Controversial Techniques: Tail Alterations

This week in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare we were tasked with researching legislation on controversial practices, a number of which have been covered in previous courses. As per my usual approach, I decided to choose something I had relatively little knowledge about, the tail alteration known as nicking or cutting.

I found myself feeling squeamish while researching this topic and at a loss to comprehend why mutilation is preferred over a naturally set tail. Ugh. Humans.

Tail nicking is a surgical procedure that heightens the tail carriage of a horse and is primarily seen in American Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses for the sole purpose of showing/cosmetic reasons.

To achieve the higher tail set, the tendons on the underside of the tail are cut and the dock is set in a ‘desirable’ upright position and then placed in a harness-like device (a tail set) to prevent the tendons from reattaching while the tail heals. Even after the incision has healed, a tail set will likely be worn by the horse most of the time to ensure the tail does not settle back into a natural, relaxed position.This controversial procedure, seen by many as harmless, can have devastating consequences for the horse, including loss of the ability to move the tail. More severe complications may include infected incisions which may lead to peritonitis (a severe abdominal infection), and in severe cases, colic resulting from peritonitis.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association released a position statement opposing tail alterations for cosmetic or competitive purposes in 2013, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners condemned the practice of tail alterations in 2015, urging the establishment and enforcement of guidelines by breed associations and disciplines to eliminate tail alteration practices.

So where do breed associations and disciplines stand on this? Is it addressed in North American legislation?

Nothing was found on the American Saddlebred Horse Association website. However, photos on the website indicate that altered, unnaturally high set tails are prized. A further search revealed a document titled “2016 Points of Emphasis”. In regards to the tail, horses with crooked tails must be penalized. Ironically, crooked or wry tails are commonly a result of nicking. It does specify that horses may be shown with unset tails without penalty, however, there is a glaring absence of any other mention of tail alterations.

A preliminary search didn’t reveal anything related to tail alterations associated with the Canadian or Alberta American Saddlebred Horse Associations or the Tennessee Walking Horse  Breeders & Exhibitors Association.

The NFACC Code of Practice for the care and handling of equines specifies on page 46 that tail nicking and blocking are unacceptable and must not be performed. No such statement was found in the USDA Horse Protection Act.

Further reading

Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Horse Tail Modifications


The truth about tail blocks


“American Saddlebred” by Jean. Retrieved from