Tail Blocking Gone Wrong

No one likes a rebellious horse, particularly in the show ring, and excessive tail swishing or wringing is often penalized by judges as a sign of resistance. To avoid this penalty, or simply to ensure low tail carriage, trainers and exhibitors sometimes have a show horse's tail area injected with a substance designed to temporarily paralyze the tail to some degree ("tail blocking" or "nerving") so it lies flat and quiet during the show. Unfortunately, this procedure is not without risk of permanent damage.

Gator shows off before his injury

Gator shows off before his injury.

Most of the time, these injections wear off after a few weeks or months and the horse is no worse for the wear (although some horses exhibit altered tail carriage permanently). But any injection carries a risk of infection, and tail nerving injections pose the additional risk of paralyzing more nerves than intended--one occasional complication is a temporary inability to defecate and/or urinate due to paralysis of the muscles that control rectum and bladder emptying.

Severe Case: Gator

Gator, a Paint gelding living near Winston Salem, N.C., was being prepared for the World Championship Paint Horse Show in 2007. His owner Julee Brown (mother of Gator's rider, Tori) recalls that Gator and several other horses in their trainer's barn had tails injected (not by their regular veterinarian) on a Friday night before an early season show in January 2007.

"We got a call that night about his left hind leg being all swollen, he could barely stand or walk, he had a high temperature, and his bowels weren't moving," she says.

On Saturday, Gator's regular veterinarian (who prefers to remain anonymous; we'll call her Dr. Smith) made three visits to manually remove manure; give him fluids, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory medication; and perform ultrasound to look for pockets of infection/pus to be drained. Shortly thereafter, he went to her clinic for intensive care because he was "life-threatening sick."

Upper part of Gator's tail blocking injury

Gator's injuries in early February 2007.

Lower part of Gator's tail blocking injury

Today Gator,no longer a show horse, has just a long scar to remind everyone of his ordeal.

Gator's tail blocking injury scar

"I knew exactly what it was; there was never any question," recalls Smith. "I've seen this happen before, and I've seen other horses with severe scarring from this procedure. I saw a stallion about 10 years ago with scars from his tail to his withers because the infection traveled up the spine instead of down the leg; it was very hard for them to get that infection under control. He had to be retired from showing.

"They usually inject something very caustic such as grain alcohol, which degrades the myelin sheaths of the nerves so they don't conduct impulses and the horse can't move his tail," she explains. "But in some cases, the alcohol can migrate (to other areas and affect more nerves), the injection site can become infected, and/or the inflammation from the alcohol can affect more nerves than intended. Usually the nerve sheaths do regenerate, although they might come back to different degrees (with corresponding variability in tail mobility)."

Gator was one of the worst cases Smith had seen; he couldn't defecate for several days and the infection destroyed muscle tissue down the back of his hind leg, abscessing out an area about 8 inches wide by 2.5 feet long that ran from the base of his tail to his hock.

"At one point I literally reached into his wound and pulled out a double handful of rotten muscle and pus," she recalls. "I was debriding the wound (cutting away infected/dead tissue) from January when it happened into February and March. He was with me (at the clinic) for a full year; he could have gone home sooner, but we were still treating his wound three times a day to minimize scar tissue and doing physical therapy to maintain flexibility. "

Gator Today

A year and a half after the ill-fated injection, 8-year-old Gator is sound and comfortably pastured, with only a scar about two inches wide down the back of his left hind leg to remind everyone of his ordeal. He's not a show horse anymore; as Smith says, "This horse can never show again. No judge will pin him with that scar."

"If I had known this could happen, I would never, ever have done it," says Brown. "We found out afterward that these injections are illegal too (in the governing performance horse organizations)! We didn't know that; we thought from what the trainer said that this was just what you need to do before a show.

"We're talking a $30,000 horse that's now only worth pasture value, and the $100 I paid for that injection was certainly not worth the $12,000-plus we spent on his treatment," she reports. "If there is a message I could get across to innocent parents and riders, this can happen. But Gator's living the good life now; he's turned out and just being a horse instead of a show horse stalled 24 hours a day.

"Tori had worked really, really hard to get to this level," she goes on. "I think that was her anger; she'd worked so hard and felt like it was all just taken away. She's not riding so much anymore, so we're thinking about donating Gator to a local therapeutic riding camp where we know he'll be taken care of and we can still go visit him anytime."

Watch for Problems

If you see a horse with a recent tail injection exhibiting a stiff gait behind, colicky behavior, and/or heat, swelling, and pain at the injection site, call the veterinarian right away, recommends Smith (who does not condone the practice). "You should be watching these injection sites very carefully," she advises.

"People will continue to inject tails if the judges continue to reward it; the only way it will stop is if the judges change their standards and don't count off for a tail swishing or wringing," she comments. "Know your risks; know that you're accepting this risk for someone who has no say in it."

Some equine organizations have rules against tail blocking, but the practice clearly still continues.

For more information on injection site contamination, see "More Than a Pain in the Neck," www.TheHorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=6466.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners