All male horses need their sheaths cleaned at least twice a year, more often if accumulations are heavy. If the sheath is neglected, inflammation, swelling and adhesions can develop.
The interior of the sheath and surface of the penis accumulate a black, tarry/greasy, foul-smelling material called smegma. Smegma is a combination of oils, dead skin cells, dirt and urine. A similar buildup can occur between the teats of the mare’s udder and in the perianal and perivaginal area. Collections in these latter areas are a common but often overlooked cause of tail rubbing, especially in warm weather.
Heavy collections in the sheath often lead to swelling caused by inflammation, with or without infection. The horse may even develop adhesions that prevent the penis from being fully dropped.
You may hear that light-skinned horses like pintos and Appaloosas need cleaning more often because they accumulate more smegma. We couldn’t find any studies that confirm this, but light-skinned horses do generally have more sensitive skin and therefore may be more prone to irritation from smegma. It may also be that since their skin is more sensitive they do indeed secrete more oils as a protective mechanism.
No one enjoys sheath cleaning, except for the satisfaction of knowing your horse will probably be more comfortable. It can also be a hazardous undertaking. Even a horse with the best barn manners may object, sometimes strenuously. This is partially due to some horses not being used to this area being manipulated, but it’s also due to the fact these tissues are extremely sensitive. The same holds true for thoroughly cleaning the undersurface of the tail, anus and exterior of the vulva, not to mention a mare’s udder.
Plan an hour or more for cleaning a sheath. Anticipate spending quite a bit of time just encouraging the horse to relax his penis and let you get the job done — or waiting for a tranquilizer to take effect.
Running warm water makes sheath cleaning tons easier and is worth the extra effort to use it. Some people even buy extra lengths of hose and hook up to the kitchen sink or use a Y piece to take advantage of the laundry water supply.
If running water is out of the question, you will need a liberal supply of warm water in buckets. Allow at least two five-gallon buckets for the cleaning process and four buckets for the rinse. If cold water is your only option, it will probably take you twice as long to get the job done, and the horse will be more likely to object. (Regardless of the product you choose, thorough cleaning and rinsing can’t be done without water.)
In addition to all this water, you need a small soft sponge or terry washcloth (never to be used again, as it is virtually impossible to get rid of the odor), the cleaning agent and pure aloe vera gel. The aloe is for coating the interior of the sheath and the shaft of the penis after the cleaning. This is soothing to the tissues and can help prevent the swelling that sometimes occurs for a few days after sheath cleaning.
Because proper sheath cleaning involves getting deep into the sheath, we recommend either short-sleeved coveralls or a full-length apron — even a rain suit — to protect your clothes. Wear tight-fitting latex or light rubber gloves.
For maximum skin protection, wear plastic obstetrical gloves (rectal sleeves), taped at the upper arm to keep them in place, with the tight-fitting gloves on top.
The Dry Run
Sheath cleaning is easier if the horse is not shocked by the idea. You should routinely pass over the sheath area when the horse is groomed. Even a few strokes on the side with a rub rag will go a long way to desensitizing the horse to touch. You can also familiarize the horse with sheath cleaning and remove some loose debris at the same time, if your routinely hose the inside of the sheath when hosing off or bathing. Forceful streams should be avoided, however, and warm water is preferred.
If you haven’t cleaned your horse’s sheath before, you may want to do a “dry run” a couple days before you plan the actual sheath cleaning to get an idea of how the horse is going to react.
Secure the horse where you plan to do the cleaning and give him a bath or just hose him off. Spend a lot of time hosing and stroking the undersurface of the belly, working your way back toward the sheath. Repeat this for several minutes along the side of the sheath then gently work your way into the opening.
Face the hindquarters with your shoulder pressed firmly against the horse’s side to allow you to follow his movements. Stay as far away from the back feet as your arm length will allow. If you have a handler on the head (always a good idea), be sure he or she stays on the same side of the horse as you are. This allows the handler to pull the head toward you and swing the hindquarters away if the horse tries to kick you.
Twitching is not a good idea because it won’t be effective for as long as you will need to get the job done. With a horse that is just nervous/anxious, take the time to work slowly. For one that simply will not cooperate, use a tranquilizer.
Once inside the sheath, feel around for the penis (which he will be retracting as deeply as he possibly can at this point!) and gently grasp it behind the head. Wait for him to relax and attempt to bring the penis forward. Use patient, gentle movements (no tug of war!) to get the horse to at least partially extend his penis.
Inspect the penis for smegma and reach your free hand as far as you can into the sheath. You will feel bumpy collections of debris. This gives you an idea of how difficult the job will be. You may want to “pretreat” the sheath with K-Y jelly or aloe gel at this time to help loosen the debris.
The Real Thing
The actual cleaning is a repeat of the dry run but with the penis at full length. (You may need to use a low dose of tranquilizer to relax the penis.) After wetting the penis and sheath, apply the cleaning solution first by hand, working well into the penis and all surfaces of the sheath. Small collections will loosen quickly, but larger ones may be more stubborn. Use several cycles of washing and rinsing during the process.
Stubborn collections may need gentle use of the sponge/washcloth (well soaked with water and cleaner) to free them. Check the penis for any abnormalities after it is cleaned.
To check for a bean, pull the skin of the head of the penis taut by gentle downward (along the shaft) traction. This will flatten out the recess and make a bean visible. The bean can usually be easily removed by inserting a finger lubricated with your cleaner into the urethral recess, beside the bean, and popping it out. (Note: The bean is formed by hard collections of smegma that sit inside the recess on the head of the penis that houses the urethra. It can become large large enough to interfere with urine flow.)
Once all material has been removed, flush the sheath liberally with warm water for several minutes to make sure all cleaner residue has been removed. Finish with a coat of pure aloe vera gel or K-Y jelly.
All four commercial sheath cleaners we tried claim to be gentle, non-irritating and easy rinsing. Some claim no scrubbing or waiting for particles to loosen. However, even with these special products, sheath cleaning was time-consuming job.
We found three of the products quite similar. Excalibur, Equi-Pro and Triple J sheath cleaners are all green gels that melt to liquid consistency at body temperature. All have a tea-tree-oil base, with the strongest odor of tea-tree oil in the Excalibur. Equi-Pro has a faint tea-tree smell, while the Triple J has a minty aroma.
All are to be applied full strength. The directions don’t say to wet the area first, but we found the products work better if you do. Hosing or sponging first also will remove loose debris, making the job much easier.
All three recommend leaving the product in contact with the shea th and penis, undisturbed, for several minutes before removing the collections to allow it to soften and loosen the material. Adding a small amount of water after several minutes assists in loosening.
After waiting, gently rub free the material using your gloved hand or a soft sponge/washcloth, then rinse thoroughly, gently rubbing the penis and interior of the sheath as you do to ensure all cleaner is removed.
These cleaners don’t form a lather, even when water is added. Instead, they make a light foam when you rub. Although they claim to rinse easily, we found this was not the case. We had to do some rubbing first, which brought up the foam and made rinsing easier.
The Premier Care Easy Sheath Cleaner is also tea-tree-oil based with the characteristic tea-tree odor, but it is a clear, thin liquid. The container states you apply and rinse off, no waiting. While it did take off some small and superficial collections, we found it ineffective at removing tougher, heavier buildups. It does not lather, and foaming is minimal.
You may see the Easy Sheath Cleaner described as a no-water formula, meaning you don’t have to use water with it. However, we advise against leaving anything — except pure aloe vera gel or K-Y jelly — inside the sheath and suggest you should rinse it out thoroughly after cleaning. (Interestingly, we did find that Easy Sheath Cleaner was handy for removing stubborn stains on the coat when water was not available, such as when on the road or in winter.)
If you know your horse has sensitive skin, do a “patch test” ahead of time by applying the product full strength to the skin on the back of the pastern (also a sensitive area). Leave it on for a few minutes, then rinse it off. Check over the next few hours to a day for signs of excessive dryness, swelling or irritation and, if present, don’t use that product (tea-tree oil does have a tendency to dry, which is why it is effective on greasy buildups).
Many horsemen clean sheaths using the same shampoo used to bathe the horse. This is fine, provided it has no added conditioners, moisturizers, color enhancers or fragrances, which can be irritating. We’ve found Corona Concentrated Shampoo and Wahl’s Clear N Natural good choices.
We also tried Ivory soap (work up a lather in your hands first with the bar soap), pHisoderm, human baby shampoo and Povidone iodine surgical scrub with good results. We have found pHisoderm is excellent for horses whose skin dries out easily, but it take longer to remove heavy deposits with these products.
Although it was close, our pick among the sheath cleaners was Triple J. It foamed easiest, was the most effective at quickly loosening deposits and rinsed easily.
However, if you haven’t used a sheath-cleaning product before and are happy with the results, there may be no reason to buy one. We, too, were able to get the job done using a gentle, no-additive body shampoo or skin cleanser.