This past September while attending the Minnesota State 4-H Horse show I saw a horse standing quietly in the waiting area to enter the Coliseum that was sporting a red ribbon in its tail. I then heard something that boggled my mind: a couple of 4-Hers walked past and one asked the other, "What's the red ribbon for?" "I dunno," answered her friend.
I was shocked. What horseback rider doesn't know the telltale sign of a red ribbon tied in a horse's tail? I learned at a VERY young age – most likely as soon as I climbed on my pony and went for a trail ride at the age of 7 – that a red ribbon tied into a horse tail signifies a horse that kicks.
While many horses kick at other horses in the pasture at feeding time – and this is normal behavior – there are also horses that will kick out at any other horse if it gets too close. This isn't ideal behavior, but by tying a red ribbon into the tail of a kicking horse you're at least alerting other riders to stay back.
In a horse show situation, especially with young riders in big classes, horses can get very close to one another while performing. All riders should know proper etiquette before entering the show ring, but a very important lesson to learn is not to crowd other horses. Many easy-going horses won't retaliate if a strange horse comes to near their hindquarters, but many horses – especially young or green horses – become frightened in close quarters and will strike out.
Tying a red ribbon on a horse's tail will alert other riders – whether it's in the show arena or out on the trail – to keep a good distance back from that horse, or it will kick.
But, riders need to know the significance of the red ribbon in order for it to work. I see it less and less these days; obviously younger riders are unaware of its meaning but I think it should be common practice. Horseback riders need to be taught basic knowledge of horses before they ever climb into the saddle – learning the meaning of a red ribbon tied into a horse tail should be part of that process.