“Did you pull his tail yet” said Lurline.
I didn’t even know how to answer. I didn’t know whether she meant for me to pull on my horse’s tail for some reason, or what strange custom she had in mind. But it turns out that it was indeed a strange custom! Only, historically, like many things about horses, it was about to make sense to me. She went on to explain that I was to stand behind my gelding, and sorting through the hairs of his tail, select the longer ones and jerk them out by the roots! Two things could result from this.
I could get the ever lovin’ kicked out of myself. That’s one. That’s what I expected. Or I could go at it slowly, and paying close attention to his reaction, end up with a tail that only reached to his hocks. And a horse who would be desensitized to someone behind him, therefore even less likely to kick!
I don’t know which result was foremost in the minds of quarter horse owners in the fifties and sixties. What I do know is that pulling tails to hock length ,and roaching manes with clippers is a custom that had its origins in sixteenth century Spain. There, when horses were turned out to pasture, they were exposed to all kinds of burrs, similar to our cockleburs, that tangled in masses and mats and bats in the manes and tails. So they cut off the manes, known in English as “roaching” and either cut off or thinned and shortened tails. They still do, for the same reason, but it it’s also become a custom.
It’s funny how that and some other customs about horses trickled all the way down to the twentieth century. It’s not funny that the incredible horsemanship of those days only came through the centuries in pieces.
Nowadays, in a culture dominated by cars and electronics, dealing with a flesh and blood thinking creature for transportation and work is nearly a lost art. Fortunately for the few of us who chose to continue working with horses for ranch work or for recreation, there are a handful of people whose families have preserved the art of horse communication and training. There are also books, although they have great limitations compared with hands on teaching by knowledgeable experts.
Now, a few of my horses have roached manes, or pulled tails, but we still have cockleburs – but we also have WD 40 and plastic hair combs!