Tale of the horse tail: Bags, braids and fakes
"Why is that horse's tail bandaged? What is wrong with it?"
I am sometimes asked this question regarding a horse with its tail in a bag. What is a tail bag and why is it used?
Another good question is, "What is that dead animal hanging on that horse’s stall door?" referring to a tail extension. When do horses "need" fake tails?
The horse’s tail is an extension of its backbone. Horses have between 16-21 coccygeal vertebrae. For comparison, people have three to five rudimentary coccygeal vertebrae, which form our "tailbone." The horse's coccygeal vertebrae, attached muscle, tendon and ligament form the dock of the tail, and the long hairs that fall below this are referred to as the skirt.
Some breeds are well endowed with luxurious hair, such as generally furry ponies and draft breeds. Some breeds are not so lucky, such as Appaloosas. It has been speculated that Native Americans bred Appyaloosas to have little mane and tail so as not to interfere with trappings of the hunt or warfare. It actually appears that genetic factors controlling coat color may incidentally affect mane and tail volume. (see "Equine Color Genetics," 1996, Phillip Sponenberg)
Horses generally have beautiful tails. Long hair, often of varying shades, gently tapering down to the ground is a classic image. The ideal popularized in the show ring in some disciplines in recent years is quite different: a full tail which is "banged" or cut off squarely above the ground.
Tails usually have a tapered shape because hairs break off, get caught in things and pull out, are nibbled at by equine friends, or are broken off while the horse rubs its behind on a nice scratchy surface.
To protect the tail and to prevent breakage, owners have resorted to cleaning, conditioning and possibly bleaching the tail hair, braiding it, and putting it in a tube sock tied to the hairs close to the dock. Periodically the tail is unbundled, and the process is repeated. The horse may unbundle it himself and douse it in mud, prompting a re-do.
The objective is a long, luxurious tail which can either be banged at a certain length to suit, generally in stock horse breeds, or left long, to trail on the ground, as in Arabians and Saddlbreds. The tail is only freed to its glory for shows.
Sounds simple enough. A wet, muddy, possibly poopy tail bag being flicked at you as you groom your horse is a less pleasant image. Old socks were quickly improved upon with light weight nylon bags of a myriad of patterns and colors which can now be purchased at any tack store. These absorb less muck, dry more quickly, and look much better than the old sock. Helping your horse grow a beautiful tail can take a lot of work and patience.
Having one’s tail in a bag does limit nature’s intended purpose of shooing flies — a serious consideration in summer. As the little mermaid exclaimed to her grandmother, who had ordered beautiful oysters to attach themselves to her tail fin for adornment, "but they hurt me so." Her grandmother’s reply: "Pride must suffer pain."
In either case, whose pride and whose pain? To address this, you can purchase a product to attach to the end of the tail bag to replace the actual tail skirt for the switching of flies.
Tail extensions allow the horse to have a natural, functional tail available for fly control, and have that sensationally full, immaculate tail during shows for the desired silhouette. Extensions are made from actual horse hair and can be bought to match your horse’s coloring.
Tail movement may be a sign of fussiness or resistance and so is frowned upon in the show ring. Western Pleasure, in particular, favors a quiet countenance. The weight of the extension can decrease the horse's tail movement. Extensions can be bought with added weight to enhance this effect. Some horses do not like having the extra weight of the extension, and swish until the natural hair separates from the attached hair or even (yikes!) falls off. For the most part, extensions stay in place and look more voluptuous than nature had intended —with a lot less work.
Where does all this horse hair come from? Not much information on this subject is forthcoming. Options include removing small amounts of hair from many living horses, or large amounts from living or deceased horses. One site stated that hair was "harvested in many different ways by several suppliers."
Horse tail fashion varies by breed and activities the horse engages in. Fashion, as always, changes over the years. In days of plowing and carriages, tails of foals were commonly partially amputated or “docked” to prevent entanglement. The practice continues at some PMU facilities to keep operations neater (Pregnant Mare Urine farms, where urine is collected for its conjugated estrogen content, a product widely prescribed for humans).
"Nicking" or cutting the ligaments in a horse's tail are other techniques humans have used to encourage the tail to take a desired form. Nicking top ligaments causes the tail to lie flat, nicking bottom ligaments and setting the tail in a rigid form can cause it to stand up.
Going a step further, people have broken tail bones both to make them stay down and to make them heal turned up. These techniques do leave telltale stigmata. Tails have been injected with caustic materials to damage the nerves, with the resultant paralysis the desired effect. It is clear where the who pride is addressed and whose pain is endured with these practices.
Many of these methods have been condemned as animal cruelty and are no longer accepted. For a thorough review on cosmetic tail procedures and legal implications see the 2003 article by Sandra Tozzini.
Tail bags and hair extensions on horses may seem to be curious practices. But for people who show some disciplines, a long, full tail is an essential component of the desired look.