A horse rubs his tail in order to soothe a terrible itch. Unfortunately, in attempting to scratch away the itch he ends up by transforming his luxurious tail into a snarled haystack of broken strands or, worse, into a nearly bald rattail. Finding a cure to the uncontrollable urge to scratch depends on discovering what's causing the itch. There are three main causes behind chronic tail rubbing.

One is pinworm infestation. The adult female pinworm lays her eggs on the skin surrounding the horse's anus. The eggs are secured to the skin with a gooey substance which can be irritating to the horse. A horse infested with pinworms will typically raise his tail to rub underneath his dock. That often results in a telltale sign of missing patches of hair on either side of the tail head. A conscientious de-worming program will alleviate pinworm problems and should also stop the tail rubbing.

Another tail rubbing culprit is a hypersensitivity to a particular type of biting insect, a tiny gnat called Culicoides. The itch response results from an allergic response to specific proteins contained in the saliva of the gnat. Not only will an affected horse rub his tail, but he might often rub his mane as well. Treatment for this type of tail rubbing is focused on protection from gnats. Tactics include repellents, fly sheets and masks, and meticulous stable management. Culicoides reproduce in moist conditions, so standing water and mucky conditions have to be addressed.

The third common cause of tail rubbing is a dirty sheath. The annoying irritation comes from the build-up of smegma (a black, greasy substance made of natural oils, skin cells and secretions) mixed with dust and dirt from the horse's natural environment. Since breeding stallions have their sheath regularly cleaned, they are not as prone to this problem as the average gelding. A thorough sheath cleaning usually eliminates tail rubbing due to this problem.

Additional therapies for chronic tail rubbing focus on alleviating the itchy inflammation that instigates the urge to scratch. Topical anti-itch ointments and shampoos may be prescribed. In severe, acute cases steroids-either topically or systemically-are administered to quickly arrest the inflammatory process. Finally, long range treatment might include supplementing the horse's daily feed with about 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. This results in an overall shiny, soft hair coat. In turn, the horse is less likely to scratch and rub its tail.