Electromyography (EMG) is the official diagnostic test utilized by the 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 the electrical activity within the muscles. In muscles
that are enervated from an alcohol injection, the normal activity of
the muscle in response to the insertion of the needle is absent, and
its place there will be spontaneous, disorganized electrical activity.
Veterinarians trained in this technique use EMG to identify horses
at AQHA shows suspected of having blocked tails so that they are
penalized appropriately and disqualified from competition. It is
mandated by the AQHA that any horse whose tail is confirmed
by examination and EMG to have been altered that that horse is
banned from competition in AQHA sanctioned events for at least
a year, and longer if the function of the tail remains abnormal.
Despite statements in the rulebook of the American Quar-
ter Horse Association (AQHA) clearly outlawing the practice of
blocking tails, this procedure is still performed with potentially
fatal consequences to the animal. While AQHA has in place specific
parameters by which tail function is assessed, other breed associa-
tions involved in western disciplines do not clearly prohibit the
practice. 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 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), like the APHA, 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 horse whose tails have been blocked,
nor are there specific statements
Although many horse people think that the nicking of a
Saddlebred’s (or other breeds where high tail carriage is desirable)
is harmless, like blocking, a number of complications can arise.
Nicking is a procedure where the tendons that attach to the tail are
cut to allow the tail to be placed into the desirable upright position
by a tail set. Horses whose tails have been nicked often wear these
tail sets the majority of the time that they are not being ridden.
They generally need to be confined individually while wearing the
sets. Unfortunately, while many horses with nicked tails do retain
the ability to move their tails, this procedure is not without risk.
The most troubling story of tail nicking gone wrong was published
in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and
describes a 2 year old Tennessee Walking Horse colt who developed
colic and eventually died as a result of having his tail nicked. A
post mortem examination (autopsy) 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 or inability to
put the tail down into a normal position.
Just as the AQHA has rules in place to deter competitors from
having tail alterations performed on their horses, the USEF recently
implemented rules that are to be applied to American Saddlebreds.
The new rule “prohibits tail carriage alteration procedures on foals
of birth year 2014 and thereafter.” Additionally, it emphasizes
that horses tails are not to be kept in any tail setting device while
on show grounds, but regrettably does 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 break over, or wry tail.
Conversely, the National Show Horse division has no guidelines
prohibiting or even discouraging tail alterations.
Organizations within the veterinary community, such as
the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) -
Large Animal Internal Medicine (LAIM) specialists and American
Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), have recently begun
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 AQHA have
strict protocols and penalties in place in the event that a horse is
suspected of having had its tail altered, others need to follow suit
and continue to enforce these rules. Unfortunately, these practices
have been present for over 30 years, and likely will take a long term
plan and involvement of many branches of the equine industry
to abolish. There are few legal statutes in place to protect horses
against such inhumane practices, making prosecution difficult or
impossible. Exhibitors and owners, who may be found culpable,
even without knowledge that their horse’s tail has been altered,
need to educate themselves on any and all procedures and medications recommended by a trainer to ensure that their horses are
not being subjected to inhumane procedures. Hopefully, judges
will be properly instructed at judge’s education events and less
reluctant to uphold current rules against tail alterations by not
penalizing horses for normal tail position and movement. With
time and pressure from owners and exhibitors, less weight will be
placed on the appearance of a horse’s tail and more on the horse’s
performance. Once judges fail to reward abnormal tail carriage,
trainers and serious exhibitors will follow suit by discontinuing
the practice to maintain a competitive edge. As with any change
to a long standing practice, preventing people from altering
horses’ tails will likely be a prolonged battle, but a necessary one
to improve the welfare of our equine companions. Please join the
concerned equine veterinarians of ACVIM—LAIM and AAEP in
doing your part to end this inhumane, unnecessary and potentially
Tail Alterations (continued from pg. 2)
2015 AQHA Rulebook; 2015 APHA Rulebook; 2015 ApHC Rulebook
2015 United States Equestrian Federation, Inc. Rulebook
AVMA. Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Horse Tail Modifications.
May 12, 2012.
Colter SB. Tail alterations in show horses. In: Current Therapy in Equine Medicine
L. Mills (Ed) 1992 WB Saunders, Philadelphia, pp 579-581
Moll HD & Schumacher J. Septic peritonitis associated with caudal myotomy
in a Tennessee walking horse. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1992; 3:458-9.
Stware RH, Reed SM, Weisbrode SE. Complications Associated With Alcohol
Tail-Blocks in Three Horses. Progress in Veterinary Neurology 1990; 1:476-480.