The tail: positive and negative signs

The tail is part of the horse’s spinal column. Like most other breeds, the thoroughbred has about twenty vertebrae in its tail (the exact number can vary). The bones gradually decrease in size from root to tip. The tail has several important functions, including acting as a protective barrier against the elements, preventing injury to the anus and reproductive organs, keeping flies away, and assisting with balance. Most importantly for our purposes, the tail communicates information about a horse’s physical well-being and its mood.

Positive signs

Tail relaxed

The tail of a relaxed horse will hang straight down, swinging gently from side to side in time with the walk.

Tail relaxed

Tail arched

The tail usually confirms what the head and neck are telling us about the horse’s emotional state. If the head is up, indicating arousal, excitement, nervousness or tension, the tail may also be elevated. However, a certain amount of elevation is not necessarily a bad thing. A tail that is slightly arched, so that there is daylight between the tail and the rump, can indicate that the horse is keenly anticipating the race to come, but is not aggravated.

Tail Arched

Negative signs

Tail swishing

Elevation becomes a negative sign when it is accompanied by side to side swishing. This indicates that the horse is definitely not happy about something, and it could be either psychological (temper) or physical (tension). However, don’t mistake an innocent flick of the tail at flies for tail swishing; in this case the tail will return to a relaxed position.

Tail Swishing

Tail clamped or offset

Occasionally you’ll see a horse clamping its tail tightly to its rump, inhibiting the natural rhythm of its tail swing. This may be a sign of tension or discomfort in the hindquarters, back or abdominal area. A tail carried offset to the side, rather than straight, may also indicate a physical problem.

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