’t sound like a million bucks, but it makes things so much easier. If in fact he does drop or extend his penis outside of the sheath you can gently grasp the end of it with one hand and examine with the other.
With the penis extended you can easily look and feel for a bean. Again, it will be located above the urethra, the tube that he urinates from. Once you have located the tube look above it and you will find a little pocket. In this pocket you will most likely find a bean. I like to use the end of my finger to coax the bean out. Sometimes it is necessary to take the bean out in pieces.
If he doesn’t drop out his penis and you feel adventurous you can stick your hand gently up inside the sheath into the little pocket that houses the penis and feel for the end. This is hard to do for the first time blind so I recommend you see what you are feeling for beforehand with a horse that has fully extended himself.
So, how do you know if this has alleviated your problems? Well, wait a couple days after cleaning him and see if the grouchy behavior comes to an end. I personally just finished cleaning one such individual who had been struck of the vet and the farrier list because of violent behavior. In fact the last time he had his feet and teeth done he had to be completely anesthetized. After cleaning his really dirty sheath he stands for the farrier like a lamb and the dentist floated his teeth with gentle sedation.
Some people will tell you that regularly cleaning sheaths is a bad practice and I tend to agree; accepting when the horse is in pain. When it comes to working with horses I prefer to be proactive instead of reactive. As always if you are unsure consult your equine veterinary practitioner.