Owners of geldings frequently notice what they think are urination problems, such as:
• Horse looks like he is going to stretch out to urinate but doesn’t.
• Horse doesn’t seem to bear down as hard as he should.
• Weak urinary stream.
• Frequent passing of tiny amounts of urine or dribbling.
• Penis is kept inside the sheath or only partially dropped.
The usual fear is that the horse has a kidney or bladder infection, but these problems are rare. Pain is the most likely culprit.
Nature’s way of keeping the sheath clean is by periodic erections that loosen accumulated material and carry it out. Obviously, the gelding can’t do this, so you must clean his sheath periodically. (See sheath cleaning, September 2000.)
If secretions and dirt accumulate in the sheath, the tissues can become inflamed and irritated, making it uncomfortable to drop the penis. In extreme cases, adhesions can form that make it impossible for the penis to drop.
Swelling in the area may be present but is not a reliable sign. We recommend cleaning the gelding’s sheath first if you think there’s a sign of urinary problems.
A horse may not bear down and empty his bladder properly if he has back or rump muscle pain. Stretching out and contracting the muscles may be uncomfortable. Chronic low-grade abdominal pain may do the same thing, such as with sand buildup, ulcers, an enterolith or abscess. With any of these conditions, you will likely also see other symptoms such as pain on palpation over sore muscle groups, horse not moving out comfortably under saddle or on turnout, and low-grade colics.
If other causes are ruled out, the problem may indeed be the urinary tract itself. Most likely is sabulous cystitis, which refers to a heavy collection of mineral sediment, or ”sand,” in the bladder. The minerals are often mixed with mucus and sloughed urinary tract cells. If you’ve ever had experience with a male cat that was ”blocked” and couldn’t urinate, you know how problematic these collections can be.
Geldings are more prone to this problem than mares because their urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the exterior, is longer, narrower and follows a more tortuous course than a mare’s.
The normal mineral deposits in horse urine are primarily of calcium. The kidney is the major route for eliminating of excess minerals in the body, and many minerals can be found dissolved in urine. Calcium, however, tends to precipitate out as a solid because the pH of horse urine is naturally high/alkaline, which favors calcium coming out of solution.
Diet is important. Calcium is an essential mineral, however, so while you should avoid excesses you also should be sure the horse gets what he needs. Insufficient phosphorus intake can also contribute, since without the correct amounts of phosphorus the body doesn’t utilize calcium correctly.
The more water the horse drinks, the less concentrated the minerals in the urine will be. Adding a tablespoon or two of table salt to the horse’s feed is a good incentive to increase water consumption.
Plastic water buckets will sometimes pick up odors/tastes that cause the horse to back off. Hanging a fresh, new bucket may help the horse drink more. Some studies show that many horses drink better from buckets than automatic watering systems. If you have an automatic waterer, experiment by also hanging a bucket to see which the horse prefers.
Making the urine more acidic may also help. To get this benefit, the urine pH must be below 6.5 (normal horse urine often runs as high as 8). Commonly tried measures are adding 2 cups/day of vinegar to the feed or feeding high doses (10 grams or more) of vitamin C.
The Grayson Foundation has a study underway to determine if vinegar or vitamin C are effective in acidifying the urine. Results from the study are not yet available.
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