Tweaking Tails

There is bucolic tranquility in the sight of two horses dozing in the sun, side by side, nose to tail, with their tails rhythmically swishing as they leisurely work at keeping flies off their bodies. That is the basic purpose of the equine tail as designed by nature--keeping pesky insects at bay. That's a pretty simple job, but the tail's usefulness doesn't end there. Man's intervention through the years has made the horse's tail a subject of controversy that has fostered a variety of rules and regulations in the show ring concerning what can and can't be done with a tail to enhance a horse's appearance.

Ironically, what is considered appropriate in the way of tails for one breed is completely inappropriate for another. The Saddlebred is the "Peacock of the Show Ring," and as such a Saddlebred's tail often undergoes a surgical process to present the "appropriate" look, which is a tail that arcs upward, then cascades down, often trailing to the ground.

The Quarter Horse exhibitor, on the other hand, wants a tail that lies dead and flat as the horse goes around the ring in a pleasure class, helping to create an image of docility and quiet manners.

Then, there is the Arabian, a horse that naturally holds its tail aloft, but has received some unpleasant assistance in achieving that special look by unscrupulous exhibitors.

These special desires on the part of owners and trainers have resulted in some abuses that breed registries and show officials have been battling for years.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) has entered the picture with its recommendation concerning docking of tails, something that has been quite common among draft show horses. Their position reads in part: "Tail docking in horses should only be performed when it is a medical necessity or when it is vital to ensuring the horse's safety in a work environment. Tail docking should not be performed for cosmetic reasons."

Problems with the equine tail--other than those man-made for the show ring--also can be seen. There can be injuries, such as fractures, that render the equine tail useless and might even require amputation. It is not uncommon for injuries to occur to the tails of pack horses in the western mountains when one horse is tied to the tail of another.

There also is the matter of disease. Horses that rub their tails for whatever reason are prone to skin infections that can become serious if not dealt with in a proper manner.

We'll discuss these abuses and potential problems with the help of a couple of veterinarians and show officials, but first we should take a textbook look at the anatomy of the equine tail.

Anatomy of a Tail

In essence, the tail is a continuation of the spine. The vertebral column begins behind the head, with the neck portion containing seven cervical vertebrae. The back contains 18 vertebrae, the loin or lumbar area has six, the croup or sacral area has five, and the tail has an average of 18 coccygeal vertebrae. There is variation among breeds--and even among individuals within a breed--as to the number of vertebrae in the tail. Some horses might have as few as 15 vertebrae and others as many as 21. The coccygeal vertebrae decrease in size from the tailhead to the end of the vertebral column at the tip of the tail.

A quick review concerning the makeup of tail vertebrae is in order. We turn to the textbook Anatomy of Domestic Animals, with the main authors being Chris Pasquini, DVM, MS, and Tom Spurgeon, PhD, of Colorado State University.

They point out that all vertebrae have common features--body, vertebral arch, vertebral foramen, and processes. Here is their description of the features of the tail's vertebrae:

  • Intervertebral foramen--The opening between vertebrae formed by caudal (tail-ward) and cranial (head-ward) notches of adjacent vertebrae. These openings allow passage of the spinal nerves. 
  •  Intervertebral discs--The fibrocartilages connecting the bodies of adjacent vertebrae.
  • Vertebral arch--The dorsal (upper) part of a vertebra.
  • Vertebral foramen--The space formed between the vertebral arch and the body (basically a hole in the vertebrae that opens front and back). The vertebral foramina of all the vertebrae form the vertebral canal, which houses the spinal cord.
  • Body--The thick spool-shaped ventral (lower) portion of the vertebra. It is convex cranially (forward) and concave caudally (rearward).
  • The seven processes of the vertebral arch--The spine and the two transverse processes (protrusions off the side) provide sites for muscle attachment. The four articular (joint) processes form synovial joints with adjacent vertebrae.
  • Spinous process or spine--The dorsal (top) projection of the vertebral arch.
  • Transverse process--The lateral extension of the vertebral arch.
  • Articular processes--The four articular processes--two cranial and two caudal--articulate respectively with the caudal and cranial articular processes of adjacent vertebrae.

That might be more information than is needed, but the point to be made is that the tail is an important part of the equine anatomy and that its construction is the same as other parts of the spinal column.

Muscles enable the tail to raise, lower, and move from side to side. The dorsal (upper) sacrocaudal muscles work together to elevate the tail, and their counterparts, the ventral (bottom) sacrocaudal muscles, depress the tail. The coccygeal muscles on each side of the tail allow it to move from side to side and also help lower the tail.

Now that we know a bit about the anatomy of the equine tail, we can consider man's alterations of the equine tail--some approved, others not approved--as well as some of the problems that can occur accidentally or as the result of disease.

Tail Alterations

Not all tail alterations are considered abuse. Saddlebreds that perform in the show ring, for example, routinely have their tails "cut."

Hugh Behling, DVM, of Simpsonville, Ky., is a veterinarian who has Saddlebred show stables among his clientele. The tail surgery performed on Saddlebreds, he says, is relatively simple and straightforward. An incision is made through the ventral sacrocaudal muscles that depress the tail. The tail is then placed in a tail-set device that elevates the tail.

The reason for the tail-set device is two-fold, Behling says. In the beginning, it separates the severed ends of muscle so that they do not reattach. Secondly, it loosens and stretches the ventral sacrocaudal muscles near the incision and allows the dorsal muscles to contract so that the tail is more easily held aloft. When the horse is in show training, it normally will wear the tail-set device except when being ridden or driven.

However, during periods of time when the horse is out of training, Behling says, the tail-set device often is removed.

The goal is to present an elegant picture of a high-stepping horse with its tail plumed. To heighten the effect, some exhibitors braid in an artificial tail to provide more plumage. The artificial tail is made of horsehair from other horses' tails.

Behling says muscles that allow the horse to swish his tail--the coccygeus muscles--are left intact in the surgical procedure. The horse, when not in the tail-set device, he says, can swish its tail in normal fashion.

A breed that also looks for high tail carriage in its show horses is the Arabian, and this has fostered a form of abuse that has been outlawed by the Arabian Horse Association. The practice has been, and likely continues to be in some cases, to place a caustic substance, such as ginger, in the horse's rectum just before a show. The pain from the caustic substance causes the Arabian to elevate its tail even more than normal, and to hold it that way throughout a class.

Vigilance on the part of show stewards, says George Johnson, Judges and Stewards Commissioner at the American and Canadian National Shows for the Arabian Horse Association, has cut down drastically on the employment of this abuse.

With the American Quarter Horse, the goal is just the opposite of that for the Arabian and Saddlebred. The goal for some performing Quarter Horses is for them to hold their tails down and flat and not to do so much as swish them once during a class. In the early days, some owners severed the dorsal sacrocaudal muscles so that the horse couldn't lift its tail.

The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) was quick to outlaw the surgical approach, but that didn't stop some unscrupulous exhibitors, says Gary Griffith, executive director of registrations for AQHA and the official who oversees the registry's drug program. They simply put down the scalpel, in many cases, and picked up the hypodermic needle. Instead of cutting the muscles, chemicals that deadened muscles and nerves were injected. However, this is not to say some crafty surgical procedures that leave no trace are not being used today on some Quarter Horses.

The use of chemicals (such as alcohol blocks) to totally deaden the tail was quickly outlawed, but that can be difficult to enforce. However, with more sophisticated drug testing, the abuse is at least being held in check.

While the goal for Arabians and Saddlebreds is to highlight an elegant image with a high tail carriage and the goal of the Quarter Horse exhibitor is to demonstrate a quiet demeanor by displaying a tail that doesn't move, the goal of the draft horse exhibitor is to highlight the broad, powerful hindquarters of his or her draft horse by eliminating all but a token part of the tail.

A personal anecdote: I can remember as a small lad watching my father carefully shape the tails of his draft horses in the winter months. Using only a jackknife, he would shorten the tail and then shape it almost artistically, to better display the powerful hindquarters of the drafters when hitched to a sleigh, their harnesses outfitted with sleigh bells. The tail shaping approach did two things--it enhanced appearance and insured that the tail would not be dragging in snow or slush when traveling across the snowy Minnesota landscape.

Many draft horse exhibitors carry tail shaping a step further by amputating the tail, leaving only a stub of six to 10 inches. The procedure is called tail docking. (The bony part of the tail often is referred to as the dock).

A docked tail, it is obvious, leaves the draft horse without its normal protection from attacking flies and other insects.

Sometimes it is necessary to amputate a horse's tail, says Glen Gamble, DVM, of Riverton, Wyo. During the summer and fall months in Gamble's locale, many horses and mules are used in pack strings to take vacationers on camping trips into the mountains, and later in the year they are used for transporting hunters into the high country in quest of elk, moose, and deer.

Many times, the pack string is connected one to the other by a rope from a halter that is tied into the tail of the horse in front of it. Such an approach puts the horse with a rope tied to its tail at risk and the result, when a "wreck" occurs, such as the animal falling, can be a fractured tail. Often, when that happens and the spinal cord is severed or injured, Gamble says, the tail is rendered useless from the point of injury to the tip.

Sometimes, he says, this means the tail is hanging lifelessly against the body and becomes contaminated with fecal matter and, in the case of mares, with urine. To prevent problems from harmful bacteria, he says, it often is advised to amputate the tail at the point of injury.

Horses that habitually rub their tails are also candidates for infection if there are skin abrasions, Gamble says. In some cases, the rubbing results from the presence of pinworms that cause itching in the anal area, and with others, it's a troublesome habit that is hard to break.

Take-Home Message

Horses were provided with tails for a purpose, and when man seeks to alter the tail for his own purposes, it often can be to the detriment of the horse.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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