Tail alteration: “NICKING”
Tail nicking is primarily seen among American Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walking Horses and other breeds in which a high tail set is desired.
In the nicking procedure, tendons that attach to the underside of the tail are cut to allow the dock to be placed into the desirable upright position by a tail set, which is a harness-like device that holds the tail in place while the injury heals. After a nicked tail has healed, a horse will likely wear a tail set most of the time when he’s not being ridden.
Although many horsepeople think that the nicking of a horse’s tail is harmless—and some horses who have undergone this procedure do retain the ability to move their tails—a number of complications can arise.
The most troubling story of tail nicking gone wrong was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) in 1992; it describes a 2-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse colt who developed colic and eventually died as a result of having his tail nicked. A postmortem examination of this colt showed that the incisions from the nicking had become infected, and the pus had migrated into the abdominal cavity.
Other reported complications of this procedure include development of wry tail (tail held to one side) or the inability to put the tail down into a normal position.
The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) implemented a rule for American Saddlebreds that “prohibits tail carriage alteration procedures on foals of birth year 2014 and thereafter.” Additionally, the USEF emphasizes that horses’ tails are not to be kept in any tail-setting device while on show grounds, but it does also state that, “The fact that a horse’s tail has once been set does not exclude participation.”
In the Morgan section of the USEF handbook, more explicit guidelines are in place stating that judges must penalize unnatural tails that have evidence of tail setting, a vertical breakover or wry tail. Conversely, the National Show Horse division has no guidelines prohibiting or even discouraging tail alterations.— Kate Hepworth-Warren, DVM, DACVIM basic functions is worth risking for the appearance of a quiet tail in the show ring.
Our group has encountered many owners who were encouraged by their trainers to have a tail block performed with no idea of how devastating the results could be. On numerous equine blogs and online forums, owners say their trainers told them that getting the tail blocked was “nothing” and “people do it all the time.” Some trainers lead their clients to believe that getting the horse’s tail blocked is as necessary and routine as having his feet trimmed or teeth floated. Other posts claim that if the procedure is done “right” there are no real adverse effects aside from the initial discomfort of the injection.
RULES AND DETECTION
Blocking tails is against the rules of most major show and breed organizations. White hairs, which often develop at the injection sites, are telltale signs that a horse needs to be examined more closely.
Testing protocols for a horse suspected of having a blocked tail involve thorough physical examination of the tail and surrounding structures, assessment of his ability to move the tail and application of specialized electro-diagnostics. When the anus of a horse with a normal, unaltered tail is massaged, the horse lifts the tail above the
Electromyography is the official diagnostic test used by the American Quarter Horse Association to identify destruction of the nervous control of the muscles involved in tail movement.
horizontal plane, and many will lift the tail into a vertical position. Musculature of a normal tail is symmetrical and has no dimples. The muscles around the tail head are likewise symmetrical and free of divots and scar tissue. Also, when a horse tries to raise a tail that has been blocked, it will take on a concave arc instead of the normal convex appearance.
Electromyography (EMG) is the official diagnostic test used by the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) to identify destruction of the nervous control of the muscles involved in tail movement. Electromyography involves the insertion of small needles into the muscles around the tail to measure electrical activity. Muscles that have been denervated by an alcohol injection will show spontaneous, disorganized electrical activity. Trained veterinarians use EMG to identify horses with blocked tails at AQHA shows. Any horse whose tail block is confirmed is banned from competition in AQHA-sanctioned events for at least a year--longer if the function of the tail remains abnormal. Despite statements in the AQHA rulebook that specifically prohibit tail blocks, I have found that the procedure is still shockingly common.
Other breed associations involved in Western disciplines discourage the practice but do not clearly ban it. The
American Paint Horse Association (APHA) states that, “A judge may, at his discretion, penalize a horse for excessive or exaggerated switching of the tail or for a seemingly “dead” tail that merely dangles between the legs and does not show a normal response.” However, while the APHA rulebook states that “any item or appliance that restricts the movement or circulation of the tail” cannot be utilized while on show grounds, there is no statement barring the practice outside of the show grounds.
The Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) states that, “No horse is to be penalized for the manner in which he carries his tail nor for normal response with his tail to cues from his exhibitor or when changing leads.” Unfortunately, despite these statements that imply that tail paralysis is not to be tolerated, there are no specific testing strategies in place to identify horses whose tails have been blocked.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Several organizations within the veterinary community, including the ACVIM--LAIM specialists and the AAEP, have been working to raise awareness of tail-altering procedures and to encourage competitors, judges, trainers and other veterinarians to end this appalling practice. While organizations like the AQHA already have strict protocols and penalties in place to prohibit tail altering, we are encouraging others to follow suit.
Unfortunately, these practices have been around for decades, and it likely will take a long-term plan and the involvement of many branches of the equine industry to abolish them. There are few legal statutes in place to protect horses against such inhumane practices, so prosecution is difficult or impossible.
Instead, we need to encourage the horse industry, including individual owners, to take action to begin discouraging this practice at the grassroots level. Here are some ways you can help:
• As a horse owner, educate yourself on all procedures and medications recommended by your trainer or veterinarian. Read any information you can find on websites belonging to veterinary organizations such as the AAEP and AVMA, and talk to other veterinarians not closely involved in your breed or discipline. Remember, you may be held responsible for an inhumane practice, even if it was done without your knowledge. If your trainer recommends a procedure you’re uncomfortable with, heed your instincts and just say “no.”
• If you see something, say something. No, you don’t need to confront other owners. But if you see horses at shows whose tail carriage seems suspicious, have a word with the judges, show officials or anyone in authority who will listen. Practices won’t change until people speak up against the status quo.
• Proper instruction at judges’ education events is essential for discontinuation of tail alteration. Once abnormal tail carriage is no longer rewarded in the show ring, there will be no need to continue this practice to maintain a competitive edge. Less emphasis needs to be placed on the appearance of a horse’s tail and more on the horse’s performance. Again, associations are more likely to respond to pressure once their own membership starts speaking up.
As with any change to a longstanding practice, stopping people from altering equine tails will likely be a prolonged battle---but it is a necessary one to improve the welfare of our horses. Please join the concerned equine veterinarians in doing your part to end this inhumane, unnecessary and potentially life-threatening procedure.
Educate yourself on all procedures and medications recommended by a trainer or veterinarian.