Tail al­ter­ation: “NICK­ING”

EQUUS - - Eq Inbrief -

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.


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.


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.

Nick­ing, which en­tails cut­ting the ten­dons that at­tach to the un­der­side of the tail, is done for show com­pe­ti­tions where a high tail set is de­sir­able.

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