‘I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag…’
Apologies to purists, but African-American-English vernacular isn’t my strongpoint. It’s simply that this line from 1850-penned Camptown Races came to mind this morning while I was plastering our horses in fly-repellent and sun-block (on pink noses) and fitting their fly-masks.
Why? Because for some reason, the British cavalry in the 1800’s decided their horses were better off with their tails cut short.
Of course, it all stemmed from the soon-to-be outlawed practices of ‘Nicking’ and Docking’; the former the old practice of cutting the muscle beneath the tail so it was naturally carried artificially high, and the latter removing a section of the dock (tail bones) so the tail grew short. Both these operations were intended to make the horse look ‘smart’, and the only thing that can be said in their favour is that they helped keep the horse’s tail free of mud, that constant companion of the horse-keeper in the years before metalled roads became widespread.
So imagine what it was like for horses in Spain and Portugal with short tails. They must have been driven to distraction by the biting insects which plagued vast swathes in the interiors of those countries, especially during the hot summer. Okay – it was easier to distinguish between French (long-tailed horses) and British (short tailed) cavalry in the early years of the war, but eventually even Horse Guards decreed some regiments ride horses with un-cut tails, whilst others were bob-tailed. And many cavalry officers, who were required to provide their own mounts, were sensible enough to leave their horse’s tails in their natural state as efficient fly-whisks.
In the end there was such a mix that the length of a horse’s tail was insufficient evidence to differentiate friend from foe at a distance.
Appearance over practicality, eh? And it was the same with Hussar uniforms. But don’t get me started on those…