Long and flowy, frizzy, braided, or banged, a horse’s tail is always one of their best features. While we’re all standing around admiring this gorgeous physical feature, however, we often don’t realize that a horse’s tail contributes to more than their good looks. Horse tails are actually an important part of how our equine friends communicate both with us and with other horses in their herd. They use their surprisingly dexterous tails to send specific messages about everything including their health, mental state, and current emotions.
The next time you’re with your horse, pay close attention to their tail. Correctly interpreting the following tail messages will clue you in on what they’re thinking.
When horses are living in a herd, even a small one, they communicate with each other almost constantly. One of the important messages they can send is one of warning. As prey animals, horses are always on the lookout for possible threats.
If they see, hear, or smell something suspicious, it’s part of the herd dynamic to warn the entire group. They do this by raising their tail slightly, pricking their ears forward, and standing as if they’re ready to run. When other horses in the herd see their friend give this signal, they stop what they’re doing and adopt the same stance.
Excitement and Happiness
Horses also lift their tails when they’re happy or excited. Instead of pairing the raised tail with an alert stance, a happy horse might prance around with the zoomies or act silly.
You’ll need to know your horse’s normal tail carriage to recognize this type of body language. Some horse breeds, like Arabians, naturally hold their tails up high. It’s easier to notice an unusually high tail in breeds with naturally low hanging tails, like draft breeds.
Male and female horses have an instinct to communicate with each other for the sake of reproductive purposes. When a mare is in heat and ready to mate, she will often lift her tail up and to the side. This is usually the only invitation that an eager stallion needs.
That same mare will also use her tail to ward off unwanted suitors. If she’s in foal or not in the mood, she might swish her tail back and forth to tell stallions that they better stay away.
Fear and Submission
The opposite of a happy raised tail is a tucked tail. Imagine a scared dog with its tail pulled tight between its legs, and you can recognize the same body language with your horse.
Horses tuck their tails in close to their bodies when they’re either afraid or feeling particularly chastened. A yearling might do this when it gets on the bad side of an older horse. It’s their way of showing submission.
If you ever catch your horse actively swishing their tail, you better watch out. A horse’s tail swishes back and forth when they’re feeling particularly irritated about something. It’s a warning that can easily lead to a hard kick if the cause of the horse’s annoyance isn’t remedied quickly.
In most cases, the more energy a horse puts into their tail swish, the stronger their feelings are. Some horses end up twirling their tails in circles. It’s basically their way of speaking in ALL CAPS in hopes their message is heard and understood.
Besides beings a means for communication, a horse’s tail makes a great fly swatter. The fly-flicking tail swish doesn’t send a message per se, but it’s a practical movement that protects them from flies. If you notice your horse standing in the paddock and swishing their tail all day long, it’s probably time to invest in more heavy-duty fly protection.
How horses shoo away flies with their tails is more interesting than you might think. Not only do their thick hairs hit insects with impressive accuracy, the flicking movement also creates wind that disrupts a biting bug’s flight pattern. Researcher Marguerite Matherne even told The Horse that the way in which horses protect themselves from flies could lead to a chemical-free insect management technology that could work for both animals and humans.