The horse’s tail serves as an important communication tool between horses in a herd and between the horse and rider. The tail contains 18 vertebrae in most horse breeds though some such as the Arabian have only 16 and is connected to the rump of the horse via the dock. The tail hairs are attached to the living portion of the tail. It is theorized that the tail evolved from a major locomotion device to an important communication tool.
The tail is considered part of the spinal column and contains the coccygeal vertebrae, muscles, ligaments, long extensions of hair, and two arteries that pump blood to the region. Due to its narrow structure circulation in the horse’s tail is fairly poor which results in a slower than usual healing process when the tail has been damaged or injured.
The tail hair of a horse is made of keratin which is a fibrous protein molecule similar to that found in the fingernails of humans. The three layers of tail hair include the medulla which is the inner portion of the hair, the middle area which contains long protein strands that are twisted, and the cuticle which is the thin outer covering that serves as a protective layer for the hair. The middle layer is responsible for determining whether the tail hair will be curly or straight. The Morgan, some types of draft horses, and the Bashkir Curly are a few of the breeds that exhibit naturally curly tail hair. Straight hair appears to be the dominant trait displayed by the majority of the horse breeds.
At the base of each hair follicle are oil glands that secrete a substance known as sebum. Sebum helps to add a nice shiny appearance to each strand of hair and aids in creating elasticity. If the tail hairs appear dull and brittle or are being shed in large chunks this may be an indication that the horse is suffering from a disease or condition, perhaps even an imbalanced diet.
Washing your horse’s tail too frequently with shampoo can interrupt the production of natural oils and cause the tail hair and skin to become dry and irritated. It is recommended that the tail be washed only when necessary. No more than once a month is suggested unless the tail becomes particularly dirty and matted. Carefully brushing the tail is a good way to stimulate oil production. There are various products available on the market to help keep your horse’s tail healthy and aesthetically pleasing. Make certain that you do the proper research on the product before applying.
Whether the tail hair is rough and coarse or fine and silky is dependent upon genetic factors and environmental influences. The breed of the animal combined with influences from the environment play a key role in tail development. Shetland ponies and Icelandic horses are known to have far coarser tail hair than that of Arabians and Akhal-Teke whose tail hair tends to be much finer and softer.
The tail plays a vital role in communication regarding a horse’s emotional and physical states. A complex array of tail signals have been developed to aid in the process of group communication for survival. For instance, in mares that are ready to procreate the tail is lifted and serves as a means of proclaiming that they are ready and receptive to the mating process. Mares that are already pregnant or are otherwise uninterested in mating will express their agitation and annoyance through aggressive side to side tail swishing.
Stallions serving as lookouts and protectors of the herd will exhibit slightly raised tails, prance about with a bounce to their stride, have their ears pricked forward, and may defecate to alarm the rest of the herd of potential danger lurking nearby. Two horses that have formed a strong friendship will stand head to tail and swat the flies from each other’s faces with their tails. They will also engage in back scratching with their teeth.
Foals full of spirit and excitement will hold their tails very high as they run and play with others. Horses that are showing themselves to be subordinate or submissive will clamp their tails down between their hind legs. But beware of a horse with a clamped down tail that is also exhibiting a rounded rump for he or she may be preparing to lash out with a buck or kick. Horses that stand still with a clamped down tail and occasionally stamp their feet may be experiencing abdominal or hind end discomfort.
The tail serves many functions and alongside communication it also acts as a protective structure for the sensitive anal and reproductive areas. It aids in temperature regulation as well as serving as a much needed flyswatter for those annoying pests that buzz about. Hind end alignment and balance are also dependent upon the tail since it is a part of the spinal column. The tail has been retained through evolution and still serves an important structure in the life of the equine.