Monday, March 3, 2008

The dressage tail: Techniques and tips

The concept of the dressage tail has always baffled me a little. It's not like the plaited tail of the hunter world, which is more or less identical from horse to horse. If you look to the left, you see the "fluffy au naturel. dressage tail. On the right is a beautifully symmetrical and highly coiffed tail. If you don't have a preference and your riding discipline doesn't dictate, one way to choose is to evaluate your horse's hind end. A broad, boxy hind end should probably have a bushier tail. A slender hiney would have a more closely cut tail and the trim would extend further down the tail.

To pull or not to pull?
I just don' t know anyone who pulls a tail. Pulling out horse tail hairs by the roots? With pliers? After watching a German video where the technique was demonstrated on a willing horse, I made one brief attempt. It's hard to grip horse hair with pliers, but more importantly, it's just a wicked thing to do. One look at Harvey's bewildered face and I tossed the pliers aside. It took many treats to make it up to him. Some say that if you pull the tail after exercise (when pores are open), and do it a little at a time, it is less uncomfortable. My thought is, leave the pulling to the Brits and Europeans. Here in America we do things differently.

Using clippers
I use clippers. While you can achieve any look with clippers, they are very good for producing a more sculpted, elegant look (see photo on left and top right). It's also a tad artificial looking. Here are a few things to consider before you choose this method. First, it is easy to make a catastrophic error. If the horse moves his tail, you may take out a clump of hair accidentally. Did you know that it takes seven years for a horse to grow a full length tail hair? Nuf said. With the efficiency and speed of the clippers, it's tempting to take off too much. Resist the temptation! Finally, you have to do regular maintenance on a sculpted tail -- a nice looking tail like the one pictured left looks great at first, but when it grows out it looks like a Fuller brush. Finally, it's tricky to "blend" the clipped hair with the hair below the dock.

The clippers method
A 1999 article in Practical Horseman gives detailed instructions for clipping the tail, with illustrations of each step. Here is a quick summary (see the article for more.

  1. Brush the tail out. Note how there are side hairs from the top of the tail to the point of the buttock. These are the hairs to trim.
  2. Lift the tail and start at the top with the underside of the tail.
  3. Angle the clippers down in the direction of the hair, and trim the hair down to the point of the buttock. Don't trim too close (you don't want a shaved look).
  4. Go back to the top and take off a little more, trimming in a curving line.
  5. Do the same thing on the other side.
  6. Clip only the sides of the tail. If you clip the entire tail it will look like your horse backed into a lawn mower.
  7. Periodically put the tail down and assess your work. The tail should lie tight and flat between the butt cheeks.

Using scissors
Using scissors will take longer than clippers. Unless you spend a lot of time trimming, scissors will produce a more natural, bushier tail like the tail pictured right and on the top left of this page. An article in the September 2004 issue of Practical Horseman gives instructions for creating a dressage tail using scissors. The article is pretty good, if a little vague.

The scissors method

  1. Get a pair of snub nosed scissors, and start with a clean, untangled tail. Get your horse in one of his or her mellow moments.
  2. Essentially you trim the tail on both sides of the tailbone about 5 inches.
  3. Stand to the side and begin on that side of the horse's tail.

    • Hold the scissors pointed/snubbed end up, and slightly sideways.
    • Starting at the base, and holding the scissors close to the skin, cut upwards.
    • As you're cutting be watchful of the "blend line -- you want the trimmed part of the tail to blend seamlessly into the longer part of the tail
    • Repeat the upward cutting until all stray hairs are gone.

  4. Repeat on the other side.

I love a good horse gadget, but can't speak to the gadgets out on the market--simply haven't tried any of them. Many people use them, and they seem to run about $50. Horse tails are very coarse and strong; I'd be interested to know how long they stay sharp.

The good, the bad, and the ugly
Here are some examples of tail trims.

This tail was probably clipped, and you can see how it doesn't really blend seamlessly from the short hairs to the long hairs below the dock. See how the longer hairs seem to bulge out from the base of the dock? This will not grow out nicely (I know from sad experience). It's hard to tell from this photo, but it also looks like the hairs in the middle were clipped too. Only clip the side hairs!

This photo was posted on COTH and critiqued by the owner, so I'm not picking on anyone! The tail needs to be trimmed more at the top, and the trim should probably extend a bit further down. But it is nice and symmetrical and the problems are fixable.

This is a really nice tail for a slender, thoroughbred type--to me it is a perfect job. See how seamlessly the top blends with the longer hair?

Here is a thick tail (easy to see because of the contrasting color). It looks great on this horse, but generally I like to see the top more sculpted. It's a matter of personal preference.

These are two nice examples of a thickishly trimmed tail. Again, the horses are kind of broad in build so it looks good on them.


Q&A: Perfect pulled tails

Carberry, Heather. Simple steps to a super dressage tail. Practical Horseman, September 2004, p.85.

Addison-Crow, Dorrie. Trim that tail. Practical Horseman, Oct. 1999. p. 10.

Dressage tail -- grooming (posting on

Tail Turnout (posting on COTH)

Dressage tails (posting on COTH)

The Dressage tail (posting on COTH)


  1. I have a silly question- stemming from my never LOOKING at the tails on dressage horses- I have been too busy watching the movement I guess...

    When and where did the "Dressage Tail" come into play originaly? I like the squared off bottom edge, but I am not too keen on "sculpting" the top I dont think.

    Since you list such amazing resources, I was wondering if you had stumbled across anything pointing to the origin of this fashion, and how long it has been in play?


  2. Thank you for this post, I have alwas wondered what to do with my horses tails but never known what.

  3. Hi, there are two new posts (started by me) one on COTH, one on UDDB, on dressage tails, with some great photos. I'll add these links to the blog tomorrow.

    BTW beckz, what a great jumping picture! That is the penultimate crest release and a lovely horse.

  4. I have been staring at my horse's butt all week with a pair of clippers in my hand, but didn't have the guts to trim anything (we have our first show this weekend). So THANK YOU for this post! It's timing was perfect!

  5. It seems like most everything "dressagey" stems from the military. But that is a good question.

  6. Too funny, I recognized the facility that the gray was at as GHS, then looked closer and realized it was a fellow NY trainer who is a good friend of mine. Do you show at GHS also?

  7. No, I just googled 900 ways to find images of horse hineys, hoping to get the tail shots. I thought this tail was just gorgeous. I hope your friend doesn't mind, posting it to my blog will get her 10s of additional viewers :-)!


Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.