The long, flowing tail of a horse is a symbol of power, grace and strength. It is also a defense against insect bites and an instrument of communication between horses. In fact, it is common for a horse to swish its tail back and forth in an attempt to bat away flies or other flying insects from its body or face.
The use of the tail as a natural pest deterrent has led to some controversy over whether or not docking a working horse’s tail is necessary for the safety and performance of the animal. In reality, however, the ability of a horse to swat flies and other pests is just as important for a working horse as its legs or its eyes, even though docking of draft horses was originally done solely for practical reasons.
A long, full tail is considered to be a sign of good health in a horse and is often encouraged to grow by grooming techniques such as brushing or combing to remove tangles. In addition, a long, natural tail is often required in competitive disciplines such as dressage and eventing to give the appearance of proper form.
However, a long, full tail is not always a good choice for a working horse due to its propensity to get caught in machinery or equipment such as carriages, and can lead to painful injuries to the horse’s back and shoulders. In these cases, the tail is often “banged,” which involves squarely cutting the tail at its bottom with a blunt, straight edge. The length of a banged tail is often a matter of preference or current style in the discipline, but is usually somewhere between fetlock height and the base of the hock.
Alternatively, the check ligament of the tail can be nicked or cut to obtain the same effect as a docked tail but in a shorter time frame. This is often used with draft horses as a means to keep the tail from getting tangled in their harnesses, but is viewed as less drastic than the complete amputation of the tail. In either case, the check ligament may never return to its original tension once the tail is healed and will not be able to be swung to ward off flies in the future.
For these reasons, many people choose to have their horses’ tails shortened by having them docked. Generally, docking is performed on young foals, although it can be performed at other times of life. It is usually done surgically, but some people choose to have the tail docked by a process called ligature, which involves wrapping a tight cord around the horse’s tail and then severing it just above the fetlock. The ligature method is generally considered more humane than surgical amputation, but it can still cause pain and trauma for the horse. Regardless of the discipline or type of tail, any haircut should be made with a healthy, happy and well-fed horse in mind to ensure the best results.