As I was doing chores in my barn the other day, I noticed my gelding, Hershey, had backed up to the wall in his stall, and was rubbing his tail for all it was worth. Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve ever seen this, but my immediate thought was pinworms. But pinworms aren’t always the cause behind tail rubbing in horses. There are actually several underlying causes for this all-too-common problem.
We’ve likely all seen one of our horses butted up to a tree, a fence post, a hanging bucket, or a stall wall, rubbing away at that tail. It often makes us cringe–my horse’s beautiful tail! Seeing a matted tail dock or hair loss is often a telltale sign that our horse has been up to this behavior as well. But by knowing the culprits behind tail rubbing, you can likely rule many of them out and find the exact cause of the problem in your horse.
Here are some common causes of tail rubbing in horses:
Pinworms (Oxyuris equi): Yes, these are often the culprit behind tail rubbing. Pinworms are more common in younger horses, but can occur in any age of horse. The female worms lay their eggs around the horse’s anus and these eggs cause the itching. You cannot see them with the naked eye, but your vet can use clear tape placed over the anal area and then a microscope to see if eggs are present. (You can likely do this, too if you have a good microscope and know what to look for.)
Insect Hypersensitivity: The most common insect that causes hypersensitivity in horses is the Culicoides gnat. This condition goes by many names including, Summer Eczema, Sweet Itch, Summer Seasonal Recurrent Dermatitis, etc., but it usually occurs in the late spring or summer. The hypersensitivity is caused when some horses react to the proteins released in the insect bites which leads to irritation and tail rubbing. Just like when we have poison ivy or a mosquito bite, the act of itching the area only seems to worsen the itchiness. And so the tail rubbing cycle continues, often leading horses to rub their tail raw. Some horses with insect hypersensitivity will also rub their mane, neck, or chest.
Dry Skin: It is possible that your horse’s tail rubbing is caused by plain old dry, scaly skin. Dry skin can be exacerbated by shampoos or other products you put in your horse’s tail or even dry weather.
Sunburn: Sunburn is more common in lighter colored horses such as grays, paints, cremellos, and palominos. Commonly affected areas are the nose, around the eyes, and on the tail dock, which of course, can lead to tail rubbing.
Food Allergy: While not as common as insect hypersensitivity or pinworms, food allergies could be causing your horse to have an itchy tail as well. Alfalfa, wheat, oats, and bran are the most common equine food allergens. Other known allergens include barley, beet pulp, buckwheat, chicory, clover, malt, potatoes, St. John’s Wort, feed additives, and feed supplements.
Dirty Sheath or Udder: If you haven’t cleaned your gelding’s sheath in a while, this could be the culprit behind his tail-rubbing. Since geldings can’t easily rub their sheath, they will often rub their tail when debris has accumulated in the sheath. Mares may also rub their tails if their udders are dirty.
Lice: We aren’t the only ones who can be affected by lice. Horses can get lice as well, especially ones which are stressed, malnourished, or in otherwise poor health. And even healthy horses can get lice if they live in close quarters with affected horses or through the shared use of brushes or equipment. The lice lay their eggs anywhere on the horse’s body, but the horse will often appear itchiest around the base of the tail, mane, and head. Lice in horses is more common in the winter and early spring when the horse’s hair coat is long.
Behavioral: Although not as common as cribbing or stall weaving, tail-rubbing can also be a behavioral vice resulting from boredom or stall confinement.