Ever have an itch that scratching just won’t relieve? If so, then the next time you see your horse enthusiastically rubbing his tail on a fence board, you’ll know how he feels. It’s not simply boredom. There is probably a good reason for all that rubbing and you might want to help.
Excessive tail rubbing eventually leads to some unsightly hair loss and possibly scabbing. Aside from vanity, there is good reason to diagnose the cause of tail rubbing and implement a cure as quickly as possible. For one thing, your poor horse is uncomfortable. Plus, left undiagnosed, the underlying issue could lead to more health problems later.
So, if your horse is rubbing his tail more than normal, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading and I’ll show you what you need to know to fix it once and for all.
6 most likely reasons for tail rubbing in horses
Once you’ve established that tail rubbing is a problem with your horse, it’s time to start playing detective. An itchy tail area is caused by numerous issues but some are more common than others. You’ll need to physically exam the tail area to diagnose the cause but it is quicker and easier than you think.
Before you start lifting your horse’s tail to check things out, take a look at the list below so you know what to look for. It will be much easier to figure out the problem if you rule out the most common causes first. I’ve listed the causes of tail rubbing in order from most common to least common.
1. Biting insects (Most common)
Few bugs are more bothersome to your horse than culicoides gnats. Also known as no-see-ums, midges or sand flies, these tiny insects particularly love to feed on areas with less hair. The hair-free area under the tail is therefore a smorgasbord for blood-feeding gnats. A hypersensitivity to the saliva of culicoides gnats (often called “sweet itch”) is what leads to tail rubbing. Ticks are less common but equally bothersome.
Diagnosis: You’ll know gnats are the culprit if you find small raw or bleeding patches of skin under the tail. In severe cases, raw itchy skin extends down between the legs, around genitalia and even around other areas of their body. Sometimes, having a vet perform a skin scraping is the only way to detect these hard to see gnats. Other times, you can see them latched onto the skin actively feeding. Ticks are larger but you’ll need to thoroughly inspect under the tail to spot them.
In addition to visible signs, pay attention to the time of year. No-see-ums are primarily a problem spring through summer. Seasonal itching is a clear sign that insects are to blame.
The next most common cause of an itchy tail are pinworms. Adult pinworms take up residence in your horse’s intestines. Female pinworms then migrate out to the anus at night to deposit eggs using a tacky substance to keep them attached. The movement of the worms combined with a reaction to the biofilm layer around the eggs on their rectum leads to intense itching.
Diagnosis: You might suspect pinworm as the most likely cause of tail rubbing if your horse has contact with any other horses already diagnosed with pinworms. Pinworm eggs are easily shed onto stall floors or even fence rails where an infected horse has rubbed their tail. The eggs are then ingested by other horses.
Chronic infections often leave a flaky white or yellow crust around the anus, which is most noticeable in the morning. However, the only definitive way to diagnose pinworms is to have a vet dab clear tape around the anus and look for eggs under a microscope.
3. Dry skin
Skin is one of the most sensitive organs on an animal’s body so it’s no wonder that dry skin leads to some very aggressive tail rubbing behavior. The area around the dock of a horse’s tail is especially prone to the accumulation of flaky skin and dandruff. Excessive dandruff results from using detangler sprays and shampoos that strip oil from your horse’s skin.
Diagnosis: Dry skin is one of the easiest causes of tail rubbing to diagnose. Inspect your horse’s tail dock for large flakes of skin and dandruff build-up in the tail hair. Occasionally, dirt and sweat collect under the tail as well. Where you find dry dirt flakes, you’ll find dry skin.
4. Dirty genitalia
All horses experience a build-up of sweat, oils, dirt and dry skin around their genitalia called smegma. The area around utters on mares and a gelding’s sheath are particularly prone to a build-up of smegma. It’s perfectly natural but since horses can’t itch those areas themselves, it manifests as tail rubbing. Occasional cleaning around your horse’s genitalia reduces the problem. However, over cleaning is worse since you end up removing protective oils and bacteria.
Diagnosis: A quick inspection around the genital folds, sheath or udders is enough to surmise that dirty genitals are the cause of your horse’s tail rubbing. Although, be sure to rule out the more common causes first.
Allergies are not likely the first thing you think of when diagnosing a tail rubbing problem. While rare, an itchy tail area can occur due to a reaction to environmental or feed related exposures. Certain alfalfa, hays or grain may trigger contact dermatitis, as can bedding in a stall.
Diagnosis: Allergies are tricky to diagnose and you should first rule out all other causes before going down this path. If you strongly suspect allergies, make changes to feed or bedding one at a time to zero in on the cause.
6. Habit (Least common)
The least common cause of an itchy tail is the result of habit. Tail rubbing is far less likely, than say cribbing, to develop into a habit. And, more often than not, it only becomes a habit when chronic itching is left unresolved for a long period of time. Stabled horses with limited companionship and exercise are more prone to pick up tail rubbing habits. Boredom is typically to blame.
Diagnosis: You will really only determine that tail rubbing is a behavioral problem when you have eliminated all other causes. The absence of more common signs and symptoms coupled with the recognition that your horse is bored is an indication that a bad habit has started.
How to solve your horse’s tail itching problem quickly
Fortunately, an itchy tail is a fairly quick and easy thing to fix once you determine the exact cause. Each of the most common causes has a treatment that can be implemented by either you or a vet. In many cases, treatments result in almost immediate relief. Consult the chart for specific treatments to solve your horse’s itchy tail problem.
|Cause of Tail Rubbing||Signs and Symptoms (other than tail rubbing)||Effective Treatments||Vet Consultation Needed||Prevention|
|Culicoides Gnats||Irritated/bleeding skin, visible insects, skin scrapings||Systemic steroids, antihistamines or topical ointment for symptom relief, insect repellents, anti-itch shampoos||If skin scrapings are needed and to prescribe symptom relieving drugs||Stable/pasture maintenance, insect repellents, regular grooming and stabling at dawn and dusk|
|Pinworm||Rarely are there visible signs of infection (Consult vet)||Ivermectin or pyrantel pamoate||Yes, for diagnosis with tape test and recommendations for dewormer||Keep a clean paddock, decontaminate water, feeding and rubbing areas, deworm all horses|
|Dry Skin||Oily skin flakes, dandruff in tail hair, dry crusty build-up||Gentle cleaning, apply salves (one part original yellow Listerine and one part baby oil), ointments or creams||No||Avoid over bathing with harsh shampoos, limit use of fly sprays, healthy diet with Omega fatty acids, inspect for dander and groom regularly, use salves when needed|
|Dirty Genitalia||Gunky accumulation of smegma in genital folds, foul odor||Gentle cleaning with mild shampoos||For sedation if your horse won’t allow cleaning||Avoid over cleaning, inspect regularly|
|Allergies||Mild inflammation around anus||Rule out allergy source||To rule out other causes||Use quality feed and bedding from reliable sources|
|Habit||Bored, no other symptoms||Companions, stall toys, exercise||To rule out other causes||Same as treatments|
It is entirely possible to have more than one issue leading to an itchy tail area. Some signs may cover up an underlying chronic issue. For example, dry skin could be present but the real cause of your horse’s itchy discomfort could be pinworms.
It is good practice to treat the most obvious symptoms, but follow up with a vet if tail rubbing continues.
Simple steps to prevent tail rubbing
As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. For tail rubbing that is all too true. Saving your horse from the discomfort of an itchy behind requires only a few good habits and some inexpensive products.
The above chart lists more concisely preventive tactics but to summarize, here are the basics for ensuring your horse never develops an itchy tail.
- Keep your horse’s stall and paddock clean and dry. Biting insects and pinworms (the most common cause of tail rubbing) thrive in wet, dirty conditions. Regularly clean manure, old hay and mud from stalls and troughs. On top of that, eliminate standing water and overgrown pasture areas, which are insect breeding grounds.
- Make use of insect repellents. Insect sprays are quite effective and a great option when spring and summer roll around. I always have a jar of SWAT fly repellent ointment on hand. This stuff is great for sensitive areas that have already been bitten and need protecting. You can also limit gnat exposure by using a stall fan. Other options include stabling your horse during the hours of dusk and dawn which are the prime feeding hours for gnats.
- Work with your veterinarian. Avoiding pinworms often requires working with your vet to establish a deworming regime. This is more critical when your horse shares space with other horses and may pass on the infection.
- Inspect genitals and anal areas regularly. While cleaning a horse’s private areas too often with harsh shampoos is never good, you should still inspect for gunky build-up and dandruff regularly. When you suspect dirty accumulations are bothersome, use gentle cleaners to remove debris around the genitals and anal area.
- Prevent dry skin with diet. Healthy skin starts with a quality diet. Experts recommend well rounded diets high in fats like Omega 3 and Omega 6. Check the grains you feed for these components. Make sure to check out this article which goes over the best grains to feed your horse.
- Be mindful of boredom. A engaged or socialized horse is a lot less likely to develop bad habits such as tail itching. Keep your horse well exercised, in the company of companions or provide a stall toy to combat boredom.
- Regular grooming. Grooming your horse regularly is one of the single most important ways to prevent issues related to tail rubbing. Not only does grooming help control dirt, loose hair and dry skin, it also helps you catch problems early. An attentive owner is going to notice bugs and irritating smegma build-up while grooming long before it devolves into full blown tail rubbing.
Should you call a vet about tail itching
As a caring owner, you are the first line of defense for maintaining the health of your horse. However, there are times when an experienced equine veterinarian is critical to the care of your horse.
I have treated tail rubbing successfully on my own and so can you. But, a vet is going to have the tools and resources to definitively diagnose the cause of your horse’s tail rubbing problem. This is absolutely the case with causes like pinworms and allergies. Sometimes large gnat infections should also be treated by a vet.
Not all symptoms are obvious and the trained eye of a vet will save you time and your horse a lot of discomfort.
On top of that, deworming treatments should be left to a vet to initiate since they have a much better handle on what will be the most effective dewormers for your horse.
Tail rubbing isn’t just an issue that leads to an unsightly frayed tail. It is a sign that something is actually bothering your horse. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the causes and a clear guide towards finding a quick and easy solution. Remember to always keep a careful eye on the health of your horse and that pesky tail rubbing is sure to go away.