The Tale of the Tail
by Gerald the Galloping Gringo
What is that horrible dead thing hanging from that horse?
Writing a column on a regular basis is not an easy thing. Sometimes ideas come flying at me in almost overwhelming fashion and sometimes I struggle just to come up with anything... and sometimes someone just tosses an entire tome right at my feet... or in this case right at Cowboy's feet.
Cowboy and I were doing a little barn-patrol... we had been out on trail, working up and down a few hills, a bit of long trotting, a few wind-sprints and now we were wandering around the barn, cooling off, stopping here-and-there to visit a friend (some of mine, some of his) and suddenly this pedestrian turns to a friend and, making very sure she was loud enough for me to hear, inquires, "What is that horrible dead thing hanging from that horse?"
As I've often commented, "You can't buy this kind of entertainment!" Cowboy and I stopped dead in our tracks and turned to confront our nemesis just as she continued with, "I wonder if it's for flies? But it is still disgusting!"
So let me explain...
Cowboy and I spend a lot of time out on trail. Sometimes just to take a nice relaxing ride, enjoy the scenery and spend some time together, other times to do some serious cardiovascular and musculoskeletal work. We are truly blessed to have many miles of well groomed trails with varying terrain upon which to ride. Relaxing or working out on trail gives both Cowboy and me a change of pace and a change of scenery, both help keep us fresh and on our toes. I see far too many horses and riders become sour from the monotony of a life that consists of spending every day riding circles in the arena. We call them "go-nowhere-horses."
Now our barn has a very effective fly-spray system. As a result, I tend to forget to put fly-spray on Cowboy and I have to admit I prefer to not pollute our environment with chemicals if I can avoid it. So, inevitably, Cowboy and I would head out with no fly protection and I would feel horrible for failing to care for my horse, my partner, and my friend.
Enter the shoofly!
When we saddle and bridle a horse, they lose the ability to duck their head and chase off flies around their midsection. They can still use their tail for flies around the posterior and they can still shake their head to rid themselves of those flies... but we interfere with their ability to shoo flies underneath. The traditional shoofly is a horsehair tassel attached to the cinch. As the horse moves, it swings back and forth and shoos the flies.
In the classic Vaquero tradition, a shoofly, in the form of a tassel, was often woven as part of the cinch. Horsehair tassels, with intricate horsehair or rawhide knots are an art-form and many very beautiful and very expensive examples can be seen in photographs, catalogues, and on working horses.
A while back, Linda and I came across a vendor selling animal tail shooflies. We had a choice of coyote, fox, or raccoon. All, very reasonably priced. Now how could we resist such a conversation piece? We chose one that was a perfect match for Cowboy's bay coloring and even went with his tack!
Well the story certainly does NOT end here! Cowboy's fluffy tail shoofly became an instant source of amusement, strange looks, and weird questions. It seems many of the English riders could not bring themselves to inquire directly, so they started asking their trainers, "Why is that thing hanging from that horse?"
Interestingly enough, one of the most common explanations I have heard is, "It helps desensitize the horse." "It's the western version of bling" is another common thread. One particular answer is priceless. This comes from a respected dressage trainer who is fully aware of the real reason for a shoofly. He tells people that Cowboy's fluffy tail shoofly is a, "Native American, Organic Dream Catcher!" Yes, I'm serious! Would I make something like that up?
This all said, when people do ask me directly, I tell them that in addition to its purpose as a shoofly... it's a "great conversation starter!"