The horse’s tail: much more than a hairy fly swatter.

Tail docking (without medical reason) is prohibited in the Netherlands, and with good reason. The tail has important functions for the horse. It differs per animal species what the tail is used for. For example, monkeys have a tail to balance themselves and fish use it for swimming. In horses, it mainly appears to be a handy hairy fly swatter, but the tail does so much more than that…

 

The tail is actually an extension of the spine. In total, the spine consists of about 54 vertebrae (some horse breeds have fewer). Of these, 15 to 20 belong to the caudal vertebrae. The caudal vertebrae are covered with muscles and skin, this whole is also called the dock of the tail. The muscles allow movement of the tail and the hairs of the tail are attached to the skin. In horses, the long, thick hairs grow at the beginning of the tail dock. In donkeys, zebras and other equines these long hairs grow mainly at the end (the tip) of the dock, the top is covered with shorter hair. The underside of the dock is not covered with hair on either side.

 

As we mentioned in the introduction, the tail is used to chase away flies and other insects. In addition, it protects the anus and in mares the vulva as well. But the tail is also an important tool in equine communication. The different postures and movements that a tail makes can say something about the state of mind of the horse in that moment. It is important to look at the entire horse, including the ears, mouth and nostrils, and not just the tail.

 

But what could the tail tell you? In a neutral position, the tail hangs relaxed. In some breeds, such as Arabians, the tail can be kept a little further away from the body. Arabs originally come from warm climates, so it was important for them to be able to expel heat. By carrying the tail away from the body, the body heat can be released better. If the horse starts to move, it will carry its tail more, holding it up slightly. But a horse can also start flagging its tail if it is paying attention or is slightly tense. If the excitement becomes more intense, the tail will be more upright. This is often accompanied by blowing and some signs of excitement/pacing back and forth. You will probably have encountered this when dealing with horses, for example when they have just been turned out to a pasture or paddock. A horse can also clamp its tail, tucking it firmly between its hind legs. The horse may show this behaviour when it is in pain, but also when it feels a threat from behind. In addition, it can be visible when the horse is cold, instead of holding it away from the body to expel heat, they hold the tail tight against the body to retain the heat.

 

Not only the posture, but also the movement of the tail can indicate a lot. The tail can be moved horizontally, vertically and in circles. You often see the horizontal movement when they try to chase flies. They do this not only on themselves, but by standing close to other horses they can also chase each other’s flies away. In anger, a horse will swish its tail hard a number of times and thus make the vertical movement. You see the circular movement in case of dissatisfaction or exertion. In case of irritation, fear or nervousness, the tail can move a bit jerkily in all directions and then switch to circular movements. You can also see this, for example, if the horse has a colic or if a mare is in labour. To properly interpret these signals, it is important to look at the entire horse. Some horses just make more movements with their tail than others. So it is not necessarily the case that a horse which makes vertical movements with its tail is always angry or irritated, but it can be an indication.

 

In addition to being a fly swatter, the tail is therefore an important means of communication for horses. For these reasons, tail docking has been prohibited in the Netherlands since 2001. Docking is the amputation of the tail. In the past, this was mainly done in draft horses, because this was more practical for their work. The horse could then no longer catch the reins under its tail. In addition to being practical, it was also seen as a beauty ideal.

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