How to Communicate with Color on the Trail
by Robert Eversole
Ribbons are for more than wrapping gifts. These colorful pieces of fabric can be purely decorative, utterly functional, or a combination of both. In the equine world, ribbons can go far beyond the cerulean hued that signifies a first place finish in a competition. A ribbon found tied to mule’s tail, for example, can tell us a lot about the beast at a glance. But how, and why? To begin, let’s get some help from our good friend Merriam Webster: Ribbon – noun: a narrow piece of cloth (such as silk) that is used to tie things or for decoration; a short piece of cloth that is given as a military award; a piece of colored cloth that is given as an award in a competition. I’d like to add a fourth definition: A piece of colored material tied to the tail of an equine that conveys important information about that animal.
The tradition of braiding a ribbon into a tail originated with the rise of fox hunting in England and was a very efficient method of alerting members of the hunt to important messages about the horse wearing it. Created as a simple way to keep animals, riders and bystanders’ safe this practice has continued relevance for today’s trail rider, especially those of us who enjoy group rides.
The various colors of ribbons telegraph different messages about the animals wearing them. A staple of good equine etiquette in the worlds of the hunt and the show ring, this is a tradition that has great merit for those of us who prefer chasing the end of a trail over a fox. Let’s examine some of the most common colors for tail ribbons and their meanings. With these basics you can easily and simply avoid potential issues and also alert other riders about your own animals.
Red. This is the color of a hot temper, agitation, anger and danger. Adding a literal “red flag” to your horse’s tail is a useful method to warn others that your horse is known to kick. Red is very visible and quick to get attention. Think of a red ribbon as the equine equivalent of a fire truck’s flashing red lights. Don’t get too near the working end of a beast wearing red.
Green. The color of new growth and renewal, it is used to signify a lack of experience. Green ribbons are appropriate for not only young horses, but also any inexperienced humans on board. Give greenies some room to breathe to avoid freak outs over such things as an invisible, scary, horse-eating monster. Think of green as the equine version of a “student driver” sign.
Yellow. This is more than just the color of hope mirrored in the golden ribbons that welcome home loved ones. Yellow is also the cautionary color of the roadways and stallions are often asked to wear yellow ribbons. Certainly, the ones I have known have been neither mellow or shy.
Blue. Strong and steadfast, this is the color of freedom and open spaces. It is also sometimes used to let others know that you’re riding a stallion. Just as with yellow, give blue some space and don’t crowd him, especially if you’re riding a mare.
White. Pure and clean, white ribbons mean that the horse is for sale. Let’s just hope the seller hasn’t “whitewashed” any potential issues.
Pink. The delicate color of femininity and cotton candy, with horses it signifies a mare in heat. Horses wearing pink may be cranky, easily distracted and a distraction to any stallions in the area.
As you can see, tail ribbons can pass on a wealth of information, but riders need to understand the significance of the various colors in order for the system to work. Using and teaching the code of the tail ribbon may help you, or someone you know, avoid a trail accident.
As always for more information on this or other trail riding topics visit www.trailmeister.com the largest equine trail and camping guide in the world.
The Northwest Horse Source is an independently owned and operated print and online magazine for horse owners and enthusiasts of all breeds and disciplines in the Pacific Northwest. Our contemporary editorial columns are predominantly written by experts in the region, covering the care, training, keeping and enjoyment of horses, with an eye to the specific concerns in our region.