If you follow horse groups on social media you’ve probably noticed that one of the aspects of horse care that concerns horse owners the most is the condition and appearance of his tail.
When it comes to grooming tails receive a great deal of attention. When they’re ratty and sparse, we worry, and when it comes to competition or showing we dither about whether and how to bandage, braid, thin or bang (cut or clip) … tails are problematic!
To fully understand the treatment and care of a horse’s tail, let’s take a look at this beautiful and versatile caudal component of a horse’s physical make up, that evince properties far more important than just their good looks.
Anatomy of a Horse Tail
The horse’s tail is an extension of his spinal column. It is made up of two portions … the dock and the skirt. The dock is the solid part, made up of muscles and up to 18 vertebrae (the number varies), covered with skin. Below the dock long, thick hairs fall down, growing from all around the dock, making up the skirt. The dock is supplied with blood by two arteries, but because the dock is narrow it’s not well supplied so this is why injuries tend to take time to heal here, and injuries can be hard to cure.
The hair of the skirt is thick and coarse, made up of hard protein, each hair consisting of three layers and, although it seems smooth, the outer layer or cuticle has overlapping horny scales.
Depending on the composition of the twisted protein strands of the middle layer tail hair may be curly or straight.
Purpose of a Horse Tail
A horse’s tail is flexible and strong and nature has evolved it that way to fulfil various purposes, which involve protection and communication.
The most obvious purpose is evident in any horse out in pasture on a summer’s eve. He’ll flick his long, luxurious tail like a fly swat to keep away biting insects. In a herd he’ll do this not only for his own comfort but for his companions too. You’ll often see horses standing head to tail, swatting flies away from each other’s faces.
More important is the horse tail’s role in communication. The tail is a vital tool in relaying body language. It’s the way your horse talks to you and his companions, communicating his physical and emotional state.
Tail signals have an important role to play in horse life in the herd. Mares, for example, will lift their tails up and to the side to invite a stallion, and also once impregnated will warn the boys away with an aggressive swish of the tail.
The tail also sends a signal to be alert if danger threatens a herd … stallions become protective by lifting their tails, prancing and defecating.
A twitching tail is a sign of impatience with a youngster, who, once told off, will clamp his tail between his hind legs to signify subservience.
Horses speak to their riders and carers too using their tails. He’ll swish his tail in anger if he’s not pleased, or clamp his tail when he’s really angry, frightened or discomforted. Learning to read the tail signals is part of good horsemanship.
Here’s a simple guide to horse tail language:
· Curled Tail – calm and relaxed
· Swishing Tail – annoyed
· Wringing or twirling tail – aggressive
· High tail (lifted up) – excited, feeling good
· Straight down Tail – apprehensive
· Tucked in Tail – Afraid