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Mane Care and Show Preparation

Beautifully pulled mane

What do you do when your horse's mane is less than picture-perfect? Does it have chewed off bits? Is it a slow-growing Appy mane?

The mane is a horse's crowning glory. Whether you prefer his tresses long and silky or short and tidy, his mane says a lot about your horse keeping. But mane management isn't just for vanity's sake or for show horses. A mane's beauty comes from its health and it, in turn, helps maintain your horse's health.
The main purpose of a mane is to keep insects away from your horse's head and neck, where they could feed and deposit eggs.

Dll Download File A horse with a ratty mane looks neglected. Also, an unkempt mane can trap dirt, sweat and moisture, leading to skin conditions that are itchy and uncomfortable; this could cause your horse to start rubbing his neck against everything within reach to scratch ripping out hunks of hair in the process. And snarls and tangles can catch on splinters, stall edges, branches and knots on trees. Creating a healthy, gorgeous mane that catches the judge's eye or just makes your stable mates jealous isn't terribly complicated, but it does require diligent care. Not only will you need to protect the mane from nature, other horses and even your own horse's actions, but you'll also need to do a bit of nurturing.

Shampoo and Conditioning

Washing clears away bits of burrs, leaves, and oil buildup that can cause fungi and inhibit growth. It also flushes bacteria from the skin's surface, reducing the chances of skin infections. While individual horses' needs vary, in warm weather, plan on washing your horse's mane every 2 weeks or so depending on your training schedule and climate. You may find your horse does better on a weekly schedule, with daily rinsing without shampoo after workouts. Or you could be one of the lucky ones, whose horse only needs a deep cleansing every few weeks to avoid summer itch. Horses living outdoors will generally just need shampooing before shows.  However, you'll need to monitor the skin's condition to make sure you don't get a scum build-up or, conversely, overdo it and cause dry skin to react by producing excess oil. In general, though, horses working and sweating in the summer heat need their manes washed more often than during spring, fall and winter.

Winter cold can pose its own challenges if frost prevents you from bathing your horse, but there are still dry shampoos and spray-on alternatives you can use to keep the mane healthy. Consult your vet if you find yourself with an ongoing problem: A constantly greasy feeling at the base of the mane, sores, dandruff, fungus or excess shedding can indicate your horse needs a medicated shampoo or even a prescription treatment. Your pharmacist can recommend a treatment. We have found that Listerine, a dilute solution of iodine or natural tea tree oil work on rain-rot and other common fungi . You'll need to clear up any problems before you can count on a healthy growing mane.

Every time you shampoo your horse's mane, you should also apply a conditioner unless you're planning on braiding or banding for a show, since conditioners can cause braids to come undone and bands to slide out. Not only will conditioning help build up the hair and keep it healthy, it'll also ease combing out the snarls and tangles. Large twists will need to be untangled with fingers before combing, or you will tear the mane.

Conditioning products vary: Some are meant to be applied when the hair is wet then rinsed out, others are left in, while others can be applied when the mane is dry. Some focus on strengthening the mane hair with additives, some claim to keep it healthy, others to soften, add luster or merely ease tangles and snarls. For example, Cowboy Magic, a gel-like lotion that contains silk proteins, is designed to help detangle and repel dust and static; others, like Show Sheen contain ingredients like silicone that offer multiple protection: repelling dirt and keeping the hair tangle-free.

What if the weather's cold and you don't want to risk a wet horse? Dry shampoos are a great alternative during cold weather and allow you to comb easily through the mane during each grooming session. Between shampoos, you can also spray Listerine or tea tree oil at the base of the mane to kill bacteria that cause itching.


Mane and Tail BrushDaily should be kept to a minimum. Using the right brush and technique can minimize hair breakage. Mane combs are designed to help you gently detangle snarls and smooth hair with large teeth and wide spaces. Mane brushes should have wide-spaced, flexible bristles with rounded tips so they won't scratch your horse's skin. You can use human hairbrushes of this description, but keep in mind they may not be as sturdy and their bristles may not be as deep.

When brushing, first work through the hair with your fingers to find the major knots, then gently detangle these with your fingers, then with a wide-toothed comb, from the tips of the mane up to the base. Once the major snarls have been cleared, gently take the brush through the mane again from tips to top to find any smaller snags, then brush down from the skin at the base of the mane to the tips in long, gentle sweeps. Make sure the brush goes through all the layers and that you begin at your horse's "scalp" at the base of the mane.
Brushing this way stimulates circulation where the mane grows; cleans accumulated skin, dirt and oil at the mane's base; and maximizes the shine. You'll also minimize or even avoid hair breakage.

Spraying a leave-in conditioner on the mane each time you comb it will help keep it smooth and free of tangles and therefore less likely to be damaged when it comes into contact with fences and other potential snags.

Protecting the Mane

Horses kept outside need extra mane attention since you have less control of their environment.
Braiding long manes in a running braid may keep the hair together and somewhat protected from the drying sun and elements, however, the braids may catch on rough fence posts, bucket hooks trees etc. If you decide to braid, check your horse daily and re-braid at least weekly or you'll find that the braids have turned into into giant rat's nests. Our horse live out and we just remove branches and burrs as they arrive.

To protect manes from chomping buddies, apply a product designed to discourage equine nibbling.  Ask your tack store about a pre-mixed product. Some are all-natural, with the main ingredient being cayenne pepper. These products work wonders. Remember to keep reapplying according to the instructions. You can also use hair spray (horses hate the taste) or make your own spray by mixing cayenne pepper or hot sauce with water.  Make sure the ingredients you use aren't toxic to determined chewers.


The easiest way to avoid frizz and that Electric Shock look may be to put a mane tamer on your horse after a
crocheted mane tamer shampoo. Tamers stretch and fit snugly around your horse's neck and keep the mane lying as it dries, "training" it to stay down. These can also protect your horse's mane from catching on snags and from the sun's bleaching, drying effects. They come in all colors, patterns, sizes, and prices.  You can also make your own from stretchy material or crochet one, as shown.

Another easy fix for a wild mane is putting on diluted hair gel, after you comb the
mane down. Just saturate the mane and comb it down. This type of product also aids braiding and banding because it gives the mane a bit of texture, keeping those stray hairs in check. You can also train a mane to lie flat by braiding it in largish braids (about 1" to minimize the stress to hair) while it's still damp and leaving it overnight.

And finally, for that sorry Appy mane which is thin and scraggly: With good sharp clippers- never scissors or you'll still look scruffy), roach the mane 1/2" to 1"  from the crest, depending on the condition of the mane and the thickness of your horse's neck. (A thin neck needs a little longer roach.) Wash afterwards and thoroughly scrub in shampoo with a brush. Rinse, then spray with a sheen product to discourage scurf. Your horse will look neat and presentable. Keep trimmed throughout the show season and let grow over the winter. With extreme care and no brushing, your horse may have a mane for the next season. If your horse has a thin mane and you are not quite ready to roach, try a tip that we used on a "dainty-maned" eventer: make sure that you coat the mane in baby oil to protect it from breakage during braiding.

Mane Presentation-

Materials needed: 
Small natural sponge
Water bucket
Small mane comb (plastic or metal)
30+ lengths of yarn cut to 18"
"Pull through": a crochet hook or rug hooking tool work well
Pair of scissors

Although we usually do this for showing only, try one of the more unusual braids just for fun- and to spend some extra time with your horse when you aren't just working him!

Here's how to pull, band and braid: 
Pulling: "Pulling" means shortening the mane by removing the longest, straggling hairs to create a mane which is of one uniform length (generally 3-5", depending on the size of the horse/pony and the thickness of the neck).  See the photo at top of the page. A too short mane will stand up straight, a too long mane will be very difficult to braid.
Most horses will not mind this if you pull only a few hairs at once. You may find pulling the mane easier after a workout because the horse's pores are open. To pull a mane, grab a small section of hair at the tips, then comb backward toward the base of the mane. Long hairs will remain in your hand, but most will be pushed up, out of the way. Using a pulling comb, the longest hairs are broken or cut, or you can use a regular comb by wrapping a few of the longest hairs around the comb and  tug them out with a quick downward motion, pulling them out by the roots. If they don't come out easily, use smaller sections. Continue down the neck, stepping back occasionally to check your work. While this process doesn't appear to hurt most ponies and horses, some hate having their manes pulled. These horses may benefit from having their manes thinned with a razor comb. If you're using a razor comb, simply back-comb a section and cut the long hairs 2 to 3 inches from the mane's base. 

Note: Do not pull the mane if you intend to do running or continental braids.  If you have straggly ends, carefully tidy them up.  Do not shorten the mane!

Banding a mane: Western horses have banded manes so their necks look thinner and the mane lies quietly. In addition to the small rubber bands the color of the mane, such as, hairdressers clips or clothespins (to hold the mane back); gel; and sectioning comb, you may wish to have banding tape or plastic for a polished look. To band a mane, separate a small section of hair and put a rubber band around it about inch down from the base (if it's too close to the crest, it'll stick up). Repeat with the rest of the mane. Keep sections even and adjust the rubber bands to line up evenly across the neck. The completed mane should look like a row of tiny ponytails. For some disciplines, you may wish to cover the rubber bands with banding tape or plastic tubes of the same color as your horse's mane or white to emphasize your horse's neckline.

Braiding: You'll need a braiding kit if you plan to braid your horse often. You can assemble your own from items purchased at the drug store, or buy a pre-assembled kit. You'll need: several 12-inch strands of yarn matching your horse's mane; small rubber bands; a braid pull-through (purchased at tack stores or you can make one out of some twisted wire, or you can use a crochet or rug latch hook); hairdressers clips or clothespins; small blunt-tip sewing scissors (to clip the yarn); gel or braiding product; and braid aid (a sectioning comb available at tack stores). I put  each braiding tool  in easy reach in a pocketed grooming apron. (Raspberry Ridge has grooming aprons with pockets.)

Braid the yarn in, tie ends at bottom of braid, and fold braid Hunter Braids: You can braid a mane that is wet, dry or gelled it's your personal preference. I favor braiding a damp, slightly gelled mane because it makes the mane neat and holds stray hairs in place. 

To start, stand on your stool and begin at the poll. For easy access, fold the yarn in half and slip the entire bunch through the top ring of your horse's halter. Take your braid-aid and comb off a section of hair. Put your hair clip in the free hair next to your section of hair (this keeps the rest of the mane fromPull strings through drifting into the section you're braiding). 

Start braiding the section down, keeping it tight as you go. About halfway down, place a folded piece of yarn in the center of the braid, and continue braiding, incorporating the yarn into it. At the end, wrap the two pieces of yarn ends around the braid's tail and knot them. Continue down the mane until all the braids are finished. You will have a row of braids with about 4 inches of yarn hanging down.

Finished braid To finish them, slide the hook down the top of each braid, through the mane, and slip the loose yarn through the eye of the pull-through. Pull it up and out the top of the braid. The braid tail and excess yarn will now be through the mane and lying at the top of the crest. Crisscross the yarn under the braid, bring it back around to the middle of the braid and make a square knot. Clip the loose ends of the yarn. Remember to keep this all very tight or the braids will slip loose.

Running braid Running braid: This resembles a long French braid and requires a long-ish mane. Start at the crest, braiding along and picking up a small section of hair close to the neck. Continue down the neck, incorporating small sections as you go. At the end, braid down the loose end and put in a rubber band. This braid slips out easily so should be done right before your class.

Continental braid: (Seen mostly on Arabians, this beautiful braid requires a very long mane.) Band the mane. Split each ponytail into two sections and band each section to the adjacent split sections 3 inches down. Continue across the neck, then repeat the sectioning and banding 3 inches down. Continue this process at least halfway down the mane's length. It should look like a net, with the ends dangling loose. To highlight, wrap contrasting color tape around the bands.

Another variation, diamond braiding requires the mane to be braided in individual braids as hunter braiding, and the using the continental style to create the web or diamond pattern.  (see photo).  This requires a bit more work, but the finished product is stunning. The advantage to plaiting is that the horse can move around and
shake his head, and it does not affect the mane style. Beginning at the poll, separate the mane into a row of small ponytails, or plaits, secured by rubber bands approximately 2-3 inches from the crest of the neck. Next, take all the hair from the first plait, closest to the poll, and half the hair from plait number 2 and secure the hair with a second rubber band about 2 inches below the first row. Then take the remaining hair from plait 2 and half the hair from plait 3 and repeat the process all the way down toward the withers, creating a second, alternating row. 
A third row can be added by repeating the process. You can finish the mane with braiding tape at each joint, although the use of contrasting colored rubber bands is easier on the mane and just as acceptable. 

Continental braiding






Portions of this article were published in Sidelines Magazine December 13, 2003

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