MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY — Earlier this summer when Bear Valley Rescue took in a mare that didn’t seem to get along very well with other horses, the going assumption was that the animal’s behavioural abnormalities stemmed from a treatable condition caused by an ovarian cyst.
It wasn’t until the 11-year-old quarter horse recently went into surgery to be spayed, that a veterinarian was rather surprised to discover the more likely cause of Dixie’s tendency to behave more like a stallion when around other horses: a testicle where an ovary should be.
Going back to mid-July, Dixie was surrendered by a previous owner in southern Alberta who was concerned by the mare’s behaviour and wanted to have her spayed; a procedure they were unable to afford, said Kathy Bartley, Bear Valley Rescue president.
The mare had reportedly been making stud piles – mounds of manure made by stallions to mark their territory – snorted and squealed, and also had to be kept separate from other horses that she would become aggressive with or try herd, reads a portion of a post on the rescue’s social media page.
“She apparently started exhibiting this behaviour when she was around two or three, which is normal for young horses. A stallion, or a colt, would start to feel their testosterone around that age,” said Bartley.
“And a lot of times with mares, the behaviour is indicative of a granuloma or a cyst on the ovary that affects their behaviour.”
The remedy for the hormone imbalance in that instance is to surgically remove the affected ovary, she added.
“But in this case, when they were going to remove the ovary, it turned out to be a testicle,” she said, adding the veterinarian “didn’t know until she removed it.”
The intersex condition, which in the past was termed hermaphroditism, is not at all unheard of, she said.
“You see it in dogs and cats and horses and cows; we actually have a hermaphrodite cow, and that usually occurs when there are twins,” she said.
A unique case
But Dixie’s case was unique in its own way.
“The symptom itself is not unusual; it’s just the way it presented in her,” said Bartley, who’d never before experienced anything like it.
While there are usually observably overt physical signs that identify an intersex condition – external genitalia that are both male and female – that was not the case in this instance, in which there were no obvious tell-tale signs that could be observed by the naked eye during a check-up, she said.
“There was nothing to indicate that there’s any male anything. It’s just she had the testicle inside,” she said. “Her behaviour was the only indication, and that usually indicates the ovarian cyst.”
The rescue has previously taken in former breeding stallions that were later gelded – or neutered – after living the majority of their lives. So even after their procedures, the stallions still tended to exhibit some of their past behaviour of being a bit bossy with the mares, she said.
“But they all fit into the herd quite well,” said Bartley, who hopes Dixie has a similar future.
The operation cost a little more than $3,000, although the centre overall spent more than that after visiting two other veterinarians who specialize in spay surgeries by going “through the vagina instead of through the side with laparoscopic surgery,” she said.
“Neither of them could do it because of something weird going on with her anatomy inside, which I think is also because of her being intersex – that her cervix and her vagina and uterus are all kind of a little bit not normal,” she said.
The surgery was eventually conducted in late September at Moore Equine Veterinary Centre by Dr. Jenn Fowlie. The procedure was successful and both the ovary as well as the out-of-place testicle were removed with a good prognosis. Dixie has been convalescing at the rescue and is said to be well on the road to recovery, which was to include two weeks of stall rest followed by an additional two weeks paddock turnout prior to eventually being reintroduced to other horses.
“Somebody actually came up with a term for Dixie that she’s a melding, because she’s a mare that’s been gelded,” she said.
The road to recovery
“It’s a little bit early to tell,” Bartley said when asked whether Dixie’s attitude had begun to readjust.
“She was acting so stallion-like that she’s had to get segregated her whole life,” she said, adding the mare hasn’t had much of an opportunity to socialize or interact with other horses.
“That compounds the behaviour she has when she finally gets to meet somebody,” she said.
Even when a physically unmistakable stallion is castrated, it typically takes several weeks for all of that testosterone to clear the system, she said.
“And the other concern as well is at this point in her life, how much of the behaviour itself is now sort of ingrained or learned,” she said. “That’s the big question: is how will she be once she’s not being propelled by testosterone?"
As horses on average can enjoy relatively lengthy lifespans of approximately 30 years, with rarer cases even reaching upward of 40 or more, Dixie still has the potential for a long life ahead.
And although Dixie did not previously make fast friends with fellow horses, the mare is otherwise “well handled,” said Bartley.
“She is halter broke, she’s good with a farrier. But she just couldn’t really be worked with much because whenever she got around other horses, she just acts like an idiot; like a guy!” said Bartley, laughing.
“She’s nice to handle as long as there aren’t other horses around. And now that she’s gelded – or fixed or whatever you want to call it – hopefully, she’ll start thinking with her bigger brain and we can work with her more,” she said.
“It’ll be interesting to see in six months or a year how she’s behaving and if we can find her a new home,” she said.
Bear Valley Rescue expressed gratitude to Moore Equine Veterinary Centre with special recognition to Dr. Fowlie as well as donors and supporters.