One thing most horse-people have in common, whether we rein or race, trail-ride or team pen — our horse’s tails must be long, flowing, and beautiful. We go to a lot of trouble to keep up our horse’s tails. Some people keep them braided and safe inside tail bags. Some people never brush a tail without spraying on detangler. Some people knot a tail up on a rainy day so that it doesn’t get muddy.
Which is what makes tail-chewing such an agonizing problem for the horseman. All of sudden, your horse’s flowing tail is hock-length. Or even shorter. It can happen to any horse — even American Pharoah, winner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby, has been a victim of tail-chewing.
When you spot a ragged tail in the pasture, the first question is “Who is destroying my horse’s perfect tail?” Mouthy foals are the most common offenders. Foals love to chew anything in their path. But older horses might be chowing down on tails, too, and that could mean a few different things, including nutrition problems or plain old boredom.
A lack of forage is the most common reason cited for tail-chewing. And it isn’t always because the hay you’re feeding is poor quality. Some research shows that horses need forage with a fiber length greater than four inches — that is to say, stalks of hay — to satisfy their need to chew. If you’re only feeding hay pellets or cubes instead of baled hay, your horse might be compelled to chew other long fibers… like tail hairs.
Free-choice minerals (not just salt) might also help with tail-chewing. A horse with a mineral deficiency will be looking for those minerals in the oddest places — neighboring horses, included. or discuss your feed and forage with a nutrition specialist to see if your horse’s diet is lacking something essential.
Deterring Boredom (and Foals):
Whether tail-chewing is just boredom relief or an all-out obsession, it’s time to protect the tail. Coating tails with shampoo or conditioner is a messy, but effective, deterrent. Capsaicin sprays, whether purpose-blended or homemade with hot sauce and vinegar, or cayenne pepper and petroleum jelly, are another option, but be careful — they can cause eye and skin irritation, plus the red color might dye a gray horse’s tail an unpleasant shade of red. Keep the peppery application to the chewed hairs only, to reduce the chance of inadvertent skin or eye contact. As always, ask your friends what works for them and consult your veterinarian.
For nursing foals, stick to non-toxic, non-painful deterrents which won’t hurt the foal if he sticks his nose through the mare’s tail to nurse. Ivory soap, applied liberally to the tail, often works.
Nobody wants their horse to have a ragged, chewed-up tail. Short tails won’t help your horse fight off flies, either! Taking steps to save the tail might be messy, but in the long run, you’ll all be happier. (And you’ll look so nice!)