You should care for your horse’s tail the same way you do your own hair. Daily brushing is a must if you want the tail to be in top condition and healthy. Some people avoid brushing the tail for fear of pulling out hairs or ending up with “short hairs.” This is nonsense — provided you take the time to brush the hair properly. Otherwise, you will damage it.
Tails (like human heads) have a normal loss of hairs that you can’t avoid. Normal loss may be five to 10 hairs a day, and if you don’t brush them out, they will accumulate in the tail, often in tangles and knots, resulting in yet more hair loss. The tangled areas put more pressure on the roots and the force needed to remove them can pull out more hairs than you would lose if the tail was brushed on a regular basis.
Short, broken hairs and excessive hair loss can be overcome with proper care. The correct way to brush is from the roots to the end of the tail. (See January 1999 for brushes and combs best suited for manes and tails.) However, if the tail has bad tangles, tackle them first. We suggest first applying a mane-tail conditioner or coat conditioner, which will help loosen the tangles and make the hairs more manageable. Follow the directions for use, allowing the tail to dry first.
Begin working on the tangle at its far end, first pulling it apart with your fingers as much as possible but without tugging downward and pulling on the roots. A wide-toothed comb will finish the job, again without putting pressure on the roots.
Once the knots are out, you can brush the tail from roots to tip. Don’t do the whole tail at one time. Separate the tail into four or five sections and do these one at a time, always brushing all the way out to the tip.
The horse’s tail does not require shampooing as often as human heads, which have a higher output of sweat and oils than the small base/root of a horse’s tail. In fact, dryness is more commonly encountered than an oily tail. Regular brushing will stimulate the circulation to the skin, remove dead skin cells and distribute oils through the tail. When washing is needed, use an equine shampoo, not a human shampoo as that may over dry the tail.
Washing The Tail
Tails require the use of both your hands to be washed thoroughly and properly. You should be able to adequately wash and rinse the tail standing off to one side. Before washing, be sure the tail has been thoroughly detangled, combed and brushed.
To begin, soak the tail thoroughly with warm water. This is easier said than done since tails are dense and coarse and don’t soak through easily. Separate the tail into sections to make sure each is thoroughly soaked. Use a hose or dunk and swish the tail in a bucket of water.
Use shampoo exactly according to manufacturer’s instructions. Many equine shampoos are concentrated and should be diluted prior to use. If you don’t, rinsing out all residual shampoo will be difficult. Any left on the skin can cause skin irritation, flaking and possibly rubbing.
Begin at the top, working the lather carefully down to skin level. Proceed from there to divide the tail in sections and gently lather each of these down to the tip, using your fingers to comb through the hairs as you do this, avoiding tangles. Allow lather to remain in contact with the skin and hair as directed on the bottle, then rinse thoroughly with running water. (The dipping-in-a-bucket method is not a good way to rinse the tail.) You can finish the job with a mane conditioner, as it will help avoid tangles and leave the tail silky.
While you are in the neighborhood, check for buildup of dead skin, secretions and dirt around the anus and on the undersurface of the tail. This area frequently gets short-changed during normal baths. If there is a heavy buildup of material that regular shampoos do not completely eliminate, use a product designed for sheath cleaning to get the job done, as it’s better formulated to remove this type of material.
Tail rubbing is often blamed on pinworm infestations (which can indeed cause it), but there are usually more simple reasons for it. If the horse needs deworming, by all means do that. However, you should also closely inspect the tail, anal/genital area and/or udder at the first sign of tail rubbing. More often than not, what the horse really needs is to be cleaned. Failure to routinely brush and, when needed, wash the tail leads to irritating build-up of dead skin cells, oils and dirt.
Most horses rub their tails simply because they itch and/or the sheath, anal area or udder has a buildup and is in dire need of washing. If there are small breaks in the skin, infection may be present. With mild cases, simply washing the tail will usually clear up the problem.
The environment at skin level under the thick hair of the tail is more favorable to skin infections. Horses that rub their tails can cause enough small breaks in the skin to let the waiting organisms in. When washing alone does not clear up the problem in 24 hours or so, specific treatment may be needed.
For minor redness and broken skin, application of a topical antibiotic cream, tea-tree-oil spray, Immune One larch-based cream or the EQyss Micro-Tek System (see medicated shampoos, August 1998) should get the area to clear in a day or two.
Persistent problems with secretion buildup from wounds or if the skin stays red without signs of healing, may require a daily or twice-daily local cleansing of the area. Our first choice is the EQyss Micro-Tek System, as it is gentle to the skin and allows you to follow-up on the cleansing with a spray. You may also try Hibiclens or Novasan Skin and Wound cleaner from your drug store.
Given the sensitive nature of the tissues in the anal and genital area, we would avoid iodine shampoos, unless the condition fails to clear with one of the others. If you must use an the iodine shampoo, we would first reach for Farnam’s Aloe-Iodine or VIP-20.
Skin infection can be present even if the skin is not broken or red. In these cases, a low-grade fungal infection is likely the culprit and flaking and itching are the primary signs. Hairs may also be unusually brittle and multiple broken hairs will be seen in the areas being rubbed. Hair may also pull out more easily.
These infections are usually caused by lack of tail grooming and will clear easily if the skin is not extensively damaged. Again, the EQyss Micro-Tek shampoo and spray combo would be our choice. If this is not sufficient, switch to one of the stronger medicated shampoos and use a human athlete’s foot cream or spray to treat the skin after washing.
Excessive Flaking and Dryness
Excessive dryness is again often due to inadequate grooming, but it could be one of the hallmarks of a low-grade fungal infection and should be properly treated.
Conversely, excessive flaking may occur if the tail is washed too often, washed with too harsh a shampoo or with a shampoo containing a fragrance or other additive to which the horse is sensitive and/or failing to rinse thoroughly.
Detanglers, conditioners and other grooming sprays may also build up and cause flaking. Washing the tail with a mild/daily-use equine shampoo may do the trick.
Excessive tail flaking may also indicate a body-wide problem. Suspect a nutritional problem if your horse also has:
Problems with hoof quality.
Dryness/flaking of body skin.
A dusty appearance to body skin.
Horses with dull, unhealthy skin will often readily flake if scratched lightly with a fingernail.
The major players in problem skin are the B vitamins (especially biotin and pyridoxine), the fat-soluble vitamins A and D, trace-mineral deficiency (especially zinc and copper), insufficient high-quality protein (especially the sulfur containing amino acids like methionine), and deficiency of essential fatty acids.
If you horse has a high-quality pasture, think first of B vitamins and trace-mineral pro blems. United Vet Equine’s Biotin 22X (also our choice for all-around hoof supplement that will fit any diet well) pellets would be a good choice here.
If pasture is poor and/or the horse relies primarily on hay and grain, any of the above could be your problem. If you are feeding a supplemented grain mix with guaranteed levels of lysine and methionine, protein, fat-soluble vitamins and trace minerals are probably OK. Consider a pure biotin supplement and adding flaxseed or combine both with HorseTech’s BioFlax 20.
With unsupplemented grain and hay or hay-only diets, any of these factors could be operating. The only way to know for sure is with a dietary analysis. You could also try an across-the-board approach with a supplement balanced for horses and feed a flaxseed supplement (see June 2000).
Thinning Tails And Hair Loss
Bald spots are usually caused by tail rubbing. They may also result from a heavy tick infestation or a serious fungal infection. Another cause of horses losing hair in an asymmetrical or patchy pattern is another horse chewing on his tail. This is especially when there are also “mouthy” youngsters in the field.
If the tail hair is definitely thinning symmetrically, the horse may have a metabolic problem. Only serious vitamin/mineral deficiencies or excesses or disease states are likely to cause this problem. It is an outward sign of something wrong internally and warrants investigation.
Finally, if your horse just happens to have a thin mane and tail, you aren’t going to change that. The tail will look its fullest right after washing with a gentle shampoo. If this does not help enough, consider the use of an artificial tail for showing, if your discipline allows it.