Q: I overheard a conversation about improving a horse's tail set with a practice called "gingering." When I asked about it, I was told I was overreacting. Isn't gingering a horses tail designed to, at the very least, irritate the tissues under the tail? Even when the ginger is gone, wouldn't the skin then have to heal? Am I overreacting?
A: A "good tail set" refers to a tail held in a slightly elevated posture to give a horse the appearance of alertness and elegance as he competes in particular classes. It is a desired trait in many Saddlebred, Hackney and Arabian breed classes.
In the past, braces, surgery and chemical irritants have been used to achieve the desired position of the tail, but with the welfare of the horse as the focus, the various breed associations have developed strict rules regarding these practices. Hefty fines and suspensions are levied for participants who violate these rules.
The specific practice of "gingering" refers to placing a chemical irritant under the tail, around the perianal area or actually in the rectum to irritate the tissues, produce discomfort and cause the horse to lift his tail. Historically, ginger was in fact the substance used, and thus the name. But people have used many irritating materials, including cayenne pepper, turpentine, mercuric iodine and kerosene. The degree of irritation can vary from a mild redness and stinging to actual chemical burns with severe blistering and tissue damage. And, as you noted, even after the irritating substance is removed, it takes time for the tissues to heal and return to normal. In some cases of severe blistering, scarring can occur.
I don't believe you're overreacting. Horses should never be treated in this way to produce an artificial tail position. Many breed shows have veterinarians who perform random "ginger testing." Show judges and stewards generally have the authority to test specific horses if they suspect one has been illegally altered. This test involves special procedures for taking a swab of the perianal and rectal area. The swab is then sent to an independent laboratory for testing. The results are sent to the associations and, if irritants are detected, any disciplinary action is initiated against the participant. The goal is to deter people from trying to attain an unnatural tail set
Duncan Peters, DVM, MS
Hagyard Equine Medical Institute