Dos and Don'ts for Tangles

This three-step process of maintenance, application, and prevention can banish mane and tail tangles.

Think back to the last time you got a nasty tangle from a fir tree that dropped pitch in your hair when you were riding by. Or remember that sunny afternoon nap in the patch of long grass behind the barn that deposited grass awns in your loose locks. Not only are tangled manes and tails an unsightly mess, but they can also be a potential source of pain for your horse. Tangles and snarls can pinch and pull on delicate skin underneath. Tucked under the edge of your saddle pad at the withers, dirty, clumped tangles can even cause sores that may preclude you from riding while they heal.

It’s important to make mane and tail care a regular part of your grooming habits. You don’t want to leave a tangled mess for so long that tangle troubles must cut into your riding time with your horse. Cherry Hill, expert groom and author of over 30 books on horse training and care, helped us to create these three simple steps that will keep you from getting caught up in unruly manes and tails.

Your most regular maintenance routine will be to inspect forelock, mane, and tail for mud balls, burrs, twigs, or other entangled objects that cling to hair. Check for them each time your horse comes in from turnout. You can also run your fingers through the mane and tail on a regular basis to ward off major snarls.

Based on how susceptible your horse’s hair is to tangling, brush out the mane and tail about once a week. Brushing more often than this can actually damage your horse’s mane and tail hairs, causing breakage and split ends, just like humans get.

Use a brush with wide-set bristles. You can buy special-purpose brushes at the tack store, though they’re generally more expensive. A $3 Goody human hairbrush with wide bristles works just as well as the $10 fancy brush from the tack store.

Start at the bottom of the mane or tail so you can tackle one tangle at a time. Hold your horse’s tail in your hand while you brush, so that you’re pulling on the root of the hairs as little as possible. Use slow, smooth strokes instead of jerking your brush through the hair. This will help you work out knots gradually and gently, thus reducing breakage.

Maintaining the right grooming approach for your horse will result in a healthier mane and tail that are less susceptible to tangles in the future.

Do: Use your hands to work through the mane and tail rather than tools whenever possible. By using your fingers, you’ll be more sensitive to knots and be able to weave your way through the mane and tail without extra, unnecessary brushing.

Don’t: Brush too often. “The more you brush, the more you are likely to break and pull out hair,” says Hill.

There are many handy commercial products on the market today to help you fight tangles. Two key components for you to keep in your arsenal of grooming products are a good detangler and a good conditioner.

Apply a detangler to the mane and tail before you brush, using more as you go, if necessary. Hairs that are regularly coated with a detangling product will be slicker and less likely to hold on to objects that get caught. Glossy hair is also less likely to twist into tangles on windy days and/or when a horse uses his tail to swat at annoying flies.

About every second or third time that you bathe your horse, it’s important to wash both the mane and tail using shampoo and conditioner. Depending on what your bathing routine is, you can plan to wash mane and tail about once per month. After all, dirty hair has much greater potential to snarl. A thorough rinse after shampooing will also ensure that there’s no sticky shampoo residue to cause further build-up of products. Layering on stickiness is asking for problems! Avoid over-washing, though, because you can strip the hair shaft of its own natural oils.

Any conditioner will keep your horse’s hair smooth and healthy. If you use a rinse-out conditioner, make sure to leave it on for several minutes for maximum absorption, then thoroughly rinse afterward. Also consider using a leave-in conditioner, which will keep hair from drying out and becoming unmanageable.

Do: Use a pair of old riding gloves or even latex gloves when applying detangler. Not only will they protect your hands, the product will rub off on the gloves and allow your fingers to slip through the mane and tail easier.

Don’t: Wash too often. Over-sudsing will strip the mane and tail of their natural oils. Dry hair tangles more easily than healthy hair.

You can take preventive measures with your horse’s mane and tail before you ever encounter those first tangles.

If your horse’s mane is especially thick, consider thinning or shortening it. “Shortening and thinning might allow the mane to lay over better and not tangle as much,” says Hill. Based on which option you choose, you’ll need to use different tools and skills.

There are a variety of tools you can use to shorten a mane-basic scissors, clippers, and thinning shears will all do the trick. Choose these tools according to your skill level, though, and based on whether you want an even, more manicured look or a natural-looking cut.

If you’d prefer to prevent tangles by dealing with less mane hair, you’ll need to pull the mane. This technique is a way of thinning out the hair that is there. It actually involves pulling out hairs from the mane along the crest of the neck. If you’ve never pulled a mane before, find someone with a lot of experience and good technique who can show you how to do it well and humanely. Almost everyone knows a horse who reacts very negatively to mane pulling, but when done properly, it doesn’t hurt.

While there aren’t as many ways to prevent tail tangles, tail bagging and braiding are both great options to consider. These methods can also be used to help your horse’s tail grow longer. According to Hill, however, tail length shouldn’t be an issue as long as it falls several inches above the fetlock. If necessary, the overly long tail can also be trimmed to an appropriate length.

Commercially made tail bags are available at any tack store or online, but you also can use a long straight sock-like an old athletic sock-for the same purpose. Tail braiding can be done just like braiding your own long hair, or you can also braid strips of fleece or other material in to the braid to help keep the tail cleaner and keep the braid from falling out. Whenever you braid the tail, make sure that you start below the end of the tailbone to avoid any problems.

Do: Get rid of entangling nuisances by nipping them in the bud. Take note of when burrs, “stickers,” or thistles are in season in your pasture or on the trails where you ride, and clip them off of the bushes whenever you see them.

Don’t: Use any of these grooming methods unless you’ve learned them properly or know someone who can help you.

For more information from Cherry Hill on horse care, visit her website at

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