BY JESS CLAWSON
At every boarding barn I’ve been a part of for as long as I can remember, one critical grooming protocol is debated: should we brush our horses’ tails every day, or only when it’s time to really look our best?
I have horses with every kind of tail right now. Mo, my thoroughbred, has a kinda meh tail. It’s grown in thicker in the few years I’ve had him (as has his tummy) from simple good nutrition. I have two draft cross horses with tails as thick as my torso comprised of wavy, coarse hair; a POA with about three strands of hair; a mini with tail for days; and a Hanoverian whose tail has definitely seen better days after he rubbed half of it out before I got him.
For Mo’s tail in particular, I tend toward the “less is more” approach because his tail hair is fine and relatively breakable. Plus it’s taken a long time to see any improvement in the thickness and quality of the strands. For him and the other thin-tailed types in my care, my routine for their tails looks something like this:
Everyday Tail Care for Thin Tails
I check their tails for ticks, a constant plague for most of the year in Virginia these days. Not only might tick bites cause Lyme disease or other illnesses, their bites are very itchy and can prompt the horse to rub his tail and damage it.
Pro tip: when you do find a tick, pull the tick off and kill it. Don’t worry about any fancy extraction methods, just use your fingers and pull it off. It’s gross but it’s got to be done, and then clean the spot with betadine. If you find any crusty spots in the tail from where there was a tick you missed–it happens to all of us–clean it thoroughly with betadine. Your horse will like this, because those spots are itchy.
Next, I use my fingers to pick out whatever straw, shavings, leaves, or other detritus might have gotten tangled in the tail. This keeps the tail from snagging on things, looks neat enough for daily work, and prevents any really bad tangling.
For Special Occasions
For shows or whenever the tail really needs to be washed, I love the Effol Ocean Star Spray shampoo. I hose the tail down and really make sure it’s wet all the way through, spray some of the shampoo right onto the tail, and work it into the dock and throughout the strands. What I love about this shampoo is how easily it rinses out while still cleaning effectively. It also leaves the hair shiny thanks to the pearl extract.
Then I spray the tail with my favorite leave-in conditioner, Effol SuperStar Shine. This product actually does condition the tail as it detangles it. Many other products on the market will detangle, but they’re likely to dry out the hair, which isn’t healthy for it. Other products are greasy and weigh the hair down while attracting dirt. Star Shine does neither, and the effects last a long time. Plus, the ingredients are healthy for human skin and won’t leave your hands feeling slick or grimy and it has a volumizing effect on the hair.
When I judge turnout inspections at pony club rallies, I can tell which competitors have used a conditioning product and which ones haven’t–it makes a difference to how easily I can run my hands through the tail.
After the tail is completely dry, I use my Oster tail brush to carefully brush from the bottom of the tail up, slowly detangling as I go. You’re going to pull out a couple of hairs in this process, which is why I don’t brush the tail every day for the horses with thinner tails. But if you’re careful, you can minimize the hair loss. I like the Oster brush because it’s wide and detangles quickly without pulling out more hair than is necessary.
Care for Thick Tales
I pay more attention to thicker tail on a regular basis. I check for ticks and pick out the straw, shavings, and so on, and then I spray the dry tail with SuperStar Shine, and pick out some of the tangles. I don’t produce a completely tangle-free tail every single day, but if I’m not on top of them, their tails can twist into clumps that are much harder to brush through when it’s time to amp up the turnout.
Caring for Damaged Tails
My two special case tails have damage to the skin of their docks from before I had them, mostly due to living outside all the time. For these two, I pay extra attention to the health of the skin on their dock to make sure nothing is irritating it and that it isn’t getting too much sun exposure. What has helped the most is ensuring that both are having their nutritional needs met. It isn’t fancy, but it’s the best option there is.
Remember, it takes about two years for a tail hair to grow to its full length. Be careful with the hair and whether you brush daily or occasionally, make sure you’ve used a detangling product that won’t dry the hair strands and limit washing on non-white tails to prevent pulling out more hair than necessary.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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