I've learned more than better dressage working at the Friesian farm. The management there is incredible, the best I've ever seen, and no detail goes unnoticed. One of those details is managing the pride of any beautiful Friesian: a long, flowing mane and tail.
|Henson Anke's mane isn't even that long by Friesian standards. Photo credit Ashley K Photography|
For years, I'd been keeping my own horses' manes trimmed. I'm not on board with pulling but one really can't tell the difference when the mane is plaited, and anyway, I kinda like the cute cut-mane look. I could never get long manes to grow properly long - below the neck - and they were always getting tangled and gross.
The only horse whose mane I didn't cut was Lancey's. It just seemed like a crime to cut an Arab mane, and his was always decently long, but it bugged me that it was uneven and never grew longer than the bottom of his neck.
The fabulous head groom at the Friesian place has been maintaining Friesian manes possibly longer than I've been alive, and he showed me how to handle long manes and tails. I've been using this method on Lancey for about a year now and the difference is just amazing! Here's how we do it.
On a day-to-day basis, we do our best to leave the manes and tails alone as much as possible. We'll pick out the straw and shavings and maybe put a little coconut oil on the roots of the tail, but otherwise, nada. We only brush the manes and tails when they've just been washed and conditioned (once every 2-3 weeks).
It's also vital to have any kind of parasites or allergies under control. No amount of product or care will be any use if the horse is rubbing his mane and tail. Ticks, pinworms, and midges (no-see-ums) are some of the most important parasites to control.
Obviously, good nutrition is key, too. Hair is just protein, and the horse is only going to use his protein to grow hair if the rest of his body has got enough. Having enough fats and oils in the diet also helps to keep things really silky. The Friesians get a scoop of canola oil in their feed every day, and we have really high-quality, well-balanced diets at both stableyards.
Also, some horses just don't grow long hair. Arabs, Friesians, and Nooitgedachters almost always do, but there are other breeds who might just never grow much of a mane no matter what you do (looking at you, Appaloosas).
Once all that is covered, we have a bi-weekly pampering routine. It's just the cherry on top of good management, but it really does seem to help the hair get that extra bit of length, thickness, and waviness that makes a show Friesian (or Arabian) so spectacular.
Step 1. Washing
|washed and dry unicorn actually looking white for once|
We redo the manes whenever they start looking a little messy. For horses with long, even manes, this can happen every 2 or even 3 or 4 weeks. Some of them tend to rub their plaits out early, though. If it's been less than two weeks since the last session, we usually just skip the washing.
When we do wash, we often take the opportunity to just wash the whole horse (especially since I cannot handle Lancey being yellow and gross all the time). Both at the Friesians and here at my yard, we just use whatever cheap shampoo we have on hand. My super groom at my own yard uses Endeavon's Lemon Fresh shampoo, and the Friesians use Easy Waves Herbal Shampoo (which is for people). The Friesians follow up with Easy Waves Herbal Conditioner. While washing, we detangle any knots with our fingers while the mane is wet and conditioned. Then we rinse everything out very well.
Step 2. Gather the equipment
You can do this on a wet or dry mane. With Lancey, I prefer to do the mane when it's dry, because he naturally has a bit of frizz in his hair and plaiting it wet is just a recipe for explosive poofiness. The Friesians are generally plaited wet because then their manes look super wavy and cute when they're loosened again (we especially plait them wet the night before a breed show, when they're shown natural).
I like the elastics that come in a tub from Solo Saddlers - the tub is very nifty and they don't seem to break as easily as the cheaper ones that come in a packet. The colour doesn't particularly matter but I guess if you wanted to be pedantic you could use elastics that match the mane and tail.
I also really like this tail brush from Solo Saddlers. It's not cheap, but they do last really well and they don't pull the tails too much. Once again, this isn't for daily use - only for special occasions - and I tend never to use the tail brush unless the mane/tail has just been washed and conditioned. If washing wasn't an option, I use a leave-in detangler or conditioner to let it glide through the mane easily.
Whenever I redo the mane, I also use this Black Chic Hair Food product. I'm not sure if the exact product is available overseas, but the BEST tip for Friesian manes and tails is to use products designed for afro hair. This particular product is extremely inexpensive and really works well. You can get it in big buckets too.
The purpose of the Hair Food is mostly just to make the plaits neater and add a bit of conditioning to the mane and/or tail. It also smells SOOOO GOOD, especially the coconut one. I meant to buy the coconut one and grabbed the lanolin one by accident, but this one is just as good. It's supposed to help the hair grow, too. I'm not sure how much I buy into the idea that anything you rub on the hair really makes it grow, but I do like using this.
My one caveat is that dirt/dust do tend to stick to this stuff once it's on the mane. It washes off easily enough, but Lancey looks pretty gross after a roll or two. For that reason I only use Hair Food every second time I do his mane, otherwise the dirt just drives me nuts. I don't actually notice it on the Friesians, probably just because their black hides the dirt.
You could obviously also use a step or something to stand on while doing the mane, especially on a bigger horse.
3. Secure the horse
Most of the Friesians (and obviously Lancey) are very cuddly and love having their manes done, but the younger ones tend to get really fussy and fidgety. It can take a while to do everything - half an hour or so - and it's just not fair to expect the younger ones to stand for that long. We usually give them a haynet (with a little lucerne mixed in to tempt the more wiggly ones) to help them stand still, and usually put them in the cross ties for this.
|Lancey is angelic in the cross-ties but Titan still offered to assist|
4. Brush out and plait the tail
Lancey's tail was really smooth and silky after his bath in this example, so I just gently brushed through the tail from the bottom upwards. If it was knotty, I would definitely have used copious amounts of baby oil to work through the knots. Because he's white, I do tend to avoid oils where I can because dirt sticks to it, but the Friesians always get baby oil for brushing out.
Then, I work some Hair Food into the very top of his tail where he's rubbed it a little bit. Finally, I plait the bottom of his tail in a big, loose braid. It looks pretty silly, but it does protect the tail from dirt and helps it to look fuller and thicker once the plait is taken out. We generally don't do this with the Friesians just because their tails are SO thick and will knock you flat if they swish one of those massive plaits into you (and it's probably uncomfortable to have all that weight tied up for them). Some of them tend to get very knotty and soiled tails, so we'll braid those into four or five smaller braids, depending on the individual. The day before a show, we wash the tails and put them into a bunch of small plaits to make them look extra thick and wavy the next day.
5. Brush out the mane
Next, using the tail brush, I gently brush out the clean, conditioned mane from bottom to top (or put baby oil in an unwashed mane to get the knots out). There shouldn't be a ton of hair coming out in the tail brush, unless it's been three weeks or more since the last brushing - some dead hair is inevitable.
|exactly one year's growth since starting to keep his mane in plaits|
6. Plait the mane
These plaits are very different to the ones we make for a show. It's really important not to make the plaits too tight at the top - this pulls and gets very uncomfortable after a while. I also prefer not to plait right to the end, since that damages the ends of the mane.
I start by separating out a fairly large chunk of mane. I generally do fewer plaits than I would for a show - maybe 7 or so on Lancey's neck instead of 9 or 11. Smaller plaits do stay in for longer. Then, I rub some Hair Food into the roots of the mane and into the skin at the base of the mane. Keeping the plait loose at the top, I plait it neatly but not tightly until about two or three inches from the bottom, and then secure it tightly with an elastic.
I repeat this for the whole mane up until the bridle path.
Having the long mane plaited doesn't really stimulate its growth or any of that, but it really does protect it from getting caught on things, and especially from getting bits of hay or grass stuck in it and causing snarl-ups. What's more, especially for the Friesians, those long, thick manes are intolerably hot in summer when they're left to float in the breeze. Plaiting them gives the horse a nice flow of air over the neck and really helps them to keep cool. It also keeps the mane from getting all snarled up in the saddle and in the rider's hands, or rubbed by the blankets in winter.
I suppose, theoretically, that a particularly accident-prone horse could hook up a plaited mane on something more easily than a loose mane. I've never had a problem, though. Sometimes you can see that they caught the mane on a twig or something, but the plait simply pulls out, no harm done to the horse. The time that one of my Friesians came in from the field with half a branch stuck to her mane was when she happened to have her hair loose at the time!
7. Plait the forelock
Sometimes I skip this step if I'm busy, but I generally like to keep forelocks plaited so that they stay out of the horses' eyes - long forelocks in particular tend to irritate the eyes and get all snarled up with grass and things. I apply a generous amount of Hair Food into the roots of the forelock, then braid only the bottom loosely - not a French braid at the top like you would do for a show (this would pull and get irritating). Some of my Friesians have forelock plaits that go all the way past their nostrils!
|apples for a good boy|
8. Admire your pretty pony!
The plaited look might be a bit unflattering in the field, but I've found that it really keeps long-maned horses looking their best - and feeling cool and comfortable. It's a lot of work, but if the mane is even and the horse behaves, these plaits tend to last up to three weeks without needing to be redone. The longer you can leave them, the better. Undisturbed hair is happily growing hair!
Now I just need to practice doing a proper Friesian stallion plait for shows...
God is so good!