Tail Swisher

  by Dr Jim and Lynda McCall



Bob's Problem:

I purchased "Tara" as a three year old filly from a well respected horse trainer and invested a month of time and money working with him to try and master Tara's level of performance. I then brought the mare home and keep her, along with my other two geldings on my property which consists of five acres and a four-stall barn.

Tara was great when I first got her. Her attitude was wonderful and she never acted irritated when I used my leg to ask for a transition or lateral movement. But now, when I give her any sort of leg cue, she tenses up a bit, pins her ears back and swishes her tail. I've noticed she's touchier on the right than the left. I've tried working her outside the arena, thinking she was just ring sour, but she does the same thing on the trail.

I asked a friend to bring his tack and ride her and she did the same thing. Our first show is only 60 days away and she's getting worse."

The answer:

Tara's problem reminded us of a mare that Jim was riding in the mid-sixties for an old Texas horseman by the name of Watt Hardin. One day Watt happened by just as Jim was committing a lot of verbiage about what a tail-ringing sour witch this mare was to ride. Watt's comment - like the good foundation bred Quarter horses he stood, Bill Cody, Gay Bar King and Fourble Joe - left an indelible impression upon his mind:


While this answer is not the typical response which blames the horse for his bad attitude, sixty years of combined experiences and forty years of research has convinced us, without a shadow of doubt, that Watt's statement should be etched in stone.

Tail swishing begins when a horse experiences some discomfort during the performance of a maneuver. In the beginning, the injury may be something as simple as a sore muscle which causes the horse to wince (swish his tail) when the muscle fires. However, unless the problem is acknowledged and the source of the discomfort identified and remedied, damage to the area and the resulting tail swishing is destined to only get worse.

Obviously, Tara is trying to tell anyone who will listen that she has such a problem and that it is getting worse. Since the distressed behavior - tenseness, tail swishing and pinned ears - occurs only when Bob asks the mare to bend or flex the topline, a back problem should be suspected.

There are three basic causes of back problems.

(1) Poor fitting saddles pinch the back causing pain when the horse is asked to perform specific maneuvers. While the solution to this problem is easily remedied through the use of a saddle that correctly fits the horse, failure to recognize this problem can lead to permanent damage with the development of bone spurs along the spine.

However, there is no indication that this is the source of Tara's problem as the tail swishing behavior continued even when another rider, using his tack, saddled her up.

(2) Poorly balanced riders are notorious for causing soreness in their mounts. Riding off to one side and pounding their bodies into the horse's back does cause trauma to the muscles of the back.

Again, this doesn't seem to be Bob's problem as the filly continued to show discomfort even when ridden by more experienced riders.

(3) Soreness in the muscles along the back will cause tail swishing as the muscle contracts. All signs point to this being source of the discomfort. While it would be pure speculation to guess how the injury occurred, careful examination along both sides of Tara's back may actually identify the sore area. Since the mare's response is more intense on the right it would be reasonable to expect that one side has been injured more than the other. As Bob gently but firmly runs his hand along each side of the back, here are four clues which may help him pinpoint the damaged areas.

  1. A damaged muscle may feel warmer than the surrounding tissue.
  2. Pressure on the muscle may cause discomfort to the horse - she will try to move away from the pressure.
  3. As pressure is applied, the muscle will form a slight depression which will quickly return to its original shape. Injured areas, however, are slower to fill back in.
  4. A knot in the muscle (similar to a charley-horse) may be felt.

If Bob can locate the source of tenderness, gentle massage may help relieve some of the soreness. Unfortunately, the possibility exists that the actual site of the soreness may not be located if the injured muscles lie too deep to be felt. Fortunately, however, identifying the distressed area is not a necessary part of the cure. What is important is that the horse be given rest and adequate time to heal. Muscle pulls, as any human athlete will tell you, can take anywhere from six days to six months depending upon the damage done to the area. It sounds like Tara's needs a couple of weeks rest and then Bob can begin to "fix" her problem by using a warm-up routine each time the mare is ridden.

Horses, like human athletes, should never be asked to per- form until the muscles in their bodies have been bent, stretched and loosened.

A generalized warm-up program might look like this.

  • Walk the horse a couple of rounds in each direction.
  • Do several easy stops in each circle followed by a few back up steps.
  • At a walk, cut the ring in half; then quarters going both directions.
  • Move into a trot and repeat each of the exercises.
  • Work a serpentine pattern at a slow trot.
  • Do concentric circles each one smaller than the last; then make each one bigger until the original size is achieved: Repeat the pattern in the opposite direction.
  • Half-track both directions. Sidepass to each side.
  • Slow lope and repeat the appropriate exercises

It should take five to ten minutes for Bob to bring Tara through this warm-up program so that the mare will not experience discomfort when asked for lateral movement.

Some improvement in attitude should be immediately obvious. While it may take several additional weeks for all the soreness to leave Tara's body, steady progress should be expected.

Bob can not begin to use this warm-up routine soon enough. Horses, like all animals, can learn to live with pain but they quickly start to protect the injury by relying on other uninjured muscles. This natural response causes the horse to move out of balance - an action which predisposes additional injuries. A "vicious cycle" develops as more and more muscles become sore as the horse tries to escape from the discomfort. Before this happens to Tara, Bob must stop blaming the horse for being ring sour. Fix the problem by using a warm-up routine and the tail swishing behavior should improve.


Copyright © 1997.  Dr. Jim and Lynda McCall

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