What’s The Reason For Draft Horses Having Short Tails?

If you have been around horses, you may wonder why some horses have long, flowing tails, while others have short tails. Most of the horses that you might see with short tails are draft horses such as Clydesdales, Shires, and Percherons. Are their tails naturally like this, or were they physically altered at some point in time?

Why do many draft horses often have short tails? All breeds of horses are born with naturally long tails, however docking tails became popular years ago in both riding and working horses. Because draft horses are mainly used as working horses, the tradition stuck for both practical and cosmetic reasons. Though you will still find many docked draft horses, the practice is now considered controversial and is even banned in many areas. 

For a more in-depth look at why draft horses get their tails docked, keep reading!

Why Are Draft Horses’ Tails Docked?

So why are some horses’ tails docked? There are a few reasons cited for docking tails, including safety for working horses, sanitation, and cosmetic purposes.

Docking a Horse’s Tail For Safety

Docking tails has not only been a practice in keeping the working horse safe but also in keeping the human operators safe as well.

It was not too long ago when farmers and loggers used horses – usually large draft horses – to pull their machinery and work in the fields. The naturally long, full tails of these horses were at risk of becoming caught and tangled in the machinery or harness, which could result in pain and even permanent injury. People began docking the horse’s tail to avoid this risk, in the interest of ensuring the horse’s safety. In many regions today, it is more common now to avoid amputating the working horse’s tail and instead braid or tie up the tail so that it is not easily caught. 

Horse tails are strong and flexible, full of muscles used to move the tail at the horse’s whim. If a working horse moved its tail so that it was clamped down on the reins the driver used to steer, this could present a danger for the horse’s handler – causing the operator to lose control of the horse(s) and increase the risk of bolting.

To avoid this risk, many handlers have moved to a single-rein system in order to prevent these situations. 

Percherons are a popular draft horse breed. To learn more about Percherons, visit my article What Is A Percheron Horse? Pictures & Fun Facts.

Docking a Horse’s Tail For Sanitation

Some propose that sanitation is a key argument in favor of docking a horse’s tail. The idea is that a horse’s tail becomes dirty with manure and urine which allows health problems to flourish, including parasitic infestations and fungal infections. 

Theoretically, a horse’s tail should not be covered in waste, as they lift their tails to eliminate. Most of us who have been around horses know that this does not always work as it should, however, and we may need to take additional measures to ensure good hygiene. 

Many carriage horses often wear “manure catchers,” bags that sit between the horse’s tail and backside to catch manure so it doesn’t get left on the road. Since the manure catcher sits close to the horse’s tail, it can lead to the tail getting covering in manure as the horse pulls the carriage.

Washing and grooming the tail as needed is a must, and for the horses with problematic toilet practices, tail bags or braids may help keep things clean. While it is true that a horse’s tail should not be left soaked in urine or matted with feces, there are other ways to manage this if it becomes a problem.

Docking a Horse’s Tail For Cosmetic Reasons

Docking tails is a traditional practice and is often done to draft horses more for cosmetic purposes than practical ones. While it is not common to see a docked tail in a riding horse, this has not always been the case. Years ago, horses were dual-purpose, with most horses doubling as both working and riding horses. It was common to see these lighter riding horse breeds with docked tails as well because they were also used for working operations. 

Docked tails in riding horses were also seen as a sign of being “upper-class” at one point in history and were seen as fashionable. In fact, in the 19th century, most riding horses had docked tails, as you may have seen evidence of in old paintings and photographs. 

The Anatomy Of The Horse Tail

To understand how a horse’s tail becomes docked, you must first understand the anatomy of a horse’s tail. If you’ve ever played with a horse figurine as a child, you may have run your fingers through the long tufts of tail hair, sprouting directly from the horse’s (plastic) rear end. This is not an accurate portrayal of a horse tail.

The horse tail is made of bones (specifically vertebrae) and muscle, with long hairs sprouting from the appendage. This tailbone can more accurately be referred to as an extension of the horse’s spine. While the length of this tailbone varies by individual horse, it usually makes up around half of the horse’s visible tail. You can easily feel this appendage when you touch your horse’s tail. 

When docked, horse tails are either amputated or removed by the ligature process, leaving an approximately 6-inch length of tail. Amputations are much more common and are usually done when the horse is only days old, as it is thought that the process will cause less pain and trauma in young foals. The ligature process is less common and is performed by tying a ligature around the horse’s tail until it dies and falls off – this is a longer and more painful process for the horse and is not recommended.  

Alternative Methods For Docking a Horse’s Tail

You may see some horses with “banged” tails. To bang your horse’s tail simply means to cut the tail hair to a blunt end, below the tailbone. How short you cut the hair is a matter of preference, but cutting your horse’s hair in this manner may help with both sanitation and is also a cosmetic preference for many riders. 

When cutting your horse’s hair in this manner, make sure to watch how high your horse holds her tail when trotting. You will want to trim at an angle so that the cut is parallel to the ground when they have their tail held up.

Is It Illegal To Dock Horse Tails?

Docking horse tails is now seen as a controversial topic, with the practice heavily regulated in several US states, and outright banned in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and parts of Australia and New Zealand. 

The US states that ban tail docking in horses are Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Washington. Docking must be deemed medically necessary (or in some cases, beneficial to the horse) by a vet to be performed in Connecticut, Michigan, Illinois, and California. In New Hampshire, the state veterinarian must approve the request before a licensed vet can perform the operation on a horse.

Why Is Tail Docking Considered Controversial?

Because the tail docking in horses is actually an amputation of the spinal column, opponents of docking label the practice as an unnecessary mutilation of the animal. The loss of the tail may also cause suffering to the animal, as horses have many uses for their tails.

Horses Use Their Tails To Communicate

Horses use their tails as a means of communication, both with one another and also with their human handlers. A clamped tail may indicate a horse is afraid or feels trapped, while a twitching tail may indicate irritation or a warning that the horse is about to kick. An energetic and playful horse may have his tail held high, while a mare who is in heat and receptive to a suitor may lift her tail and hold it to the side. Horses are herd animals, and the ability to communicate with one another is vital to the security and harmony of the herd.

To learn more about how horses may communicate with their tails, visit my article Why Do Horses Swish Their Tails? Horse Behavior Guide.

Horses Use Their Tails As Fly Control

Everyone knows that flies love horses. But horses hate flies! A horse’s tail is significant in his ability to fight back at these irritating pests; he will swat his long tail back and forth to bat pests off of his hide. This is not only a deterrent to flies, but also mosquitoes, horseflies, wasps, or any other flying insect that may bother the horse. If you have two horses who are friendly with one another, you may see them taking turns standing in front of one another and gently swishing their tails to deter flies from landing on their pal’s face. 

Tail Docking Has Evolved Over Time, And Will Continue To Do So

While docking a working horse’s tail may have originally come into fashion for practical purposes, the practice has evolved over time and is mostly considered unnecessary in our modern society. Like many traditions, however, change takes time and you may very well still see many docked tails on draft breeds today. This may change in years to come, however, as the practice continues to become outdated.

Did you know that your horse’s tail could help you identify what breed your horse is? To learn more, visit my article How To Tell What Breed Your Horse Is (Step-By-Step Guide.)


P.S. Save this to your “Horse Care” board!

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My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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