The Long & Short of Horse Mane Care

There are many differences in how horse owners choose to keep their horses manes. Long, flowing, roached, or braided are just a few. See what other techniques and products are availabe for you to use.

Your horse’s mane is a personal decision, which often reflects your own personality, and more realistically, how much time and energy you have to invest in your horse’s mane.

Some of us like the look of a long, touseled horse mane that blows wild in the wind, no matter how much manicuring it takes. Others prefer the tidy look of a trimmed-up horse mane that’s show-ring ready, while still others prefer the simplicity of no mane at all, known as a “roach,” in which the hair is closely shaved against the neck. No matter what you decide-either the long or the short of it-here are some tips to help you give your own horse a proper hairdo.

Natural & Long Locks
Whose do?
Natural and long is the idyllic mane of untamed horses running free. The reality is often one of cockleburs and tangled dreadlocks. A well cared for mane is, however, beautiful on most any horse.

Traditionally, long manes are found on ponies, saddle-type horses-such as Arabians, gaited horses and Morgans-and exotic breeds like Friesians, Lipizzans and Andalusians. Thick, flowing locks are also an essential ornamentation on spinning and sliding reining horses of any breed. It’s the look of choice for rodeo riders, barrel racers and trail riders, too.

If you like to spend extra grooming time bonding with your horse, the minutes or hours you spend maintaining a long mane might be tremendously satisfying. Regular “spa days” can become an important part of building your relationship with a horse who’s patient and enjoys the extra attention.

Grooming tools: To keep a long mane beautiful, you’ll need a good shampoo and deep conditioner, a daily detangler, a hairbrush, a wide-toothed comb, and rubber bands for braiding. You’ll also need a pair of thinning shears to trim split ends and damaged hairs.

Technique: The technique on this one is simple-just let your horse’s mane hair grow out naturally, keeping a tidily trimmed bridle path behind your horse’s ears.

Maintenance: Maintain your horse’s mane by caring for your horse’s hair health from outside and in [see our article about nutrition and hair coat, “Better Skin from Within” in the March 2007 issue of Perfect Horse]. To keep individual hair strands healthy, use a detangling and conditioning product before combing or brushing. Be picky about the products you use on the mane, and keep in mind that silicone-based products can dry out hair. Look for natural ingredients, and even raid the human hair-care aisle for deep-conditioning products and oil treatments. Regular washing and conditioning-maybe once a week to once a month-can also keep a long mane clean, healthy, and easy to manage.

When splint ends and sun damage occur-and they will-use thinning shears to selectively and sparingly trim damaged strands. Just try not to hack a long mane in a straight line, which is the equine equivalent of a bowl cut.

Helpful hint: Frequent brushing can cause long hairs to break and split. To protect your horse’s luscious locks, consider plaiting inch-wide sections into individual braids to keep the mane from become a tangled mess.

Shortened or Pulled
Whose do?
A shortened mane is the traditional look for many stock breeds, as well as for hunter horses and dressage competitors. The short manes are tidy and easy to band for western classes and simple to braid for English events. Racehorses also often sport thinned or shortened manes. A short mane makes a short neck look long, and a long neck look even longer, which is ideal in competition. It also needs less care than a long mane, although it does require regular maintenance.

Mane Care Training Mission
To accomplish your dual mission of mane care and bonding time, you need a horse who will stand quietly with his head down and allow you to work around his neck, head, poll and ears without fuss.

Find a time when your horse will be relaxed, not antsy-perhaps after turnout or following a ride, rather than before. Second, choose a safe, level area with good light and out of the traffic mainstream so your horse isn’t distracted and trying to shift around to see what’s going on around him. Third, be sure you’ve worked through any headshy issues before you approach with your arsenal of hair care products. You’ll want to make sure your horse is accustomed to the sights and sounds of scissors, clippers and spray bottles in action. Finally, be considerate in your approach to grooming. Be careful not to pull, tug or rip on his mane, or he’ll come to dread the ritual.

Grooming tools: You’ll need a wide-toothed comb and a pair of high-quality, sharp thinning shears. Go ahead and put your thinning comb away-the days of actually pulling out strands of hair are gone (unless you’re a glutton for sore fingers and mad horses, or if you belong to a show barn that requires traditional pulling for hunter braids).

Technique: Learning to trim a mane takes time and practice, so don’t expect to get it perfect the first time through. In fact, go ahead and trim your horse’s mane a little long the first time, which will allow you a margin of error. You’ll likely need a bit of time to train the mane to lie flat.

To start, brush out the tangles in your horse’s mane. Then, using a long, wide-toothed comb, go ahead and comb the mane hair down on your horse’s neck. Starting from the poll and working toward the wither, use the top line muscle in the neck as a landmark and the comb like a straight-edged ruler. Section off about four inches of mane and make a straight cut with your thinning shears. It will take several slices with the thinning shears to shorten each section of mane.

As you make each individual cut, move the scissors slightly. Working down the neck, be careful not to get shorter as you go. Instead, keep each section in equal lengths. Depending on the look you want, your finished trimmed mane can range between 2 inches (halter horses) to 3 inches (for hunter braids or banding) or longer.

Maintenance: Keep your thinning shears in your grooming box so you can trim the mane up any time you see a little growth. Doing regular maintenance will help keep the mane trained to lie flat on the neck and helps keep a more natural look.

Helpful hint: Undercut the mane as you trim by making the under-mane about 1/8-inch shorter than the top layer. This technique will help the mane curl under and make it lie flat against your horse’s neck.

Roaching Makes a Comeback
Certainly preference plays a role in the mane style you choose for your horse, but the type of hair (thick, thin, wispy, coarse), as well as his lifestyle (pasture, pen or stall) may be even bigger determinants in deciding what is practical for you to maintain.

In trainer Leslie Lange’s barn, one horse’s mane is so skimpy and baby fine, a lot of time was being devoted to trying to salvage every hair so he’d look presentable in the show ring. Even with a lot of extra effort, it was wisps. Leslie jokingly mentioned roaching as a way to solve the problem. To her surprise, the next time she pulled the horse from the stall, his flyaway locks were indeed gone. His owner had taken Lange at her word and had given him a neat, sleek crewcut. She did such a good job of clipping the hair down to the neck that no one else at the barn even noticed the roach job, until it was pointed out to them. In profile, his trim topline made it appear that the hair was simply flipped to the other side of his neck.

Roaching may be attractive, too, if you have other types of problems to deal with, like the horse with a chewed out or spot-rubbed mane, or an overabundance of brambles and burrs. Roaching will give you a chance to start over, but be prepared to be patient. Growing out a new mane is a long process.

Whose do?
A roached mane is perfect for the horse with thin or bald patches not conducive for luscious lengths. It’s also a great option for horses with owners who don’t want to spend a lot of time maintaining a mane, which is probably why there’s been a recent resurgence in this vintage look. The roach, which is sometimes called “hogging” in English circles, is also the preferred style for polo ponies, because it keeps the mane from getting caught in reins, hands or mallets during a match.

Grooming tools: Plan on purchasing high-quality horse clippers with sharp blades and a strong motor. Using too fine a blade can leave bald patches on your horse’s crest, so a coarser cut using a larger blade is really your best option. When choosing a blade, keep in mind that the larger the number, the closer the cut. For roaching manes, consider using a #15, which leaves the hair about 3/64 of an inch long, or a #10, which leaves hair about 1/16 of an inch long.

Technique: To get a smooth, even roach cut make sure your horse is comfortable with running clippers. Otherwise, you might end up with the equivalent of an equine chop job, with tufts of mane sticking out here and there. If your horse is uncomfortable with clippers, plan on practicing ahead of time using John Lyons’ head-down cue and his techniques for overcoming headshyness.

Once your horse is comfortable with the clippers, you’ll want to mark off the parts of the mane you don’t want to cut. Spare your horse’s forelock from the clippers, cutting just up to your horse’s poll (the same place your bridle path would end). Also preserve a tuft of hair at the wither, leaving just enough to grab as an emergency handle. Use a hairclip or a rubber band to tuck the forelock and wither hair safely away from your clipper blades.

You’ll want to start clipping on the side of the neck on which most of the mane lies. For an even cut and smooth clipping, also move with the mane’s natural direction of growth, which tends to be from back to front, rather than against it. If it’s easier for you, start in the middle of the neck and work forward to the poll, and then do the back half, starting in front of the wither. Next, you’ll move to the other side of your horse and clean up any straggling hairs along the neckline.

Cutting off all that coarse hair is tough on clippers, so as you clip, make sure to keep your clipper blades clean and oiled. You might also want to use a clipper-cooling product, since roaching takes more than a quick zip with the clippers.

Maintenance: Plan on re-roaching every six to eight weeks, or more often if you prefer to keep a trim, tidy neckline.

Helpful hint: Schedule a re-roach on a day near your regular farrier appointments. Taht way, you’ll always keep your horse’s mane tidy.

Make Way for the Bridle Path
A bridle path is the short, close-shaven spot at the top of the neck behind your horse’s poll. This trimmed up area provides a spot for the crown of the bridle or halter to rest, and reduces the likelihood of pulling the hair and annoying your every time you halter or bridle him. The bridle path doesn’t have to be long-a couple inches will usually do for a trail or show horse.

However, if you have a horse with a thick throatlatch, a well-sculpted, longer bridle path can make him look a little leaner. Also, style dictates that some saddle-type breeds have a long bridle path to emphasize their necks (check with your breed association for specifics).

As a rule of thumb, keep your horse’s bridle path shorter than his ear is long, or about as long as your hand is wide. You want to keep the bridle path trimmed short, too. Otherwise, a growing mane pressing on the bridle can change where the bit sits in the horse’s mouth.

No matter how you measure it, a tidy, well-kept bridle path makes bridling less of a chore and more comfortable for your horse.

Is Right Right or Left Best?
In some circles, the proper place for a western mane is on the left, so the cowboy can rope with his right hand. Meanwhile, hunting traditions called for manes to be braided on the right. But, somewhere along the line, halter exhibitors (western) starting banding manes on the right to give the judges an unfettered first impression of their horses’ necks as they entered the show pen, which in most cases means tracking left. Some riders followed suit. And then, there is the problem of horses who are ridden both English and western…

Confused yet? Don’t be. Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter which side your horse’s mane falls on. Your horse’s hair most likely has a side that it naturally falls on, and it may be difficult to fight Mother Nature. It may be best to simply go with the flow.

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