What is 'docking'?
First, let's clarify exactly what we mean by the term 'docking'. As outlined in the Docking and Nicking of Horses Act 1949, the UK government defines docking as:
"...the deliberate removal of any bone or any part of a bone from the tail of a horse..."
Unlike children's plastic ponies that have tails full of nylon hair, real horses' tails are made up of about 18 bones, or vertebrae, which are encased in muscle and flesh. The long, individual hairs grow out of the skin on this fleshy part of the tail, known as the 'dock', and it is these bones and muscles that allow the animal to swish and move its tail around. Without them, a horse's tail would be no more manoeuvrable than a woman's ponytail.
'Docking' is the process of cutting through the fleshy dock and removing one or more vertebrae from the tail.
What are the arguments for this practice?
The docking of horses' tails has been carried out for centuries, and goes back to the days when horses were the primary means of transportation and working the land. In order to prevent the animal's tail from getting tangled up in the lines and shafts of their harness, heavy horses and carriage horses had their tails docked. As carriage horses were often also used as riding animals, it became usual to see horses under saddle with short, docked tails. More than this, it became fashionable, and for someone of high society to be seen with a horse sporting a full tail was often considered undesirable.
Although horses are no longer exclusively relied upon for transportation and heavy hauling, some people still consider it useful to have their horses' tails docked. Not only does docking the tail help to keep it out of the mud and muck, it also reduces the likelihood of long hairs getting tangled in the reins or harness when pulling. People who regularly drive heavy horses claim that cutting through the thick, powerful dock of a draught horse reduces the chance of the horse clamping down on the lines with its tail, endangering itself, it's driver and anyone else in the vehicle it's pulling in the process.
In addition, the element of fashion remains in the argument. Even if the animal is never used for pulling, heavy horses that are used as show animals in some countries have their tails docked. This amplifies the appearance of the hind quarters, and makes preparing the tail for shows somewhat easier, as the long, thick hairs of a full tail would have to be combed, cleaned and braided to achieve a similar result.
So what are the arguments against it?
The primary argument against docking is the pain and discomfort to the animal. Many people who are against it consider the practice to be mutilation, as the animal's natural body is irreversibly altered by the procedure. Depending on the amount of tail left behind, the long hairs on top of the dock can grow back. But horses can't grow the bones in their tails back any more than a person could grow back the bones in their fingers.
Because flesh, muscle and sometimes even bone are severed by docking, it is logical to argue that the animal experiences pain from the procedure. In fact, it is well documented that human amputees can experience something called phantom pain, where the severed limb continues to cause pain to the amputee long after the limb is gone. If this happens to humans, what's to say it can't happen to animals that have had parts of their bodies removed?
In addition, the tail of a horse is designed for communication with other horses, helps to protect the anus and genital organs from dirt, disease and injury, and makes a very effective fly swat. Without a tail, a horse has little means of defending it's hind quarters and back legs from horrible biting flies, (which if you've ever been bitten by a horse fly, you'll know they really hurt!). And whilst horses often stand head to tail with their companions in the field , swatting flies off each other, it wouldn't take long for an animal's field mates to realise they get no benefit from swatting flies with a horse who has no tail to speak of.
In her famous novel Black Beauty, published in 1870, Anna Sewell includes a passage about docking horses' tails. A horse called Sir Oliver tells Beauty about it:
"I had often wondered how it was that Sir Oliver had such a very short tail; it really was only six or seven inches long, with a tassel of hair hanging from it; and on one of our holidays in the orchard I ventured to ask him by what accident it was that he had lost his tail. "Accident!" he snorted with a fierce look, "it was no accident! it was a cruel, shameful, cold-blooded act! When I was young I was taken to a place where these cruel things were done; I was tied up, and made fast so that I could not stir, and then they came and cut off my long and beautiful tail, through the flesh and through the bone, and took it away.
"How dreadful!" I exclaimed.
"Dreadful, ah! it was dreadful; but it was not only the pain, though that was terrible and lasted a long time; it was not only the indignity of having my best ornament taken from me, though that was bad; but it was this, how could I ever brush the flies off my sides and my hind legs any more? You who have tails just whisk the flies off without thinking about it, and you can't tell what a torment it is to have them settle upon you and sting and sting, and have nothing in the world to lash them off with. I tell you it is a lifelong wrong, and a lifelong loss; but thank heaven, they don't do it now.""
Although fake tails can be used nowadays to give a docked horse some degree of a replacement fly swat, the pain and discomfort of the amputation still remain. And whilst docking a carriage horse's tail reduces the risk of the lines getting trapped by the dock, it can and does still happen nonetheless. And there are tail scoops and bags that are especially designed to hold a carriage horse's tail so it doesn't get tangled in the harness or drag in the mud.
The Docking and Nicking of Horses Act 1949 has made it illegal to dock a horse's tail in the UK (for anything other than necessary health reasons resulting from injury or disease in the tail, and then only by a qualified vet) for over 6 decades. As a result, it is now extremely rare to see any horse or pony in Britain with a docked tail.
In addition, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 has now made it illegal in the UK to dock a dog's tail, except under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, this law is still widely broken by people with pet dogs purely because it is the 'breed standard'. It is my hope that, as the years pass and more people become aware of the law, it will eventually become as unusual to see a docked dog in the UK as it is to see a docked horse.
The model horse world
So, why am I telling you about this? Well, in accordance with UK law I feel it is mutilation to dock a horse's tail for anything other than necessary medical reasons. So I find it upsetting that many model heavy horses have docked tails.
I appreciate that many of the models in question have been produced in countries where it is entirely normal for the real animals to have docked tails, and for this to change it would require a change in the laws of those countries regarding animal welfare. I would personally like to see the docking of horses' tails phased out entirely, and for this to be reflected in the model horse hobby. Whether this will ever happen remains to be seen, but with advancements in understanding and technology it really seems unnecessary to routinely dock horses' tails in the 21st century.
Ok, rant over. I promise the next post will be more light hearted :)