How to Neatly Trim Your Horse's Tail Safely

Beautiful horse tail
A long and lush tail requires a lot of upkeep

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A horse’s tail is the pride and joy of many a horse owner, but requires careful maintenance. Overly long tails risk being stepped on by the horse or caught up in fences, jumps, or out on the trail. Learn how to trim a horse’s tail safely and neatly.

What Are the Parts of a Horse Tail?

A horse tail is made up of the last few vertebrae of the spine, the coccygeal vertebrae. Horses have between 15-21 of these little bones, and they can be felt at the center of the tail hair running from the tailhead to a little higher than the level of the stifle. The hair of the tail grows long from the skin lightly covering these bones. The muscles that control the tail are at the tailhead and are powerful and accurate. While the purpose of the tail is to swat away flies, horses also use their tails to communicate anxiety by rapidly swishing them back and forth.

Of course, it would be terrible for the horse to accidentally trim the "living" part of the tail that includes skin and bone, but it is rare for any horse person to want a tail that short. The exception is carriage or pulling horses, which sometimes have their tails kept short to not interfere with the carriage, sleigh, or cart. However, these horses can still have just their tail hairs trimmed without getting caught in the harness or carriage. 

“Docking” tails, or removing vertebrae for cosmetic reasons, is not supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

How Long Should My Horse’s Tail Be?

The length of a tail depends on the purpose or discipline of the horse as well as how much care an owner can provide for a tail. For example, dressage horses usually have tails cut straight across at the level of the fetlock or even a bit higher. Arabians and Morgans in the show arena have long tails, often dragging on the ground. Hunters and Quarter horses in the show ring have tails that are cut in between the fetlock and ground, but volume in these is emphasized to the point where people will supplement with extensions or “fake tails.

Any owner wishing to emphasize length and volume will need to prevent tail hair breakage. This can only be achieved with careful brushing using a soft-bristled brush designed for textured hair or manually breaking up tangles ("picking") with ample use of detangler. Horse tails are often wrapped in tail bags, especially if length is to be promoted. Make sure to only wrap the tail below the tail bone to maintain blood circulation in the part of the live tail.

Trimming the tail

Tips for Trimming a Horse Tail

1. Detangle the tail carefully before cutting, and make sure it is clean and dry. Hair contracts as it dries, so cutting a horse tail wet will give a false sense of length!

2. Consider your horse’s tail carriage. An Arabian or Saddlebred horse carries their tail very high when moving; cutting their tail with the tailhead down will result in a shorter-looking tail when they’re in the ring.

3. Use sharp scissors. Horsehair is coarse and dull scissors will push the hair away rather than cutting it.

There are two areas where the tail may be trimmed to neaten appearance—at the tailhead and the bottom. The tail head has fine, wispy hairs that are much shorter than the rest of the tail. These may be trimmed with very sharp salon scissors or with electrical clippers to the level of the longer, sleeker hairs below. Alternatively, this area may be braided or hair gel may be applied to reduce the “flyaway” appearance of the tailhead for showing. Braids should always be taken out immediately after showing to reduce hair breakage and promote blood supply to the tailhead.

The most common area to trim is the bottom of the tail. There are some tips to achieve the effect desired and to remain safe.

Steps of Trimming a Horse Tail

1. With your cutting hand, reach under the tail at the top and elevate the tailbone with your forearm. Gauge the length of tail you want removed, considering your horse’s natural tail carriage. Reach down to grasp the bottom of the tail at the level you want to trim it with your other hand. You can then remove your cutting hand from underneath the tail head to trim.

2.  Trim the tail standing up with the length of tail you want trimmed in your non-dominant hand. This will keep your head away from the horse’s hind legs if they get spooked and prevent you from removing too much tail. Remove only a bit at a time—you can always take more!

3. Once the tail is trimmed to the length desired, neaten or bang the tail by trimming any errant long pieces. Let the tail fall, then pick the ends back up with your non-dominant and direct it towards yourself so you can see the end well. Trim any long pieces without taking more length from the bulk of the tail. Repeat this three times to achieve a neat, square appearance.

While the purpose of a horse’s tail is to swat away pests, a lush, long, shiny tail is an emblem of good health and care in many stables and show rings. Grooming, in general, is a great non-food treat for horses and a way to promote the human-animal bond.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.