I know I am opening a huge can of worms here….but lets talk about horses using their tails. I am talking about tail swishing, tail wringing, etc.
Here are some questions for you…(my answer follows the question.)
Do horses ever use their tails because of the rider? Yes
Do horses ever use their tails because of discomfort? Yes
Do horse ever use their tails because of pleasure? Yes
Do horses ever use their tails because of excitement or exertion? Yes
How about these horses playing in the mud…and wringing their tails? Yes
Do horses ever use their tails to complain about the work they are being asked to do….not because the work is unreasonable, but just because they would rather not?
If we can allow for the idea that horses, like humans, have opinions on work…then lets look at humans for a minute. How many of us are ‘happy’ with our work.
“…nearly two-thirds of respondents, said they were not happy at work.” -ManpowerGroup
“Just 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work…”, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report.
So, according to this survey two-thirds of us are ‘wringing our tails’ at work. Only with humans it is generally our tongues that we are ‘wringing.’ For more on horses as employees, click here.
Dressage horse freestyle, watch for when the horse does-or does not- use her tail.
All I’m suggesting is the idea that the tail swishing isn’t as simple as it seems on the surface.
This subject leads into another subject… people ‘doing’ or ‘fixing’ horses tails…meaning they inject or otherwise physically stop them from moving their tail by a medical procedure. Personally, when they use their tails, I am thankful that the rider/owner chose not to medically alter their horse.
In some disciplines, like Western Pleasure and Reining, the judges do mark down or penalize a horse if it uses its tail excessively…..which inadvertently encourages more medical procedures (I’m against this but I think open discussion about it is better than denial).
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I cannot believe some of you people, think tail switching is pretty! Generally it means they hate there job and are unhappy, in the case of the dressage horses why wouldn’t they be, roulker, mouths cranked shut, under pressure, makes me want to puke. And then the reiners, ears pinned, back, head in the dirt, doctored tails, hating every minute of it. I can show you video, of reiners 25 yrs ago, far superior to anything you see today. One good example would be “Royal Chic Olena”, winning the first go around at the big futurity, bright, head up, ears up, Poll the highest point, looking where he is going,and smooth as silk. I think the reiners think that a horse that is actually, looking where he is going is bad, they will call him “looky”, as if that is a bad thing. I saw video of the horse that won the futurity, last year I believe, he came out, made a production of putting his horses head literally in the dirt, then he made a production of moving his hip over, then to do his canter depart, he kicked him at least. 12 times, I believe it was even more, I will have to go back and count. The horse was very unhappy, and hating every minute of it. Well he did slide far, and spin fast, I guess that’s what it’s all about huh! When you get to a show, in my opinion, you should be able to do a canter depart from dead straight, and any body watching shouldn’t be able to even see what you did to get the depart. If this is horsemanship, BEAM ME UP SCOTTY!
First, I do agree that tail swishing *can* mean they are unhappy. Second, do you think it *always* means they are unhappy? If yes, how do you explain the tail ringing before Popcorn rolls in the mud? Just food for thought, not for fight:)
I agree it doesn’t always mean they are unhappy. When a horse is walking across the pen to get a bite of grain, not a fly in sight, switching his tail, it’s obviously not caused by pressure. That’s also a horse I don’t want to ride. Generally though I believe it’s caused by the rider. One of my all time favorite horses, very talented and very sensitive, as long as I did my job, in sync, not ahead or behind him, and not forcing things on him, would never move his tail. If I wasn’t doing my part, he would be switchy. On the other end of the spectrum would be the King Fritz, (Chex horses), back in the 70’s. it was unbelievable the brutality those horses would put up, and not show it, ears up, tail soft and never move their tail. They were Cowy, athletic, and would put up with anything. The jerk and spur trainers loved them. I am not saying everybody that rode them was like that, but many were! I bought a reining bred, two year old gelding, that was the switchiest, horse I ever owned, you couldn’t even lead him without him switching his tail. He had been lunged,preparing him for a sale by a lady that didn’t know what she was doing, I spent countless hours getting him where he wasn’t scared of a lunging whip, it didn’t take any time to get him where he would put up with it, but it took a long time, to get to the point where he didn’t switch. I got him pretty good before I started him, he never moves it now.
Valid points. I often tell people to watch the horses default body language and decide if it is for you. For example some horses toss their heads more often than using their tails (I’m referring to at liberty in both cases)…I think this is more likely to happen when ridden. If it will drive you crazy that this horse has this habit…pick another. Which is the same as what you said
So glad I found and read this discussion to the end. My youngest mini gelding of three that I drive began swishing his tail much more than he did in the past while grazing. Flies not a problem. Other 2 gelding swishing slightly once in a while. I cleaned his sheath with KY jelly. Made sure no debris where bothering him. No irritation around his rectum or between legs. Did find he really responded with delight, as normal, to belly and chest rubs. Tail relaxed and calm when being worked as driving mini and “trickster” (part of a trick troupe that performs). Just so much more swishing when grazing with his buddies. I had noticed that, while my 3 all get along, the “lead” mini role had changed. After reading this discussion, I think he has just become the leader, and is concerned that the previous leader might challenge him and regain his position. Thinking about it, his increased swishing is always around that mini. Thank you so much for this insight! Of course, when our vet makes her regular visit soon, I will ask for her opinion.
I have a horse that when we go into it’s pen and lung it. It swishes her tail at us. What do you think this could be.
It sounds like she is using her tail to express her thoughts. Usually timid or scared horses don’t swish their tails because they are more nervous, more often it is a challenging or thinking horse that is using the tail. Unless there are flies…then they all can do it.
I think the horse looks beautiful with his/her tail swishing. I wonder if it helps the horse with concentration, balance or positive things for the horse and not for the people. Those who medicaly treat their horses so the tails don’t swish, shame on you. you are not perfect yourself, medically alter yourself first and not the horse.
I would like to add one more comment I regards to tail fixing. I’ve had horse clients who had had this done to them– usually by a previous owner. Remember this– the tail is part of the spine and is was put there to balance out movement. Watch your horse walk. The tail moves side to side like a pendulum for balance. What do people think they are accomplishing by taking that movement away? I’ll tell you what–because I’ve worked on those horses–lackluster movement, imbalance and over compensation in some other part of the body that leads to repetitive injury. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it…or in this case if it works don’t break it.
Hello, I own NW Equine Therapy in Washington state. I am a state licensed horse massage therapist and have been practicing since 1999 and have addressed this issue many many times and have found the solution isn’t always so complicated.
I totally agree with Manolo Mendez’s comments above (Duck Hollow Farm post) in regards to balance. When watching a horse move during a bodywork session I always include tail movement in my biomechanics evaluation. The tail is a counterbalance to the whole and as mentioned above reflects the health of the spine and muscular system. For example If the horse is out of alignment in the pelvis you may see the tail swing tight or to one side more; clamping down may indicate the sacrum is out of alignment or one of the deep hip rotators is injured and so on. There are many different conditions that cause the tail to not move comfortably.The tail is made of bone and soft tissue that can be out of alignment itself and it may need to be manipulated thru bodywork. So of course if you and your vet have not found an underlying cause to this problem then I would recommend finding a licensed horse massage therapist or a vet who holds a chiropractic license as well in your area to take a look at your horse.
(Important Sidenote–Every state has different laws who can practice these modalities but most importantly make sure they are qualified because you don’t want some guy who took a 3- day workshop cracking your horses spine. Those people do not have enough training and can hurt your horse. I bring this up as there are a few people who boldly call themselves chiropractors, physical therapists or massage therapists. Be safe and ask your vets or state health board for recommendations. In my state all those trades are licensed under our state medical board and it’s a felony to practice without a license.)
If the tail moves comfortably (comfortable is the key word here– not to be confused with expressive) while the horse is moving under his own devices but not with rider than the detective work continues. Here are the potential problems with tail swishing that looks as uneven counterbalance or appears aggravated:
1. Rider is throwing balance off or not able to help horse find balance.
2. Horse has pain while moving. (If horse isn’t lame at walk, trot, or canter without rider than injury could be somewhere else such as spine.) Just know ANY pain anywhere or uncomfortable feelings may be expressed thru tail. This may include systemic problems. Horse doesn’t want to work because he doesn’t feel good.
3. Saddle does not fit and interferes with movement either thru pain (pinching, rubbing, etc) or interruption of top line movement. A bad saddle fit is the number one reason people end up calling me out. It causes all kinds of problems when it’s wrong–movement, back problems, lameness, behavioral, forward and top line movement.
4. Bits are wrong or uncomfortable. Also, lets not forget dental issues. Horse with sore mouth + bit = unhappy horse.
5. Horse can’t find balance because hoof angle is wrong therefore using tail excessively to counterbalance. Of course you will have other problems (this is a whole other topic) with bad trim as well but I wanted to include this as its the first thing I look at when evaluating movement. If you don’t know much about feet start here–the horse ideally should land heel first at the walk.
6. Horse doesn’t want to do it. Yes, sometimes a horse swishes because he doesn’t like what was just asked of him. Note this was the last thing I put down. As with all behavioral problems rule out everything else first. Repeat and correct questions numbers 1-5 and see if the problem still applies.
Hope this helps.
This is a late entry, I know, but this just appeared on the Facebook page of Manolo Mendez Dressage. It’s on point, so I quote it here in its entirety:
Does your horse’s tail swing?
If a horse’s tail gets caught between his hind legs he is not using his body properly. If the tail lays flat and listless these are clues that energy, messages and feedback from the brain to the body and back may not be traveling up and down his spine properly. If the tail is clamped down, the horse may be in fear or in pain, closing the hindquarters down. This is something to discuss with your veterinarian.
If your horse’s tail swishes constantly and more so during transitions, changes, or anytime you make a request, your aids may be too loud or he may be frustrated with the work. A little swishing when asked to do something demanding for a short time is different from constant swishing. We must observe and know our horse to figure out what is concentration and what is upset.
The tail reflects the health of our horse’s spine. As the spine undulates in a slightly serpentine pattern through our horses’ body, his tail should carry through this motion.
As our horse uses his back and body better and better, as his balance changes and improves, he will use his tail differently. We want to keep an eye on it and note improvements or set backs as they tell us how well the training is progressing or is stalling.
We look for a tail that is carried in a soft arch slightly away from the body with the mass of hair rhythmically moving from hock to hock in a pendulum motion.
I think the tail swishing in a lot of cases is degree of concentration or effort put in by the horse, not mood. Like the freestyle dressage, Blu Hors Matine was an amazing dressage horse and loved his job, you can tell by the way he throws himself into it fully. His tail swished only on the movements that required the most physical effort and concentration for him, like the tempi changes (they have to listen to the rider intensely). Same with the cutting horse, his tail swished while he was watching the cow and looking for the cow’s movements. You have to take in the whole situation, not just a part of it, to understand why the horse does what it does. Is the horse swishing its tail, pinning its ears, and not putting forth much effort into what is being asked? It might not enjoy what it’s doing, or it might be in pain. Is the horse swishing its tail, but also has floppy ears perked back to listen to the rider, and doesnt seem to be reluctant to do its job? The horse might just be really putting in an effort and really concentrating on the task.
Sorry I’m new to this technology thing.
I have an incredible bond with my stallion, but I don’t think his leave of trust increases with the degree of difficulty. I think it is more about his leave of conditioning. Every horse has a different amount required to be reliable. Anyway I best stop rambling on about me. Thanks again for your humble humanity, your kindness is greatly appreciated. Janette
Oops, my fat fingers just hit “post” by mistake.
With just ten days of ground work, consciously working on or around things until the horse licks and chew’s. I’m able to have my very first ride on a colt ( in the round pen) with no bridle/ halter or saddle (this I do have a video of). This brings me to another topic for discussion. “Trust” I showed the above video to a friend. She said ” wow, they really trust you, don’t they”? Well, this got me thinking. I think I was the one with the added level of trust. I think the horse was blissfully unaware of the risk I was taking. I think for the horse it’s more about conditioned behavior, than trust as we know it.
Wow!! Thank you so much for your comprehensive reply. Very interesting, I have never encountered a deaf horse. Sorry I don’t have a video of the floppy ears at the moment, but I will work on it. Yes I think a relaxed lip is truly relaxed. I’m ashamed to admit that in the past I have not waited long enough for the horses to get it. Of course most horses gave it to me, but I did not consciously wait for the horse before I moved on. Now that I’m consciously working on or around something until I get that licking, the first rides are outstanding
Dear Stacy, just wondering what you think about floppy ears. It makes me sad to see a horse working with floppy ears. It indicates total submission to me ( the horse has surrendered it’s soul). The only time I have seen a horse flop it’s ears naturally, is when they are very sick.
I still get goose bumps just thinking about your famous ride, on that magnificent mare (her name probably still hurts). I can’t take my eyes off her ears, one on you the whole time, the other active. The ears of a willing partner, not a slave. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Janette
Interesting question! Most of the floppy ears I have seen have been either very relaxed or deaf. Kind-of extremes! There is a line of horses (Gunner babies) in the reining where a large percentage of them are deaf. The deaf ones are odd to watch because they don’t use their ears to ‘point’ to what they are looking at, etc.
Growing up my mare I rode all the time was not floppy with her ears…but her lower lip! It would hang when she was standing around and when we long trotted (I long trotted for miles, no exaggeration) she would let her lower lip flop. Not moving it herself….just letting it bounce. She only did it when very relaxed or comfortable. Meet up with new horses and she would stop doing it.
I have seen other horses with pretty relaxed ears while trail riding, easy going stuff. In those cases they looked relaxed.
Do you happen to have any video links of ‘floppy’ ears that offend you? I would love to see it, so I could read the rest of the body language.
I would recommend to not be so caught up in the appearance of the ears. Unless there is a medical issue, it may be an inate characteristic of that particular horse or him listening to his surroundings, which incudes you. I would focus more on providing stimulating groundwork with a lot of variety to keep the horse interested. Is he bored with what we are doing with him?
Thanks you Stacey! I wrote an article for Holistic Horse a few years ago describing how the tail is more than just a fly swatter. I have used a video similar to your dressage video for years in class to illustrate uneven tail movement. If the horse was moving the tail to the beat it would be symmetrical and all the time at that gait, not just when moving the one way. Keep up the great work. Dr. O.
I believe that the tail is an extension of the horses body and used for various reasons. I have seen them swat flies with it and yes swish it when they are angry. That is what makes them a horse and not some other kind of animal. Dogs also use their tails but in a different way. I didn’t realize until reading this that people were doing medical procedures to keep the horse from moving their tails. Shame on them. I haven’t been able to watch pleasure classes without getting upset because of the riders slowing the horses down so much in classes. The horses are not moving out in a natural gait. Why are they always trying to change these beautiful animals. Do people walk without swinging their arms to some degree? I’d like to see these people walk and run around with their arms just dangling down at a stand still. Unnatural.
How can you watch these video’s and not be,1 in awe, but 2, be absolutely enthralled at the horses and how much fun and heart that they exhibit with their tails. Their tails are a part of their beauty. Yes, we humans need to be more emotionally in tune with our horses, WE need to know when they are hurting, uncomfortable, uneasy about what we are asking of them, watching the signals be it tail swishing or wringing. Their tails is just another way for them to communicate. Stacy thanks for this discussion, and the awesome video. I am a horse person, but mostly I love to just sit and watch them, they never cease to amaze me!
Thanks for showing these footages. I strongly believe all that you have said but I do know from experience that it truly can mean that the horse has pain and discomfort from trying to execute a move that is difficult for the horse. Gosh how many times have you seen a horse buck someone off just before that they swish the tail aggressively and bang.. I say cheers to the horses for communicating to ignorant people/riders.. What magnificent creatures they are.. Never ever stop listening to your horse.
I think they look beautiful when using their tails! I wish humans would stop doing harm because we impose our perceptions of what we think on these beautiful animals. They give us all, I wish we could just show baseline compassion, always.
I am a combined driving instructor and in my schooling of my students I teach them to understand the body language of the driving horse as they will tell you everything you need to know, and one of the easiest ways to gauge the equines attitude is by watching what the tail is doing. I find the tail is one form of expression of the horses disposition. It also is the easiest to see as we sit behind the horses and don’t have our legs to feel what is going on. From my perspective as long as the tail is slightly raised and moving the horse is comfortable and happy, but if it becomes clamped and swishing something isn’t right. I appreciate that you have brought this subject to light.
I have a 2 year old and I’ve noticed there are different types of tail swishing that he does. He likes to play in water and he has a weird tightly tucked tail swish that he does when he’s giddy and playing or if he’s been napping and he stands up tall and stretches… it looks like a hippo’s tail twitching back and forth, the dock never really leaves his bum and the length of the tail never leaves between his legs. then sometimes when I put the surcingle on him he flicks his tail at me like I’m bothering him and if he flicks me I’ll go away. lol…silly pony.
Could be just when they really have to concentrate also.
A most valuable post, but I sighed when I read this comment: “I have never seen a free style dressage with still tails.” That remark says much about the sad state of competitive dressage, now a totally different sport than classical dressage, an art that calls for a horse to perform the movements of an excited horse while totally calm. Almost always, getting a nine year old, as Matine was in this video,to Grand Prix requires short cuts and cutting relaxation tends to be the first short cut.
Freestyles without tail swishing exist, but most were before rollkur and nine year old GP horses. For those who want to see relaxation and suppleness rather than flashy tension, search YouTube for videos such as “Klimke and Ahlerich One Tempi Changes – 1984 Olympics.” For relaxation in circus dressage, take a look at Jorge Gabriel’s “Piaffe – Casa Lusitana” — one of my current favorite clips. These horses have expressive tails, but they aren’t in helicopter lift-off mode as was the late Matine.
Better yet use this link to see Juan Diego Garcia Trevijano’s musical ride on his retired show jumper Touch Dream:
You’ll see a quiet, supple stallion waltzing with an occasional tail swish but none of the stiff-backed tension of Matine.
When I was in America, I went and had a ride on a saddlebred horse. His show horse, had this contraption to hold his tail way up in the air. I don’t know how many hours a day it’s on, but I guess a really high tail carriage (even higher than arab, it’s almost straight up) is sort after, so they artificially make it so. Broke my heart, looked so painful.
I don’t think tail swishing is an issue. I think something that’s obviously different is an issue. So if your horse doesn’t typically tail swish, and one day he is, it’s worth thinking about.
It might just be that your learning something new that is frustrating him a little, but it may be a sign of greater discomfort, and I guess it’s up to us as the rider/handler to notice and do our best to assess.
I also get teary when I watch great horse video’s. I got teary just then watching Matinee, and I’ve seen it many times. (I ride/love dressage). I also cried more watching Stacy’s bareback bridleless ride on Roxy, OMG! that moved me. So your not alone there Dode lol
well said Julie Vosberg, and one of the many reasons I left the AQHA arena
Reblogged this on The Range.
Tears appear when I saw the regretable Matiné. The most Hip Hop horse that I ever seen. She look like she love what is she showing, “avec légèreté”, it seen so easy…the tail is not wiping excesively only when exécuting some hard movements (gracely exécuted in that case anyway).
The expression was actually into those movement…in all 3 vidéo’s that your shared, it is showned the squelette and muscles energy that is running from one end to the other altrough the spine. One of those end is the tail and its needed into a lot of different situations. One of them is to keep balance, an other is to bounded their space or simply help them to hunt an huge amount of ennemies such as bugs. The langage of those splendid animal is base on how they move,
keep an eye on the signes and one day, communication will happen.
(excuse my english writing is not top shape)
I always thought Matine’ looked quite proud of herself and confident in her performance.
I love that you addressed a horse BEING A HORSE. Humans always come along to simplify their lives and silence an animal (i.e. removing a dog’s vocal cords because it barks too much or injecting the tail so it becomes a “dead tail”)…. As far as deadening the tail, I think the show world and these big breed shows are partially to blame. These women and men become so obsessed with with winning in the ring, they will do whatever it takes to get a blue ribbon. It’s ridiculous.
Just throwing a question out there but….. Is the tail not used as part of balance or momentum? The dressage horse seemed to use his tail as a propeller to help keep momentum? Im just wondering if the tail isn’t used for more than flies or showing “moods” as some suggest?
The tail is connected to the spine so I would think that when the spine moves the tail would also. When my horse gets really focused or is working hard he tends to show more tail movement especially if it is a move he really enjoys or one that is challenging. Im not so sure it has any effect on balance but I think it is definitely a focus thing as long as there are no other signs of discomfort (such as a stiff/raised back or unhappy expression)
I loved the dressage mares ears, just loose and relaxed the entire ride; she was happy to do her job!!
As a reiner who left the sport because of the tail issue, I can only say that tail “alteration” must stop. Judges needed to be educated that tail use is part of a horse’s expression and is a part of the horse’s spine. Yes, the tail is a messenger, telling on its rider for better or worse. It can telegraph poor training, too much pressure, physical pain but also pleasure, relaxation and contentment. Thank you, Stacy, for bringing this topic up. It is well past time. It will only take a few respected horsemen/women to say “no more” to take this practice in a whole new direction.
Julie, If you get a chance google some of the reiners in Europe…my husband pointed out that if you watch videos from over there, they use their tails. Interesting!
Julie & Stacy, I’m not sure if it counts for all countries in Europe have to check that but for the Netherlands the W.R.A.N. competition rule 686 point 4 says that any material way of manipulation of the tail that influents the movement leads to disqualification.
In fact it is possible ( I think it for sure ) that this practice is also against the Dutch law based on the Law “unnecessary animal cruelty”.
Stacy, It took me a little longer to figure it out but for Europe the most organizations use the FEI rules witch are stating.
311.7. No score. The following will result in “no score”, in addition to any other penalty, which may be imposed under the FEI GRs:
311.7.6. Use of any attachment, or any act, which alters the movement of or circulation to the tail;
My gelding is constantly swishing his tail! It’s annoying! Had his back checked, there’s nothing wrong with him. My saddle & pad fit him just fine.
I don’t know what to do. Or if there is anything out there to do about it…?
I love the tail swishing information and the love of his job for the cutting horse showed me that his tail swishing indicated just that…..he loved his job, but, the dressage performance was so beautiful it made me cry like I always do when I watch your winning bridleless performance. The horse’s tail was not swishing when he was in a slow pace, but the dancing and beat of the music excited her and her tail went crazy! I have never seen a free style dressage with still tails. I believe she loved the dancing just as the cutting horse loved cutting cattle.
I totally agree with you, Julie Ottaway!!!! You explained it beautifully. 🙂
I agree, it seems that the dressage horse is keeping time with her tail. Much the way a human keeps time with music they like by bobbing their head.
Hello, sins yesterday I started following your blog and must say it’s very intersting what you write about. In the last video I even doupt a bit if the use of the tail is a sign of complain as it looks like it is moving in the beat of the sound and to be honest the for example ears are quite relext as far as I can see.
Can it not be more logical that in that fact the horse is using his tail to follow the ritme like a musician uses his feed?
It makes me wonder.
I saw a video once where Clinton Anderson addressed the same complaint about his horse mindy swishing her tail. He said that it was like when an athlete appears to have an angry grimace on their face. In this context it can mean concentration and determination. I don’t really think it is a can of worms, just an opportunity to criticize a great horseperson. Some people use criticism as an attempt to convince people that they are much better with horses that those who are actually recognized for it.
For once someone who sees this! People do use criticism to convince others (and themselves) they are better than the ones getting recognition for it. That being said there are many great horsemen an woman out there that don’t get th recognition they deserve either but let’s give credit where credit is due!
Actually, I remembered that he was discussing her ear pinning not the tail, but it is the same idea.
I do believe that it is a form of expression for them and some times just to get the bothersome flies off them. As handlers/riders we should pay attention to what and when the tail is doing something as it might give us more insight into our horses.
Isn’t tail usage and positioning just part of the language as it is in all other animals with tails. And aren’t humans rather assumptive in translating that language to suit their own purposes just expressing a lack of fluency?
I’m a dog trainer and I see it all the time, incorrect translation of canine language always seems to suit the purposes of the human involved.
Thank you Stacy for posting such a thought provoking article! The dressage horse and rider made me cry with awe:)
I hate it when they fix tails…especially mares, it gets so dirty and nasty. And that is not even starting on not being able to swish flies…..I don’t even like it when they tie in fake tails….just seems wrong to me, although the weight of the fake tail seems to help them not wring it. It still looks weird to me…
Thanks for addrssing the tail swishing issue>