Why Do Horses Swish Their Tails? Horse Behavior Guide

What to Know About Horses Swishing Their Tails

Have you ever seen a horse swish its tail back and forth? Maybe you’re grooming your horse and notice this behavior or you’re riding and asking them to do something specific when you get a tail-flick for a response. Animals use their bodies to communicate with one another, so your horse may be trying to tell you something when they swish their tail.

Why do horses swish their tails? A swishing tail can have a variety of different meanings. Here is a list of common reasons why a horse may swish its tail:

  • to swat at flies or other pests
  • to communicate discomfort or frustration
  • to let someone know they are annoyed
  • as a sign of concentration on a specific task
  • as a sign of contentment 
  • to restore balance during a certain activity

 

Since there are many reasons why horses may swish their tail, it’s important to be able to differentiate between each reason in order to best serve your horse. In this article, I’ll break down these behaviors more fully so you can get a better idea of why your horse may be exhibiting this behavior.

How Can A Tail Swish Have So Many Different Meanings?

Humans have vocal cords and can express a variety of ideas and emotions through their words. Animals do not speak, but they do have the need to communicate with others and they accomplish this with their own language. A horse’s body is one way that she communicates with those around her, and with a limited amount of tools at her disposal, one movement can be used to convey a wealth of expressions.

In order to determine what emotion your horse is trying to express with his swishing tail, you will need to look at the context of the situation. What is going on in your horse’s environment? Did another horse just get close to the other while they were eating? Is the horse being turned out after a rigorous workout and wants to roll in the dirt? 

You will also want to look at the rest of the horse’s body language. Where are their ears pointing, or are the ears pinned back? What is the position of the horse’s neck? Are they stomping their feet, or biting at their side? As you spend more time with your horse you will gain experience in reading their body language, and this can help you distinguish between tail swishes.

Horses Swish Their Tails To Deter Insects

While horses attract flies like no other, they are also bothered by them, just as you would if you had a swarm of flies vying for position to land on you. Flies are not the only flying insects that bother horses – other pests include horseflies, mosquitoes, wasps, and gnats. The horse’s main defense against flies is its tail. 

If a horse is happily grazing or resting in the shade but you see his tail swishing back and forth, chances are he is batting at flies. You may also see him bite at his side, his legs, or you may see his skin twitch. These are all defenses that your horse is using to deter flies from landing on them or to encourage them to fly away.

A swishing tail actually uses two approaches when used to fight insects. The first is the swat – the horse swishes its tail with remarkable accuracy and is able to hit insects with its hair, swatting them off of their body. But while the horse is swishing its tail, they are also using it to deter additional pests as well. Horses use just enough force in their tail swishing to create a breeze so that mosquitoes cannot fly in and land. It has been estimated that the energy used in swishing a horsetail is the same amount of energy expended in a human jump. Because of the high amount of energy this takes, horses use just enough force to accomplish their goal while sustaining the action.

Horses do not only use their tails to protect themselves from pests. If you have two horses that are comfortable with one another, you may see one standing in front of the other, gently swishing their tail to shoo the flies off of their friend’s face. 

Did you know that there are things you can do to keep flies away from your horse? Check out my article Keeping Flies Off Your Horse: The Ultimate Guide.

Horses Swish Their Tails To Express Discomfort

Horses also swish their tails when they are uncomfortable or in pain. You may have noticed a horse swishing its tail while being tacked up. Think about horse tack – there is a lot involved in preparing your horse to ride. The bit, the saddle, the girth. Your horse does not have many avenues to express to you that the girth is uncomfortable or the bit is the wrong size. If you see your horse suddenly swishing their tail while you are tightening up the girth or putting on a new saddle, you should look at the tack to determine if it is causing them discomfort.

Your horse may also swish their tail to express discomfort due to an injury or illness. If you are asking them to trot but their back is causing them pain, they may appear stubborn, refusing to speed up and swishing their tail. In this instance, the horse is in pain and knows that if they do what is asked of them, the pain will increase. If you are noticing your horse swishing their tail more than usual when asked to move into another gait, or perform a specific activity, you may want to investigate further to see if they are experiencing pain.

Horses Swish Their Tails When Confused

When you are working with or training your horse, your goal should always be to maintain a calm atmosphere while also helping your horse grasp a new concept or activity. New concepts may be confusing to your horse in the beginning and may cause them to second-guess. You may see them swishing their tail when you are trying to teach them something new. This is a way to express their confusion, and also their willingness to understand what is being asked of them.

To help your horse avoid confusion, it’s important to work slowly and consistently. Don’t move on to the next thing until they display that they fully understand the first step. If the horse shows signs of getting overwhelmed or frustrated, like swishing their tail, take a break, or go back to a basic exercise you know the horse can do.

Avoiding certain training mistakes can help to prevent your horse from getting frustrated. To learn about the most common training mistakes, visit my article 5 Most Common Horse Training Mistakes.

Horses Swish Their Tails When Concentrating

Perhaps your horse knows what is being asked of them, but the task is still something that they are working on mastering and so they are putting a great deal of concentration into it. You may see your horse swishing their tail when they are really concentrating, usually during a rigorous or relatively new exercise. I personally experienced this with my own horse when it came to teaching them flying lead changes. As we would set up for the lead change, the horse would start swishing their tail, knowing that the change was coming.

Think about the tells that you may give when you are concentrating on a challenging task. Do you purse your lips or scrunch your forehead? Perhaps you squint your eyes or grind your teeth. This isn’t evidence that you are not enjoying what is being asked of you, or that you are getting irritated with what is being asked of you. These are simply physical outlets to accompany the mental concentration that you are putting forth. This is the same for your horse.

Horses Swish Their Tails When They Are Happy

You may also see your horse swishing their tail when they are content or relaxed. If your horse sees you from across the pasture filling their grain bucket, you may see them swishing their tail back and forth as they head over to you. Horses love to eat – what other meaning could you glean from their swishing tail as they see their grain bucket being filled? You may also see them swishing their tail back and forth as they are being turned out after a ride. The horse will be anticipating the time that they will get to spend relaxing and grazing and might swish their tail to express their gratitude.

You may also see your horse swishing their tail when they are in a playful mood. Horses are not always serious creatures, and even the older horses will enjoy playing with one another now and then. When this happens, you will often see their tails swishing back and forth, expressing their desire to play and goof around.

Horses Swish Their Tails For Balance

If a horse is experiencing difficulty finding its balance, they may swish their tail to help themselves, in the same way that many animals with tails will balance themselves. This can be due to the horse’s own problems with balance but is more often due to an unbalanced rider. If a rider is not properly seated in the saddle, this will throw off the horse’s balance as well.

Horses Swish Their Tails Out Of Irritation

Yes, horses will also swish their tails when they are irritated or expressing displeasure. If your horse is being exercised and learning something new, they may start swishing their tail if the lesson has gone on too long and they are beginning to lose focus. They may also swish their tail if they are being pushed well beyond their comfort zone. Your horse may also swish their tail out of irritation if they are uncomfortable during grooming, annoyed at being haltered while grazing, or being given inconsistent cues while being ridden.

Why Is Your Horse Swishing Her Tail?

If you are trying to figure out why your horse is swishing their tail, you will need to look at the whole picture – including what is going on in their environment, and what the rest of their body language is telling you. There are many different reasons your horse may be swishing their tail, and they are not all bad!

 

Want to learn more about horse behavior? Visit my article Signs a Horse is Anxious, Nervous, or Stressed.

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