A horse’s mane affects the way the horse’s neck looks in general and under the saddle. If done well and cared for, the mane can give you an indication of the management and care that the yard and owners provide for that horse. Not all horses have the same type of mane, and not all manes can be cared for in the same way. Each breed has a different routine for proper grooming and caring for the mane.
Caring for a horse’s mane includes washing, detangling with conditioner or spray, trimming and thinning, and the mane’s aftercare. Aftercare will be different for each breed and horse. The tail is also an important part of routine mane care. The mane also plays a big role in the overall look of competition horses.
Each breed association has specific standards regarding the horses manes and breed specific shows will look at the manes and tails of the horses and award them points. The mane and tail can make a horse look well looked after, graceful and healthy when maintained correctly. Just like our hair, the appearance and health of the mane and tail can give you an indication on the health of the horse overall.
What’s in your horse’s mane
The mane is the long, coarse hair that grows at the top of the horse’s neck and falls to the side of the neck. The mane includes the forelock and goes down to the withers. It varies in length, thickness, coarseness, and consistency throughout the different breeds. Friesians, for example, have long, thick and wavy manes that grow very long. To keep a Friesians mane long and thick, it needs to be plaited and kept detangled.
Arabian horse manes also need to be plaited and maintained, but it is much thinner than that of the Friesian horse and other sport horses. Arabian horse manes also need to be kept in maintenance plaits because it is fine and breaks easily.
Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses have similar types of manes, warmblood horses may have a thicker mane, but both have straight manes that are easy to upkeep and care for.
The basic care for mane is similar, but breed-specific mane care differs due to owner preferences, disciplines the horse competes in, and management.
Conditions that affect the mane
The most important part of keeping a horse’s mane and tail healthy is a good, balanced diet. Internal conditions affect the horse’s mane, tail, coat, and hooves. A healthy gut will equal a healthy coat, mane, tail, and hooves. The horse’s diet needs to have all the essential fats, oils, vitamins, and minerals to be healthy and happy.
Hair loss will cause the mane and tail to become thin. Hair loss can be due to a couple of reasons, and the owner will need to take some time to work through and eliminate all the possible possibilities. The most common cause of hair loss is due to the horse scratching their mane.
Itchiness can be caused by a fungus, dirty manes, tight plaits, sensitivity to products used in the mane or tail, pinworms, or irritation from insects. Sweet/summer itch, for example, can result in the horse unintentionally scratch its mane and damaging the mane. In the case of sweet itch, fungal infections, allergic reactions, and suspected worms, a vet must be contacted, and the horse needs to be treated.
Wash the mane or tail with F10 soap and rinse thoroughly, mix coconut oil and neem oil and rub it into the bald spots. This will help calm the itch and nourish the skin. Using a fly repellent that contains DEET can help keep midges and mosquitoes away and help prevent itchiness caused by their bites.
Sweat that is left around the area of the mane can also cause damage to the hair. The sweat is real sorbet into the skin, and the follicles of the hair remain wet. This softens the follicles, and eventually, the hair will fall out. It is important to rinse off sweat from the horse properly to prevent this from happening.
Stomach ulcers in horses can cause a dull mane, tail, and coat. Ulcers cause a loss of appetite in horses and poor absorption of the feed. This results in poor nutrition, which is reflected in weight loss, behavioral changes, and unhealthy skin and hair follicles. Stomach ulcers can have many symptoms of varying degrees, a gastroscope is the only way to diagnose an ulcer, and a vet is needed to diagnose and treat ulcers.
Seborrhea, also known as dandruff, are small grey flakes that appear in the mane and tail. It can sometimes be itchy, but overall it makes the mane and tail appear unhealthy and dull. The cause can be genetics or heredity (primary seborrhea). The thoroughbreds and Arab horses are commonly affected by dandruff than other breeds or secondary causes such as liver or intestinal diseases.
Primary seborrhea cannot be cured but managed for aesthetic purposes. Anti-dandruff shampoo can be used to minimize the appearance of dandruff. Secondary seborrhea will resolve itself when the vet treats the cause.
Although not very common in horses, lice also cause severe itching and can result in the horse scratching itself raw. Live are small flattened insects that the naked eye can see in between the hairs. Lice can be present anywhere on the horse’s body but can also be found at the tail and mane base.
The eggs are pale and translucent and can also be seen in the hair. Lice infestations are worse during the winter months. Chewing lice feed off of dead skin cells and can be found at the base of the tail. Biting lice that feed on blood prefer longer hair, such as the mane, tail, and forelock.
Lice infestations should be treated immediately and aggressively. Permethrin sprays, insecticidal powders, and shampoos can be used to treat lice. Biting lice can also be treated through ivermectin given orally to the horse. The eggs will not be affected by treatment, and thus the treatment will need to be repeated after two weeks to ensure that the newly hatched lice will be killed.
Grooming your horse’s mane
Step 1: Washing and detangling
The most important step is thoroughly washing the mane. A clean and tangle-free mane is easier to maintain and trim. Start by wetting the mane, ensuring that, for a thick mane, it is wet up to the roots. Using your hand, lather an appropriate amount of shampoo into the mane, starting at the roots and working downwards. Try not to tangle the mane further.
Think of washing the mane like you would your hair. Massage the crest of the neck at the roots and slowly work down to the ends of the mane. Rinse the mane thoroughly, ensuring that you remove all the soap as it can become an irritant when it dries. I would suggest that you repeat the shampooing for thicker mane and horse’s that roll or are itchy.
Use mane and tail conditioner or detangling spray before you start combing out the mane. Cover the mane from the roots to ends in conditioner or spray and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Remember that you have to rinse it out when you use a normal conditioner as it can irritate, and the horse will scratch their manes. In the case of a leave-in conditioner or detangler, you do not have to rinse the mane again.
The same process can be used in the tail of the horse. Tails are usually thicker and denser to wash and wet. Thus you need to ensure that you thoroughly rinse the tail so that there is no shampoo or conditioner residue. Ensure you know the horse and that you do not stand directly behind the horse. There is always a risk in working with horses, especially behind them, as it is their blind spot, and they make unintentionally kick you or spook at you.
Step 2: Brushing
Brushing out the mane is the next important step before trimming or plaiting. The knots will make it difficult to cut the mane, and it will cause it to be uneven. Knots make it harder to plait the mane and result in pulling some hairs out, thinning the mane.
Start with a wider tooth comb or mane and tail brush and brush the mane from the ends upwards, gently working out the knots. Thick manes will take a bit longer. If you start at the top or do not use a detangler, you will thin out the horse’s mane because the brush or comb will pull out the hair. Once you have reached the crest of the neck, you can leave the mane to start drying.
Use the same method for the tail after applying conditioner or detangler, starting at the ends of the tail and slowly working up to the dock. For thick tails, such as draft horses and warmbloods, stand on the side of the horse and hold the tail towards you. Hold a section of the tail and lightly brush the knots out.
Continue sectioning the tail and working upwards on each section. After all the sections are detangled, hold the whole tail and gently brush through. The dock is a very sensitive area, so be sure to use care and be gentle with the brush when you reach that point. Leave the tail to dry.
Step 3: Trimming and pulling
Trimming and pulling of manes are done to keep the manes short, maintainable, and neat. The neck of the horse can be accentuated when the mane is trimmed correctly. Trimming the mane to certain lengths lessens the chance of tangling, makes it easier to keep neat and clean, and makes it easier to plait for shows.
I do not prefer pulling because there has been research done on pulling whether or not the horse can feel it and if it is painful. Some horses do not like pulling, and it is a sign that it can be painful to the horse and cause them to become head shy, especially around the poll area.
Pulling is an older method used to straighten and thin out the mane. Rather use thinning scissors or a thinning comb that does not pull the hair out. Be careful not to thin the mane too much as a thin mane is also more difficult to cut. The mane is usually thicker in the middle of the neck, and it gets thinner towards the poll and the withers.
The trimming process:
Start by brushing out the mane thoroughly and making sure the mane is lying straight down. Have someone hold the horse for you to keep their head from moving. Starting at the withers, keep the scissors horizontal and straight and cut in a straight line up to the poll. Be careful not to let the scissors or your hand go into an angle.
Do not cut the mane to the desired length the first time you cut. Brush through the mane again, and you will see some longer ends sticking out.
Keep trimming the mane slowly, working towards your desired length. Every time you cut, make sure to brush through the mane. When you are happy with the length, take the brush at a vertical angle, and brush the hair from the poll down to the withers to ruffle the mane. Rush the mane back to its original position and check for any long or stray ends.
Lastly, angle the scissors upwards into the mane at a vertical angle and lightly snip them into the ends. If you unintentionally cut a gap into the mane, use the scissors to blend it into the rest of the mane.
Step 4: After care
A Leave-in conditioner is a great way to keep the mane soft and tangle-free for as long as possible. Some leave-in conditioners can promote the growth of hair for draft breeds and Arabian horses.
When you need to plait the mane for a show, and it is not a breed-specific plait or a stallion plait, it is advisable not to use a leave-in conditioner as the conditioner will make the hair fall out of the plait. If you are doing a maintenance plait for horses with a long mane, a leave-in conditioner is fine.
How to keep it to one side? (training the mane)
It is desirable for shows and aesthetic reasons to have a mane on the horse’s right side. Some horse mane lies naturally on the left side of the neck. You can train the mane to lie to the right side of the neck. Wash and trim the mane, as usual, then brush the mane to the right side of the neck, plait the mane in small segments as if you are plaiting for a show. Leave the plaits in the mane for a week.
Each week brush the mane with detangler and replant the mane. Repeat this for 2-3 weeks. Taken the plaits out and let the mane settle. If the mane falls back to the other side, more time in the plaits is needed.
Plaiting long manes
For breed-specific shows, some horse manes are kept longer than the normal sport horse breeds. Friesian and Arabian horses, for example, have to show shows that require them to have their mane lose and long. Other draft breeds require a “stallion” plait. This looks like a normal French braid that sits high up the neck. This is to show off their big and muscular necks and not get caught in carriage driving tack.
Some draft breed shows require the mane to be plaited, and long red ribbons plaited into the mane and flights (“flags”) are also inserted into the mane.
Maintenance plaits are used to protect the mane while the horses are not at shows. Washing and detangling occur, as usual, taking care not to damage fine and long hair. After that, the mane can be sectioned and plaited. Be careful not to start the plait too tightly at the top as it will irritate the horse, and they will scratch their necks.
The mane at the wither also should not be plaited too tightly to ensure the horse is still comfortable while grazing. I usually take the last section and do a loose French plait towards the back. Ensure that there is no residue of shampoo or conditioner in the mane to prevent irritation and scratching. Only use a soft leave-in conditioner. Coconut oil and neem oil can also be used to keep the mane moisturizers without irritating the skin.
Caring for Arabian tails
Arabian horses are known for their distinct looks, their long fine mane, and their very long tails. Arab horse breeders and showers have a very particular way of keeping the tail long, clean, and detangled. These horse’s tails (show horses) usually hang on the floor and drags behind them, and this, as you can imagine, is quite the nightmare to keep clean and detangled.
There is a specific way of wrapping the tail in a piece of cloth to keep it off the floor and clean. Wash and detangle the tail and brush all the tangles out gently. This method is the DIY method from an Arabian stud. Tail bags can also be purchased.
- Find the end of the dock of the tail and start about 5-10cm below it, loosely start a plait and go increasingly tighter towards the end.
- When you reach the middle of the tail, take a strand of bailing twine (long enough to plait into the tail and still wrap around it), fold it in half, and work in the two strands of the bailing twine into the plait.
- At the end of the plait, fold the tail into a flattened “ball,” part the hair at the end of the dock to thread the bailing twine and plait through a couple of times.
- Use the last ends of the bailing twine to wrap around a piece of cloth tightly over the folded plait. Be careful not to include the dock, work from the bottom towards the top, leaving fabric to fold over itself and hang down.
- Once the tail has been tightened, fold the cloth over itself and let it hang down a bit past the end of your folded tail to ensure that the horse can still “shoo” flies away.
When done correctly, it should last for longer than two weeks. Make sure the cloth is mud-free and dry. Professional tail wraps can also be purchased at a tack store.
Plaiting for shows
Plaiting for shows as basic knowledge for the competing Equestrian. Some yards may offer show prep of horses that include plaiting and trimming. Here is a basic way:
- Brush, detangle and trim the mane as normal.
- Section the mane into the thickness and amount of plaits you would like. Thin mane will need bigger sections and fewer plaits. Thicker Ane will need more sections and more plaits.
- Take extra strong hold gel and with your fingers, brush the gel into the sectioned mane to ensure that there are no loose strands.
- Plait each section as tightly as possible without pulling the skin of the neck and wrap the last bits of hair around the elastic, and secure with another elastic. Use gel while plaiting to keep it neat.
- After plaiting, use a plaiting needle (thick and blunt) with thick thread. Start at the very end of the plait and pull the thread through. Loop your plait upwards to eh base of the neck and thread it through the very top of the plait. This will give you a small loop.
- Roll up the loop into the desired ball and use the needle and thread to secure the ball. Make sure that you pull the thread tight and that it is not visible. Using the same color thread as the mane will help.
- Lastly, use firm-hold hair spray and spray the little balls.
- The same method is used for the forelock, except the forelock will be plaited in a French-style plait.
It is important that you do not trim the hairs or mane while it is plaited.
Plaiting a tail for the show has to be done on the day of the show. A tail plait at the dock cannot be left overnight and for more than a few hours as it can hinder blood circulation and cause damage to the hairs and the dock of the tail.
- Wash, detangle and brush the tail as normal
- Starting at the dock’s point of insertion, apply a good amount of gel on each side of the dock using your hands.
- Use the outermost hairs on the side of the dock for the plait. Start as high as possible, take one strand from each side, and tie it together in the middle with an elastic.
- Take two thin strands on either side of the tail, using both and the middle piece, start doing a French braid down the tail to the end of the dock. Use thin pieces of hair and only take from the outermost side of the tail.
- Each time you take a strand, use some gel on your fingers to prevent flyaways and to keep it neat.
- When you reach the end of the knot, plait the rest of the hair as normal and tie it with an elastic.
- Loop the tail on itself and push the end of the plait under the French plait. Use a plaiting thread or an elastic to tie it together. The end should now have a small loop.
- Spray with hair spray.
Tools need for mane care and grooming
I made a list of the basic tools you will need to maintain and care for your horse’s mane and tail. There is also a link to Amazon and horse.com. The tail bag is required only in the case of showing horse breeds.
- Mane and tail brush – https://www.horse.com/item/roma-soft-touch-mane-and-tail-brush/E005679/
- Shampoo – https://www.horse.com/item/mane-n-tail-shampoo/SLT050774/
- Conditioner – https://www.horse.com/item/canter-mane-and-tail-conditioner-spray-1l/E017525/
- Detangling spray – https://www.horse.com/item/cowboy-magic-detangler-and-shine/SLT052139/
- Mane thinning comb – https://www.horse.com/item/sologroom-solocomb/E017592/
- Scissors – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086RV7LQ2?tag=equestrianspace-20
- Comb – https://www.horse.com/item/wahl-mane-and-tail-comb/E006362/
- Elastics – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01D3JMNJU?tag=equestrianspace-20
- Plaiting needle – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GSVA6NG?tag=equestrianspace-20
- Plaiting thread – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007WMB3LO?tag=equestrianspace-20
- Spandex hood – https://www.horse.com/item/gatsby-stretchx-full-zipper-slicker-hood/E031732/
- Tail wrap or bag – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0741NLGFS?tag=equestrianspace-20