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


Controversial Techniques: Rollkur

I would be hard-pressed to say which of the controversial equitation techniques I find most appalling, there are many. However, I decided to look at rollkur for an assignment for one of the Equine Behaviour courses I’ve taken. It’s a topic that came up again recently in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare because of the inherent contradictions of the practice. While to some it is obvious that the horse is in a state of distress, others associate it with grace and beauty. It is a position achieved by force with the application of excessive and prolonged pressure on the mouth to hold the horse’s head down in a hyper-flexed position, as is commonly seen is dressage.

The welfare implications include discomfort, pain, and compromised breathing and vision (McGreevy et al, 2010). It is this impaired vision that is thought to make the horse appear more responsive to the rider, as the horse is more reliant on the rider’s cues than its own senses of vision and proprioception (von Borstel et al., 2009).  

In a study of 15 horses during the conditioning phase of rollkur, a number of behaviours that are significant indicators of stress, discomfort, frustration, and conflict were recorded. The results indicate notable increases in tail-swishing, attempted bucks, crabbing, abnormal oral behaviour, ears fixed back, and head-tossing when in rollkur versus normal poll flexion. 14 of the 15 horses exhibited a distinct preference for regular poll flexion versus rollkur (von Borstel et al., 2009).

Another concern is that inducing any degree of hyperflexion is in violation of the principles of learning theory because it requires two simultaneous responses (neck flexion and deceleration) to one cue (bit pressure) (McGreevy et al., 2009).

On the advice of a former riding instructor, I purchased the book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative by Philippe Karl (2014). In it, Karl presents the physical impacts of rollkur by muscle group. Here’s a brief summary:

  • The cervical ligaments undergo extreme and prolonged stretching that may lead to tearing, separation, and inflammation
  • The parotid glands are compressed and may become distorted, resulting in very painful inflammation and a loss of elasticity
  • The brachio-cephalic muscles, which connect the head to the forelegs, are extremely shortened and contracted, overloading and blocking the movement of the shoulders

Furthermore, the horse’s vision is negatively affected, with limited monocular vision to the sides and a very limited range of binocular vision at its feet. The horse is essentially moving blindly, unable to attain a full field of vision. The horse’s sense of gravity is also thought to be affected by the fixed head position.

The inability of the horse to properly sense its position through the normal tactile, visual and gravitational senses may result in balance disorders akin to seasickness. At least that’s a theory presented in this book.

Karl states “overbending, an unnatural attitude obtained by hands that are pulled backwards by various restraining devices, is a vulgar approach…and arises from a serious lack of knowledge of the horse…It is an authoritarian and brutal approach to domination that significantly deprives the horse of its capacities and places ‘man’s noblest conquest’ in the position of a slave restrained in shackles” (p. 27).

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has effectively banned rollkur from competition and training, however, it still permits sustained flexion of the horses’ neck as long as the nose remains in front of the vertical.  It is also still acceptable to maintain a horse’s head and neck carriage in a sustained or fixed position for up to 10 minutes during training exercises (, 2010).

Imagine what it would feel like to have your head held in a fixed position by 5 kilograms of force – the mean rein tension recorded in dressage to maintain a horse’s head and neck posture (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). Can any degree of forced, sustained flexion be considered ethical?

This is in direct contradiction of the main teaching of negative reinforcement training – that correct, welfare-appropriate training is achieved when pressure is released as soon as the desired response is performed. The “ability of the horse to maintain a particular head and neck posture that is appropriate for the stage of training without continuous or high rein tension, is fundamental to maintaining welfare” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated).

To do otherwise should be correctly labeled as excessive force and punishment.


References (2010). “Rollkur: FEI offers hyperflexion guidelines.” Retrieved from

International Society for Equitation Science. (undated). ISES position statement on alterations of the horses’ head and neck posture in equitation. Retrieved from

Karl, Philippe. (2014). Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative. (5th ed.). Richmond, UK: Cadmos Publishing Limited

McGreevy, P.D., Harman, A., McLean, A. & L. Hawson. (2010). “Over-flexing the horse’s neck: A modern equestrian obsession.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research. 5(4) 180-186

Von Borstel, U.U., Heatly Duncan, I.J., Shoveller, A.K., Merkies, K., Keeling, L.J., and S.T. Millman. (2009). “Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116(2-4) 228-236


By Oliver Abels