Tail Rubbing: Getting to the Root of the Problem

Grazing Horses-min

After years of owning horses with sparse tails I finally have a horse with a thick, luxurious one. Her mane and forelock are quite average but her tail is simply gorgeous. The absolute best part for me though is that it requires very little to maintain. I know horse owners who would go to great lengths to have their horses grow and maintain tails like hers but aside from spritzing her tail with a little leave in condition once a week she does a fine job on her own of keeping her locks beautiful. That’s why, every once in a while, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I discover that she has a rubbed, matted tail.

Tail rubbing, as the name implies, occurs whenever a horse rubs his or tail against another object. Usually, a few simple rubs aren’t particularly problematic. Your horse has an itch and he scratches it. However, sometimes the uncomfortable itch can become so distracting that he rubs his tail a lot. When that happens, you see the unmistakable signs of a rubbed tail that include frayed, matted, and broken tail hairs. If you are planning to show your horse in the near future, its appearance can mean more than just a health issue.

Tail rubbing can be caused by a variety of reasons ranging from un-cleanliness, to pinworms, to a stereotypy such as cribbing, to an insect hypersensitivity. In this post we’ll concentrate on insect hypersensitivity which has been the main reason that I have personally observed tail rubbing with my own horse. This hypersensitivity is caused by a reaction to the proteins in insect bites, most usually Culicoides. A common name for these insects is “no see ‘ems.” I’ve also heard tail rubbing caused by this condition called “sweet itch.”

Culicoides can be controlled much like any other insects. In general, be aware that they feed at dawn and dusk so stabling your horse, if possible, during this time may prove helpful. Carefully placed fans in stalls, the use of fly sprays, sheets, and masks, screened in stalls, and the elimination of standing water can all go a long way toward controlling the Culicoide population on your property.

Many years ago an old time horseman taught me that I could alleviate my horse’s discomfort by applying a judicious amount of Listerine™ mouth wash to the base of his tail. If you choose this route you’ll want to proceed carefully making sure to position yourself, just in case, out of kicking range. I make certain that the mouth wash reaches the targeted area by re-purposing a spray bottle that I then label for future use. It can help to massage it in to his tail with your hands though you may wish to wear gloves if you intend to do so.

No horse that I have ever applied Listerine™ to has ever been especially bothered by it. However, in the event yours is, you might keep a clean, damp rag on hand to wipe any excess that may get on his skin. I’m not certain what it is about Listerine™ that works. It is possibly the antibacterial and/or antiseptic properties it contains but it always seems to provide almost instant relief. Other recommended treatments include an oatmeal bath. Some veterinarians will also recommend systemic steroids.

The next time your horse has rubbed in tail, work to identify the cause. If it is indeed caused by Culicoides you can most likely bring your horse relief right away.


The material contained in this blog is presented for information purposes only. The material is in no way intended to replace professional veterinary care. Any advice given cannot be used as the basis for a diagnosis or choice of treatment.


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