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4 May 2021

Sheath cleaning: what, when and why — plus how often it should be done

Sheath cleaning isn’t the nicest thing to think about, but it’s an important part of a male horse’s health care. What’s more, mare’s can be affected by ‘beans’ too.

Kat Seeman, the founder of Southern Equine Sheath Cleaning who has 30 years’ experience with horses and was trained in the sheath cleaning process by an equine vet, explains what you need to know about this important process.

What is a bean?

A bean. Photo: Kat Seeman

A bean is a hard mass of skin cells, fat cells, dust and urine that collects at the tip of  the horse’s penis, in a small pocket just above the urethra (the horse’s urinary tract).

What are the symptoms of a male horse having one?

If you suspect your horse has one, look out for symptoms including, but not limited to:

  • A swollen sheath
  • Tail rubbing
  • Kicking up at the sheath
  • Bucking when ridden
  • Feeling “stuffy” from behind
  • Behavioural changes

Why sheath clean?

The pros of sheath cleaning are:

  • To allow for the removal of hard and sharp smegma that can be uncomfortable for some horses
  • To check for any ‘beans’ and the safe extraction of those
  • It is an opportunity to do a health check of the sheath and penis, making sure there are no abnormalities such as penile cancers. This is particularly important to do in the summer, as horses are then at higher risk of getting fly strike (maggots).

How often should it be done?

We advise sheath cleaning to be done only once or twice a year.

Are there any downsides?

The only negative effects that can result from sheath cleaning are if it is done too frequently, which can affect good bacteria levels and cause soreness. I have known people to clean weekly; I’d never recommend this, unless it’s under veterinary guidance for a particular reason.

Is it safe for owners to try and clean their own horse?

Of course, owners can try and clean their own horses, as long as you feel safe to do so — especially if you have a tricky horse.

What is the cleaning process?

We use a mild soap or a water-based lubricant to soften, loosen and start to gently remove the chunks of smegma and dried skin on the penis. At this point, we would have detected a bean and removed it, if the horse had one.

We then wash through the sheath with clean warm water to clean it out.

Finally, we flush the sheath through to remove the final bits and any residue.

What if my horse doesn’t like being touched?

My advice for those with horses that are unsettled with being touched is to start by using grooming sessions to help desensitise them.

Groom the horse as usual and, as you brush under the belly, gently brush across his sheath and between his hind legs. Don’t make this a big issue and don’t just make a beeline for the sheath — build up to it.

Gradually you can spend more time here, so your horse is used to someone being in that space and becomes more tolerant of it.

What happens to horses who never have their sheath cleaned?

Some horses can go through life without a sheath clean and not show any signs of discomfort. What they do is compensate for the discomfort, because horses still have that survival instinct, even though ours are domesticated. In the wild, the weakest would be eaten, so they have to show they are strong.

Can mares be affected by beans?

Yes, mares can get beans too. These are located at the bottom of her vulva, in between the creases. It’s good practice to routinely clean in between and around their teats as well, removing any hard, waxy build-up. This also gives you an opportunity to check for any abnormalities. As humans, we check ourselves regularly for any lumps and bumps, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with your female horse and what’s normal for her.

by Your Horse

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