Anheuser-Busch has Stopped Docking Budweiser Clydesdales’ Tails

Budweiser Clydesdales will no longer have their tails docked.

I’ve always loved the Budweiser commercials that featured their magnificent Clydesdales — except for the horses’ docked tails, a practice that is both cruel and unnecessary. Thankfully, Anheuser-Bush recently announced that it had stopped docking the tails of its Clydesdales, stating that “The safety and well-being of our beloved Clydesdales is our top priority.” It’s about time. And came after animal welfare groups called them out on the barbaric practice.

Tail docking involves amputating the bony structure of the horse’s tail, essentially leaving a mere stub. This prevents a horse from protecting itself from flies and also inhibits communication among horses. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the purpose of tail docking is to ‘“prevent the tail of the horse from interfering with harness and carriage equipment.” People who defended tail docking (as recently as 2004 when a Private Bill was submitted to the Belgium Parliament, which had banned docking) claimed that long tails represented a ‘mortal danger’ to handlers as ‘when beating their tail, horses may pass it above the rein used to guide them, making guiding them further impossible with an increased risk of bolting’. Furthermore, the Bill claimed that ‘Bandaging or braiding the tail [would] increase the risk of the tail passing over the cord. In addition, this procedure [(bandaging and braiding) would be a] torture when used on horses working over the whole day’.

This illustration of a Suffolk Punch is from 1846 and shows a full tail.

While it is true that draft horses typically have long, thick tails (Zelda’s would drag on the ground if I didn’t trim it frequently), horses have been used to pull vehicles since 3000 BC but the practice of docking tails didn’t start until the late 17th century and didn’t become popular until the last decades of the 19th Century. There are many paintings and drawings of draft horses that show full, flowing tails, or tails that are tied up or braided until then. So what changed? Fashion.

The Prince of Wales’ Phaeton by George Stubbs, 1793

Docked tails first appeared in the 17th Century when British breeders of Belgian draft horses wanted to distinguish their horses from French breeders. Eventually, docked tails started to appear on carriage horses, with the lighter breeds often used as riding horses as well, especially hunt horses. The look was adopted among the upper classes and the trickle-down effect caused the practice to become widely adopted.

Outrage Over Tail Docking was Longstanding

Public outrage over tail docking started in the late 1800s. Anna Sewell called out the practice in Black Beauty, published in 1870, when a horse called Sir Oliver tells Beauty about it:

Illustration of a horse having its tail docked
An 1889 article from Our Dumb Animals, the organ of Massachussett’s animal protective society, rails against docking of horses’ tails.

“I had often wondered how it was that Sir Oliver had such a very short tail; it really was only six or seven inches long, with a tassel of hair hanging from it; and on one of our holidays in the orchard. I ventured to ask him by what accident it was that he had lost his tail. “Accident!” he snorted with a fierce look, “it was no accident! it was a cruel, shameful, cold-blooded act! When I was young I was taken to a place where these cruel things were done; I was tied up, and made fast so that I could not stir, and then they came and cut off my long and beautiful tail, through the flesh and through the bone, and took it away.

“How dreadful!” I exclaimed.

“Dreadful, ah! it was dreadful; but it was not only the pain, though that was terrible and lasted a long time; it was not only the indignity of having my best ornament taken from me, though that was bad; but it was this, how could I ever brush the flies off my sides and my hind legs any more? You who have tails just whisk the flies off without thinking about it, and you can’t tell what a torment it is to have them settle upon you and sting and sting, and have nothing in the world to lash them off with. I tell you it is a lifelong wrong, and a lifelong loss; but thank heaven, they don’t do it now.””

A more humane approach to keeping a draft horse’s tail out of the harness is to braid it.

Despite early recognition that the practice is both unnecessary and cruel, it’s taken a very long time for it to become law. Currently, tail docking is banned in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It is permitted in Luxemburg and Spain (excluding Catalonia and Andalucía). In the US, only 12 states regulate tail docking in some form. Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, and Washington prohibit the docking of a horse’s tail. Connecticut, Michigan and South Carolina prohibit tail docking of a horse unless it is determined to be medically necessary by a licensed veterinarian. In New Hampshire, permission must be granted by the state veterinarian before a licensed veterinarian may perform a tail docking procedure on a horse. Illinois prohibits the tail docking of a horse unless it is proven to be a benefit to the horse and California prohibits the docking of both horses’ and cows’ tails except in emergency situations. California law also prohibits the import of docked horses or use of them including for racing or work. Washington bans any “operation for the purpose of . . . changing the carriage of the tail.”

In the UK, draft horses are shown with their tails tied up, rather than docked.

Docked tails are still popular among show horses, especially breeds such as Clydesdales and Percherons. Competitors who compete their horses as they will be marked down for not conforming to a breed despite the fact that there are alternatives to amputating the bony structure of a horse’s tail. Tails can be braided or tied up, and I’ve even seen a horse with a shaved tail (not ideal, because the horse can no longer protect itself from flies, but at least the hair grows out).

Clydesdale horses first appeared in Budweiser imagery in 1933 to celebrate the repeal of the Prohibition, according to the company. They’ve since continued to appear in many commercials and ads, rising to the status of cultural icons. I’m all for continuing the tradition, but am happy that the next generation of Budweiser Clydesdales will have their tails intact.

8 thoughts on “Anheuser-Busch has Stopped Docking Budweiser Clydesdales’ Tails

  1. The infuriating thing about all this is that it took how many years for Anheiser Busch to finally STOP this butchery? It’s telling that all the commercial seldom if ever show the docked tails of the horses. It’s so sad that ”’tradition”” dictates what is truly a barbaric practise. All for fashion.

  2. Finally, no purpose continuing the 19th-century style/tradition of tail & ear docking. (hope the rest of the heavy-draft industry catches on) (long-shop hope: stop the soaring of Walkers & Saddlebreds)

  3. I agree. I don’t care for PETA, they seem to have a knee jerk, no compromise outlook. But maybe that’s because I’ve dealt with animals, especially horses, long enough to know that race horses, for instance, are being ‘whipped’ to force them to run. Or hunters ‘forced’ to jump.
    But I will give them credit, finally forcing a Big Name Corporation to finally stop maiming their horses is a good thing. And as Bonnie, above, mentions…next on the list is Saddlebreds and Walkers, with their soring practises and, if I may be so bold, I hope they go after the people who break the tails of their Saddlebreds in order to give them that ‘flagging’ look.

  4. These horses are special enough to pull a beer waggon. Instead of stinking lorries that pollute the air. Their owners use vets! Long hairs get tangled up. But because you know NOTHING about horses and prefer motor cars anyway you will make a splendid FUSS. Never mind about REAL horse welfare problems internationally!!!. Never mind that trucks and motor cars that are destroying our air and water. You probably drive a motor car. Cart horses are becoming extinct!!! They are beautiful!!!

    1. Yes, those horses lead privileged lives. But there is no need to dock their tails. And many breeders dock the tails of foals when they are only two weeks old by tying rubber bands around the bone until the blood supply is blocked. If you look back to ancient Mesopotamia in 3000 BC, and up through the 1700s, tails were not docked. It might have started as a way to prevent tails from being tangled in the harness or reins, but it became a fashion statement, just like Big Lick walkers, quarter horses that have their tails paralyzed, and gaited horses which have their tails broken and set. All animal cruelty is a real issue, you can’t pick and choose.

  5. I certainly hope that Ms McCrindle is being sarcastic rather than antagonistic, because everyone on this blog DOES know about horses. Perhaps she doesn’t drive. Most Americans do, it doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about equines. In fact, Anheiser-Busch uses THOUSANDS of trucks (aka lorries), ones driven by internal combustion engines, to deliver millions of gallons of beer. They don’t use their Clydes to deliver beer throughout the US and Canada. They use TRUCKS. Their Clydesdales number in perhaps two dozen at the most, are used ONLY for things like football games, parades, and television commercials.

    As Liz said, “All animal cruelty is wrong.” And docking tails is definitely cruelty.

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