February in upstate New York is bleak and cold. Most of the sane people are indoors staying warm, but my profession only drove me into it. My small animal colleagues would complain of their drive into work, then commiserate with their clients about the weather outside as they stood comfortably in the clean, well lit, and very warm small animal exam room.
I stood in the hardened mud and feces of the holding pen as the freezing wind whipped my exposed face. My soon to be numb fingers took off my overcoat exposing my bare arms in my short sleeved shirt. It was my choice not to wear a long sleeve shirt because I never could roll up my left sleeve far enough for my morning of rectal palpations of the mares at this Standardbred farm.
If I thought my day was uncomfortable, I just looked at this herd of 20 mares living out in this winter bleakness. Many of them had foals at their sides. On the whole, they actually looked like they were comfortable with their long winter coats insulating them from the harshness. I started my first rectal of the year for these mares. The thought of my left fingers, hand, and arm getting warm was balanced with the thought of frostbite in my right. I slipped on my plastic sleeve and thoroughly applied lubricant to it. That’s when I noticed the frayed hairs of the tail head.
Unlike the groomed show horse, this mare’s tail looked like a well-worn bristle brush. Every hair from the base down 10 inches stuck straight out. I lifted the tail with my right hand and started to insert my left hand through the anus into the rectum. When my arm became fully inserted, my fingers would be able to feel through the rectal wall both the left and right ovaries as well as the uterus. With this information I would be able to inform the breeder where each mare was in their reproductive cycle.
Most people think the mare would object to this procedure, but they rarely do. With these “professional” breeding horses, it was just a routine part of their day. However, this was the first palpation of the season and things were not routine yet. Instead of my arm slipping in, I could only insert my 1st finger. As I did, the anus tightened. I added more lube and inserted 2 fingers and then 3. The anus stretched and crackled and the mare groaned.
At the risk of completely grossing my readers out, please understand that there is a reason for this story you will find interesting.
I finally passed my hand and started the slow expansion by my ever widening forearm. The mare groaned and dropped her back causing the vertebrae of her spine to “crack” for a full second as if she was being adjusted by a chiropractic. The mare was in a trance as I carefully palpated her reproductive structures. As I withdrew my hand, my fingertips peeled off bits of dried feed material adhered to the inside of the anus. This drew another groan from the mare similar to when I rub my dog’s ears and he goes into a trance, groans, and thumps his hind leg.
As I continued palpating each mare in this group, I noticed the extreme relief each mare expressed as I cleaned their anuses of the dried feed material. I returned to this herd two to three times a week and each mare seemed to offer no resistance to the rectal process. Slipping my hand in became easier each time. What became most obvious to me was that after about a month, every mare’s tail had become smooth with the broken hairs completely replaced with beautifully long hairs.
From this experience, I have advised horse owners for decades that to stop a horse from itching its tail, you need to remove the cause. That cause is the itch just inside the anus. Imagine if you had no fingers and you had a tail covering your anus.
For most horses, do the following. Have someone hold the horse using a lead rope and halter. Stand to the side of the horse and NOT directly behind it. With one hand, lift the tail either straight up or off to the side. With your other hand, insert the tip of a tube of hydrocortisone cream into the anus and squeeze a good quantity inside. If you want to insert your finger and distribute the ointment that’s OK but only up to the end of the finger. Wear a glove and be sure your nails are trimmed.
Over the years I’ve had owners report back to me how their horse stopped itching after performing this simple technique. No one has ever gotten hurt doing this but please be alert to the danger of working behind your horse. Use standard safety procedures and a dose of common sense.
For each successful report, I drift back to that bone chilling day and the band of broodmares that taught me this valuable lesson of grooming. If you have a success with this, feel free to let me know.