Top braider Nancy Henson shows you how to make even the most difficult mane braidable.
For pictures to guide you on the way to a perfectly pulled mane, download the pdf.
Creating a perfect row of braids is hard enough in the most perfect mane; when it seems like there’s a toothbrush sprouting out of your horse’s crest, or he has a wispy, thin mane, it’s even harder.
The key to putting beautiful braids into thick or thin manes isn’t in the braiding but in the pulling of the mane.
“The main thing you want to do in pulling a mane is to make it possible to braid it,” said professional braider Nancy Henson. “Some people say, ‘My horse’s mane should be 4 inches long or 6 inches long,’ but if you’re just measuring the hair without taking into account its thickness, it’s wrong.”
Theoretically, said Henson, any mane can be braided. “It’s just whether it’s going to look good or not. You want the braids to be proportional, width versus length,” she said. “You don’t want long, skinny braids or short, fat ones. What I want to do is to have the mane the same thickness and the same length all the way down the neck.”
As a general rule, Henson keeps her thick manes longer than she would a mane of ideal thickness and her thin manes shorter.
While there are some tips for manes at the extreme ends of the thickness spectrum, there are also somegeneral principles about mane-pulling that hold true regardless of how thick your horse’s mane may be.
“If you’re not experienced at pulling manes, you should stop before you think you’re done. You can always pull more later, but you can’t put the hair back in,” Henson said. “What I generally do is find the thickest portion of the mane, which is usually about a third the way down the neck, and I pull that to the length I want. Then, I match up the other portions of the mane through a combination of pulling and cutting.”
Henson recommends pulling just a little bit of mane at a time but doing so frequently. “The bad thing about pulling it all at once is that it’ll all grow back at once, and then you end up with a mane with two levels,” she said.
Pulling a little bit a few days a week helps keep your horse’s mane at its best all the time. If you have to tackle a mane that hasn’t been pulled and has grown to the bottom of the horse’s neck, devote a number of mane-pulling sessions to the task rather than pulling all the hair out at once.
Above all, remember that it always grows back! “So, if you screw it up, it’ll come back in a few weeks and you can try it again,” said Henson.
If your horse has coarse, bristly hair that grows on a thick crest, creating a thick toothbrush of a mane, Henson advises avoiding the temptation of pulling too much.
“You need thickness in relation to the length. You should keep a thick mane a little bit longer, so you need to be cautious when you pull it,” Henson said. “In order to make a good hunter braid, you have to cross the hair a certain number of times. If the mane is too short, you end up with a little ball that’s stuck up against their neck. Your braids should have some structure and length to them. They should be narrower than they are long.“Where you get into trouble is when you say, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of hair here.’ Once you pull out enough to make it the appropriate thickness, it’s way too short. You’re not ever going to turn a horse with a big thick crest and a big mane into a thin-maned horse. You just want to create enough control that you can braid it properly.”
Henson advises to pull a thick mane gradually and from the middle of the crest and lower.
“I generally try not to pull off the top of the mane, because you want that to be smooth across the top,” she said. “The danger of pulling all from the underside of the mane is that you’ll pull out the part of the hair that holds the braid in place against their neck. Your braid needs to lock down onto something, and if the first thing it locks down on is hair halfway up the crest, the braids are going to lay on top of the crest, not down along the neck.”
Henson takes the scissors to certain portions of even the thickest manes. (See Thin Manes section below on the appropriate technique for cutting a mane.)
“The top and the bottom of the mane, 90 percent of the time, have thinner hair, especially by the withers. Often, there are 4 or 5 inches of mane by the poll and by the withers that I never pull—I cut that part. You’re really striving to have the same length and the same thickness all the way down the neck, and cutting the mane there will help the thickness match up with the middle of the mane.”
“If you’re a die-hard, never-ever-cut-the-mane person, you’re going to be sorry. You can’t shorten a thin mane enough by pulling it to leave any hair at all,” Henson said. “You don’t want to cut the mane straight off, but the only way you’ll get the appropriate length to width ratio will be
That doesn’t mean to never pull any hair out, however. If there is a place on your horse’s neck with a thicker portion of hair—usually in the middle of the neck—pull that section until it’s the thickness of the other sections of mane. Remember that the goal is to have the mane the same thickness for its entire length. You don’t want two or three significantly thicker braids in the middle of the mane.
Even though Henson has given you license to whip out the scissors, don’t go crazy and commit the cardinal sin of mane grooming—cutting a straight line across the bottom of your horse’s mane.