One of the first things many newcomers to the breed may notice about our horses is their proclivity for growing abundant manes and tails. This characteristic has been selected for centuries to protect horses’ eyes from the blazing mediterranean sun, as well as from flies. It is also very aesthetically appealing, and has given rise to a number of interesting trimming traditions. Generally, stallions are the only horses with their manes left unshaven. Stallions also tend to grow longer and stronger hair than mares, and the results are spectacular. Have you ever wondered what goes into caring for such a large amount of hair? Long, healthy manes require frequent and careful management to remain in good condition. We will discuss several techniques in this article.
One of the first things an owner or groom should know about a long mane is that it can be damaged in two ways: quickly, and gradually. There are specific practices that should be employed to prevent both. A section of mane can be rubbed out by the horse in an instant, but even more vexing is the gradual nature of the damage incurred by poor management. The hair will begin to decline in thickness and health so incrementally that it is usually too late by the time the groom realizes that the mane just wasn’t what it was six months ago. Taking the time to care for a mane properly will ensure long term mane health.
There is no single solution or technique for every horse; the healthiest manes involve a multifaceted approach using specific supplements, grooming products, and grooming techniques.
Make sure the horse is either stalled, or kept in an outdoor area free of brush, snags in the fence, trees, or other things that might catch on the hair and damage it.
While it is true that supplements can play a large role in the health of a horse’s hair, only genetics are ultimately responsible for the unusually spectacular manes found in our breed. However, any horse can benefit from supplementation. You can help your horse’s genetics grow the strongest, most resilient hair possible by nourishing hair growth from the inside out. Flax, black oil sunflower, and other omega fatty acid supplements can add new shine to your horse’s coat, as well as added strength to the hooves. Get hair off to the right start by growing in thick, shiny, healthy hair to begin with.
Like supplements, hair products are very important to overall hair health, but will not change your horse’s genetics. Products designed to offer the most hydration to hairs are desirable.
If using a silicone based shine product such as show sheen, be sure to thoroughly wash it out following the show. Silicone provides a temporary shine and then desiccates and badly damages hair shafts. Never forget to wash out silicone based products as soon as possible!
Most of the best conditioners to leave in a mane actually attract dust, and should be washed, rinsed, and reapplied at least weekly. Look for hydrating shampoos made for people, and conditioners made from argan oil. Healthy Hair coat conditioner (for horses) diluted in water is also great for keeping hair hydrated, but it does attract dust and is more of a long term maintenance product than one you might take to a show. Leave conditioner in the mane when you wash it, either by reapplying it after the final rinse, or simply leaving some in without rinsing completely. Keeping hair hydrated keeps it pliant and resistant to breakage, staining, and dullness. Conditioner left in the hair will also keep it more resistant to UV damage. When a hair shaft becomes dry and brittle, it is filled with microscopic cracks, hollows and pockets, which will take on stains. Keeping those pockets filled with conditioner not only prevents stains, but also prevents the hair from growing brittle.
Avoid leaving ANY shampoo whatsoever on the horse, especially at the mane bed. Dry shampoo is terribly itchy and will cause the horse to rub its mane.
Combing and Brushing
The most important thing you can ever do to care for a mane is to be very, very mindful of the way you brush it. The best way to brush a mane is to wash it thoroughly with shampoo, rinse, apply conditioner, and leave most of it in, or reapply more conditioner. Gently squeeze the hair to drain some water, and leave the horse to stand tied where he cannot roll or rub his mane on anything in the stable. When the mane has completely dried with the conditioner in it, only then may you gently brush it. Combing or brushing wet or damp hair is very detrimental to the shaft of the hair, and eventually results in dullness and breakage.
Select a women’s paddle brush for your horse’s mane brush. Investing in a quality paddle brush will pay off in the long run. Begin combing gently on the very tips of the hair, working your way up. If you encounter any resistance or snags, gently pick them apart with your fingers before brushing again. Once you have finished the mane, the forelock can be combed much in the same manner, but take greater care, as the forelock hairs are finer and more delicate than mane hair and more prone to breakage and thinning.
Once your horse’s mane is washed and brushed, it must be braided up to prevent it from becoming snagged on things, and generally abused by the horse and its environment. There are three main techniques for braiding long manes.
The Running Braid
The first is to simply create a running or french braid down the horse’s neck, just as you might for a dressage show. This is probably the most effective means of keeping a horse’s mane healthy, as this type of braid not only keeps the mane out of harms way and protects the most surface area of the hair, it also is likely the most comfortable for the horse, as the pressure of the braid is evenly distributed through the hair like a truss bridge, keeping the crest from being tugged on by an individual braid. Make sure the braid is tight against the crest al the way down to the withers. A sagging running braid is not going to do your horse’s mane any favors. This braid should be taken down once weekly at a minimum, washed, and put back up. Some stables have this done on a daily basis, and the results are tangible.
The next technique is to make a series of straight braids. This is probably the easiest and quickest way to maintain a long mane, but it is also the riskiest. Straight braids can tug, and are vulnerable to rubbing and damage in the horse’s environment. This is a good technique for someone who doesn’t plan on showing, stables their horse most of the time, and enjoys a long mane but not a lot of extra maintenance. Entire braids can be rubbed out in a matter of minutes when a horse decides his crest needs a good scratch. Horses with this type of braid should not be turned out, as the braids are an open invitation to catch on anything and everything.
Braid as far down as possible to protect the most hair. Use small grooming bands to secure the braid, and wrap the ends in electrical tape. These should also be taken down weekly or bi weekly, washed, and put back up. Avoid making the braids too wide, as this can cause tugging. Avoid making them too thin as well, as these are more prone to being ripped out and damaged. Use your horse’s mane thickness as a guide. If it has a thick mane, make thick braids with bases as wide as the braid itself. If your horse has thinner hair, make more braids, or consider a running braid instead.
Folded Straight Braids
The third technique is to create a similar row of straight braids, and then double each braid up upon itself (as shown) to protect the hair. This type of braid sometimes invites rubbing, but overall, it does a better job of protecting the hair than straight braids. Take this type of braiding down once a week. This type of braid is more time consuming than straight braids but is easier to execute than a tight running braid along the crest, which may take some practice.
Mane & Tail Bags
One final technique for protecting a horse’s braids is to cover each braid with a soft cloth. This can be improvised out of scraps of clean soft cloth and electrical tape, or by purchasing tail bags. This will prevent the hair from becoming dusty and stained by the horse’s environment, and is a good technique to use on a horse with a pure white mane.