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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, there are horses, mostly draft horses, with tails 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’s a lot of controversies surrounding the docking of horse’s tails.


Why Is a Horses’ Tail “Docked”?

When looking at some old logging photos from our area, I noticed many of the draft horses with docked tails—seeing this made wonder why they cut the horses’ tails so short.

Proponents raise four primary reasons for docking horses: tails, safety, sanitation, mating, and cosmetics. When rigged to pull equipment, a horse’s tail often got in the way or could become tangled. Docking their tails was considered a safety measure.

Tail docking began in 17th century Great Britain as a way to identify English horses from French horses. Horses were first marked by nicking tails, the practice of cutting some tail muscles to make them stand up.

When the practice of nicking and docking started, it was reserved for use on horses owned by the nobility. Nicking and docking fell out of favor in Great Britain but had spread and was commonly seen in Western European draft horses.

The American Veterinarian Medical Association defines tail docking as “the practice of removing the distal section of an animal’s tail.” The remaining portion of the tail on a horse is typically six inches long.

Docked tails were safer for horse handlers

Human safety

The handlers of draft horses used to agricultural or forestry work fear a horse’s tail may pass above the guide reins and make it impossible to direct the horses and increase 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 injury 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 for the welfare of horses, docking is beneficial. 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.

Cosmetics: 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. In the breed standards for some draft horses, they 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.”

There are two primary procedures used to dock a horse’s tail, amputation and ligature. 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 severe 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 horses’ 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 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 in the same manner as 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.

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 horses’ 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 good deal more to avoid the insects. 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 combined with 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 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 be a sign of nervousness, tension, or resistance by a 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 often should you wash your horse’s tail?

It would be best if you washed 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.

How do you clean a horse’s tail?

To clean a horse’s tail is like washing your hair. Just wet the tail and massage in a good shampoo, starting at the top of the tail. Work in the soap next to the tail bone and inspect for abnormalities and parasites.

Rinse the tail thoroughly with water, and follow up with white vinegar to ensure all the soap is removed.

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 washing twice a month.