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’.
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.
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:
“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.””
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.”
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.