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Short Tails on Horses: Practical Basis or Cosmetic Reasons?

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Horses are unique, and some have naturally short tails. However, some, mostly draft horses, have tails that are cut drastically short. Why would some owners cut their horses’ tails?

Draft horses’ tails are cut short, “docked,” to prevent their tails from interfering with the rigging of carriages or other equipment they pull. Docking is also used for cosmetic purposes, to keep the rear clean, and to make it easier to harness a horse.

Removing a portion of a horse’s tail can lead to health problems and is banned in some nations. There are a lot of controversies surrounding the docking of horses’ tails.

Why Is a Horse’s Tail “Docked”?

Tail docking originated in 17th-century Great Britain as a way to distinguish English horses from French horses. Originally, horses were marked by nicking their tails, which involves cutting some tail muscles to make them stand up.

Nicking and docking were initially reserved for horses owned by nobility. The practice fell out of favor in Great Britain but remained common in Western Europe, particularly with draft horses.

Today, tail docking is defined as “the practice of removing the distal section of an animal’s tail” by the American Veterinary Medical Association, with the remaining tail on a horse typically measuring around six inches long.

When looking at some old logging photos from our area, I noticed many of the large draft horses with docked tails. Docking is the practice of shortening a horse’s tail by cutting it.

The reasons for docking vary, and historically it was done for practical reasons, such as to prevent the tail from getting tangled in harnesses or to make it easier to keep the hindquarters clean.

Nowadays, docking is sometimes done for cosmetic reasons in certain breeds, particularly for horses shown in certain disciplines like pulling competitions. However, the practice is controversial and banned in some countries.


Docked tails were safer for horse handlers

Human safety

The handlers of draft horses used for agricultural or forestry work fear a horse’s tail may pass above the guide reins, making it impossible to direct the horses and increasing the risk of “bolting.” A single-rein system predominantly guides working horse teams in Belgium.

Docked tails were safer for the horses

Horse safety

An undocked tail also is at risk of snarling around the swing bar or leader. A horse’s tail caught in the leader will injure the horse and may even cause permanent damage. The most natural solution was to dock the tail and remove the safety concerns to prevent this type of problem.

Docked tails are safer for studs during breeding

Mating safety

Supporters of tail docking claim a stallion is at high risk of injury when breeding with a long-tailed mare. The claim is the stud is likely to develop lesions and lose enthusiasm for further breeding. In most structured horse breeding programs, a mare’s tail is bandaged.

The mating safety is rebuffed primarily through the lack of any evidence to support long-tailed mares cause lesions to stallions in any horse breed. The Belgium Animal Welfare Council points out that evolution would have corrected the mating issue related to injuries if they existed.

  • Mares would be, at present, naturally docked or ‘shaved,’ because males would’ve avoided copulating with females having a long tail or tails with other ‘dangerous’ characters or
  • Stallions would’ve developed a ‘defensive strategy’ consisting of better protection of their penis against wounds potentially caused by the female tails.

Docked tails are more sanitary.


Proponents of docking submit that docking is beneficial for the welfare of horses. They argue that horses are more prone to parasite attacks when their tails are left intact.

To support their position, they purport that horses with long tails are less sanitary because the underside of the tail remains dirty from manure. The warm, moist, contaminated area would be ideal for parasites to house.


Traditionally, horse owners performed tail docking for practical reasons, but docking became cosmetically fashionable in some breeds. Docking is rare outside of the draft breeds. The breed standards for some draft horses describe the tail as a rounded croup.

How Are Horses Tails Docked?

My ever-curious grandson looked over my shoulder at the pictures of the horses with docked tails and asked, “were those horses born without a tail.” When I told him no, his next question stumped me, “how do they make the tail that short.”

Amputation and ligature are two primary procedures to dock a horse’s tail. Amputation is a surgical procedure, and the ligature method is done by tightly tying off the tail and causing the tail to die and fall off.

Horse Tail Amputations

In the early days of docking tongs or a guillotine, apparatus was used to sever the tail, and the wound was cauterized with a hot iron. Today the tail is removed surgically.

Ligature use in docking

Ligatures are wrapped tightly around the distal part of the horse’s tail to induce necrosis. A horse’s tail is a complex structure that includes ligaments, muscles, tendons, and circulatory anatomy. The ligature process is long and painful.

There is pain associated with docking a tail.

Studies of pain caused by the amputation of horses’ tails have not been performed. However, there have been studies of pain associated with docking in other mammals.

The National Institute of Health studied docking dogs’ tails and the associated pain, and a 2003 review found dogs suffered pain during the procedure.

Advocates of docking propose that the procedure can be performed with minimal pain on very young foals. The theory is that very young foals don’t perceive pain similarly to older ones.

However, the theory that young animals can’t feel pain as acutely as older animals have been debunked in numerous studies. Puppies vocalize intensely when docked, regardless of their age.

Pain associated with an amputation can continue for several days or even weeks after the operation and lead to neurological problems.

Here’s a YouTube video about braiding horse tails.

How Does Docking Affect a Horse?

Our horses use their long tails to sweep flies off them. How do horses manage flies without a tail, and are there any other adverse effects of not having a tail?

Horses use their tails to protect themselves from flies and other unwanted insects. They also use their tails to communicate. Horses with docked tails are adversely affected by the loss of their tails.

Horses use their tails to keep insects away.

A horse’s tail is an essential weapon for horses against insect harassment and attacks. A whole host of insects bother horses, including horseflies, mosquitoes, bees, wasps, and hornets.

Horseflies and mosquitoes are parasites, and their ability to pierce the flesh can impair horse health through disease transmission or allergy induction. Horses prevent insect attacks through various natural methods: movements of the mane and tail hair, shivering, stamping, and location shifts.

Horses swish their tails to swipe insects off themselves, and they often group together and swish their tails to remove insects from one another in areas they can’t reach on their own.

Docked horses can’t swish their tails to remove insects; to compensate, they walk a lot more to avoid them. This behavior results in unnecessary horse fatigue.

Horses use their tails to communicate.

A horse uses its tail to communicate with other horses. A horse signals with its tail with up and down movement, side-to-side movement, and tail elevation.

Elevated tail

When a horse shows attention to a subject, it will elevate its tail, head, and neck, prick its ears and turn its head in the direction of the issue. This posture transmits a vigilant state with a general mood of excitation, such as sexual arousal, aggressiveness, or fear.

Tail elevation signals preparation for movement and an increase in pace. It also communicates a readiness for action, alertness, and, thus, a warning. Horses also use this posture to demonstrate aggression or to signal confidence.

Dropped tail

A dropped tail is related to fear, most commonly in a social context and when escape is impossible. The posture of a horse carrying its tail low and a protective withdrawal of the tail and ears indicates non-aggression and submission.

Lateral tail movement

A horse’s lateral tail movements may be associated with the general motivational state of the animal or with a more specific message, such as the intention to kick.

Lateral tail movements may also be seen as transitional activities between bouts of ongoing behavior and visual and auditory signals. Horses may display tail movements when in a herd or in the presence of a person, body postures being influenced by the person present.

When individuals work with horses, they need to consider the communicative value of tail movements. Swishing the tail can signal nervousness, tension, or resistance by a horse.

Picture of an Irish Draft horse.

Docking is banned in some places.

At least ten states and most West European countries have banned docking. As an alternative, owners’ cut the hair of the tail skirt very short, just past the end of the natural dock of the tail.

How to clean your horse’s tail.

A horse’s tail is an important part of its coat and helps to keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It also protects their hindquarters from insects and debris. Because of this, it is important to keep a horse’s tail clean and free of tangles.

The easiest way to do this is to use a tail brush or comb. Start at the bottom of the tail and work your way up, being careful not to pull on any knots. You may also need to use a detangler if the tail is very matted.

Once you have removed all the tangles, shampoo the tail with a mild horse shampoo and rinse thoroughly. Finally, use a conditioner to help prevent future tangling and give the tail a healthy shine.

How do I get my yellow horse’s tail white?

If you have a white-tailed horse, take steps to prevent its tail from getting yellow. Keep your horse’s stall clean and feed it a properly nutritious diet with healthy minerals for its hair and coat. You can also braid or use a tail bag for your horse’s tail.

To get your horse’s tail looking its best, wash the tail as described above and get it really clean. Next, use a whitening shampoo and follow the instructions. Begin the process once a week for the first month, then follow up with washing twice a month.


What does a horse tail symbolize?

A horse’s long-flowing tail symbolizes strength, power, and fertility. In Ancient Rome, the “October horse” was sacrificed, and its head and tail were cut off in a ritual to honor Mars. The tail was a magico-religious symbol of fertility or power during this period. Some soldiers even attached it to their battle helmets.

How often should you wash your horse’s tail?

It would be best to wash your horse’s tail at least twice a month, but once a week would be even better. Your horse needs his tail brushed daily to keep it clean and sanitary. Regular grooming allows you to inspect the area for any skin irritation and parasites.