The horse tail

A horse’s best friend may well be the tail, especially this time of year when the bugs and flies can be quite annoying to anybody. The tail of a horse consists of the dock and the skirt. The dock being the bone, or “coccygeal vertebrae”, covered with muscles and skin. The skirt being the long hairs that grows downwards from the dock. The underside of the dock is hairless.

The tail has many functions. Primarily it’s used to swat biting insects, but it is also an important way of communication as it shows the horse’s feelings or mode. The tail is held high when the horse is high in spirits or is getting ready to flee. If the tail is tucked in tight to the buttocks the horse is worried or anxious. An irritated horse may slap the tail from side to side, or even up and down like a whip, while a relaxed horse let the tail hang quiet and just go along with the body movements. A very quick movement of the tail may be a precursor of a kick or buck, but knowing that probably won’t save you anyhow.

While mounted you may find that the horse is telling you she does not comply with your intentions by swinging the tail in irritation, which also reveals your shortcomings to everybody who’s watching. In some dressage and western competition classes a swishing tail means fewer points, so there have been some attempts to use some unmentionable methods (medical, surgical and mechanical) to prevent the horse from moving her tail, which is of course not only illegal and incredibly irresponsible but also stupid, since any judge can see the difference between a numb tail and a normally swaying one.

In cold strong winds when a horse often stands with the hindquarters facing the wind, the tail provides protection and insulation. If the tail is held away from the body for no apparent reason, it may be a sign of problems connected to digestion.

The fashion of the tail is a feature found in breed conformations, thick or thin, straight or wavy, as well as a high or low set. The color of the tail is a chapter of its own, but there is generally some connection of the color of the mane and tail to the coat contrast color.

Tampering with the appearance of the tail has been a human intrusion in horses’ personal business for ages. The so-called tail docking, was a way to amputate the tail of draft horses, to prevent the tail from being tangled up in the harness or the wagon, since it was too much work to wrap or braid the tail. It is illegal in many countries, but far from all. Shortening or trimming the tail hairs is of course a more humane method, but not completely fair.

Nokota horses, like all wild bred horses, have very strong tail muscles and high quality tail hairs, allowing for a precise and powerful mobility of a very long tail; a result of natural selection since the tail is very important for horses. The disparaging term “broomtail” used for unwanted feral horses, says something about the length of the tail in its original state.

 A one year old Nokota filly has a tail that barely reaches down to the hock, while a three-year-old has a tail that hits the ground and self trims, if you get the picture. If you’re standing in the wrong place at the wrong time a four-year-old Nokota mare like our Bluebell Star is likely to knock you over just by a swing of her tail. The longer and the more mobile a tail is, the more effective its use and the more good it will do for the horse. 

The dominant way in Sweden to protect horses from biting insects is the use of blankets that wrap up the horse like a medieval armored knights horse. The horse gets restricted, too warm and by time she will lose tail strength and tail skills. It also imposes a danger of being tangled up and injured. It’s not the horses that benefits from that blanket business, but there are a lot of people involved in horse accessory retail and the advertizing and sponsor contracts that goes with it, so beware.  

For those parts of a horse that can’t be reached by the tail the horse uses other methods to get rid of insects, like kicking at the belly with a hind leg, scratching the face with a hind hoof, staying close to a friends swishing tail is also helpful, shaking and swinging the mane, all of which is good training for overall agility and strength. Wild horses have been seen standing in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, with their hindquarters outwards swinging their tails, creating an effective wall of swishing tail hairs.

Of course there may be veterinarian reasons for keeping sensitive horses protected from insects and sun and yes, some places are too infested with insects for any unprotected horse, but for healthy horses it is best to provide a varied pasture if possible.

Cool places in shadow are nice for horses, but also high open places where the wind can blow insects away. We’ve built an open stable for our horses, which they often use for resting, since the insects tend to avoid dark places under roof. In front of the stable the courtyard invites the wind and it also gives the horses a clear view over the pasture. Sometimes it feels necessary to do something to protect the eyes of the horses, then it is a good idea to attach a headband with fringes on a halter, as long as the horses are under supervision.

So to wrap it all up; I guess horses prefer to live buck naked with long tails.

By the way, as you know it’s not considered wise to judge a horse by her coat color, but if you judge a horse by her tail, you’re not grazing the wrong hill.

As the reader might well have noticed this text had nothing to do with the herb Horsetail, toxic for horses and rabbits, though it may have some human curative purposes against anything from bullet wounds to kidney problems, if I’m not mistaken?

12 thoughts on “The horse tail

  1. What a great article! Thank you! I learned something new. Now I know someone here who puts an “eye screen” on the horse to let the light in and keep the flies out of the eyes. Here we have issues of flies laying eggs in the eyes of not only the horses, but also dogs. Love this post!


  2. I was just watching dressage..freestyle (?) at the Olympics where the horse for the Swiss team (?) was really whipping his tail from side to side. I mean incessantly, and “hard.” other horses had tail movement, but nothing like that

    I just got the sense that he wasn’t happy. Thanks for your post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s