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Are Undescended Horse Testicles Getting in the Way of a Sanctuary?

A big difference in the two leading plans for 33,000 wild horses now held by the federal government is whether mares and geldings may mix. The issue may come down to undescended horse testicles. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan wouldn’t let geldings mix with mares, who would also be on birth control. Madeleine Pickens’ plan would let the geldings run free and form normal social groups.

There are plenty of other things that divide the plans–location, price, management–but whether the wild horses get to live in their natural herds is a big sticking point for horse advocates. Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals, calls it the “the Sala-Zoo plan.” “Most people can drive half an hour or 10 minutes to see horses,” she says. “These horses are wild in name only.” What makes these horses special is the wild, natural lives they lead, she says.

I asked Madeleine Pickens whether geldings at her proposed Mustang Monument would be able to mix. “They’d be able to roam freely and form bachelor bands,” she said.

BLM spokesman Tom Gorey told me this week that they would have to keep the sexes segregated because you “can’t take a chance that the gelding might not have worked. There is always a possibility.”

Say what? I was always amazed when dog people would ask if my obviously neutered male dog Jolly was neutered. The testicles are either intact or removed. Either way, it’s highly visible.

But Gorey referred me to Dr. Albert J. Kane of APHIS, a vet that works with BLM. Perhaps understandably, Dr. Kane wasn’t too comfortable answering my questions about whether geldings could somehow be fertile. He referred me back to the BLM, but he did say that when you’re dealing with thousands of horses, one virile gelding could slip through.

The BLM isn’t totally crazy here. Horse herds are generally matriarchal, so there’s only one or two males in a herd of 10-20 horses. One stallion could impregnate all the females in their herd. (Or could if the mares weren’t on birth control. Or if undescended testicles didn’t confer at least some infertility.)

So, is this whole wild horse population management thing coming down not being able to keep track of which horses are gelded or to undescended testicles? Because the ACVS says that’s pretty easy to detect (hormone levels) and treat (surgery). British horse magazine Horse and Hound says about 15% of 2 or 3 year olds are “cryptorchids”–that is they have an undescended testicle. And they’ve got more crazy terms for us: a “true rig” is a horse carrying a hidden testicle and a “false rig” is one that just acts like that with “over-the-top stallion-like behaviour.”

Oddly, this whole issue might become something taxpayers care about. Or might insist that the BLM stop caring about. The BLM now spends $29 million to keep 33,000 horses and wants to catch another 10,000 to 12,000 this year in Nevada. Salazar plans on asking Congress for $97 million to build two of seven horse preserves. Pickens will supply the land and management, she just needs about the same amount of money per year per horse as the feds are paying ranchers to keep them in pens now.

Where to go to see wild horses

Read what’s going on with Madeleine Pickens’ Plan

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2 comments to Are Undescended Horse Testicles Getting in the Way of a Sanctuary?

  • Kerry

    I gotta get in on this one. I’m no vet but I did just recently get to deal with this issue as my 2 year old stud colt was looking very much like he might be a crytorchid (see Cuttin’ Day @ Hoofbeats blog for the full story).

    You said “The testicles are either intact or removed. Either way, it’s highly visible.“. Not necessarily. Tobi turned out to be a normal stallion colt but had NO visible testicles. One vet described him as “not a very well endowed boy”. It turns out that he was not a cryptorchid as when the vet went to cut him she had no problems getting hold of the testicles and removing them, but Tobi had no scrotum to speak of. Looking at him you would think he was a gelding. Except of course he didn’t ACT like a gelding.

    So why hasn’t a plan been suggested to perhaps tag and moniter these horses the way big horn sheep and other wildlife – even cattle – are kept track of? If a rancher can tag his cattle and turn them out in the mountains for months and HE knows which bovines have been turned into steers and which ones are bulls with no problem. No excuse this cannot also be implimented on wild horses. Then the horses can be free to more closely form natural social groups. I think a large scale gelding program can go a long way in helping keep the wild horse population in control along with adoption programs – only perhaps we may not have AS MANY adoptions to deal with (or unadopted horses). And giving any stallion only 5 or so years with a herd before gelding him and letting another young stallion have his chance so that the genetics have more a chance to diversify.

  • enlightenedhorsemanship

    Thank you for posting to the Carnival of the Horses! This is a great informative article. I would like to link back to it for the benefit of my readers.