July 14, 2021
Your horse's mane and tail can be the difference between your horse looking haggard and show ring ready. Like most things grooming, mane and tail care is a marathon, not a sprint.
Horse Hair Anatomy
Each hair on your horse's body comes from its own home in the skin - the follicle. The hair follicle is a tiny organ, and the skin even has a minuscule muscle to make it "stand on end," creating goosebumps and fluffing up the coat.
Each follicle also has a blood supply and is attached to a sebaceous gland. Sebum, released by the sebaceous gland, has a few jobs. These natural oils are your horse's first line of defense in the immune system with anti-microbial goodness. Sebum is the shine maker and helps repel stains.
The actual hair strand has three layers. The inner layer is the medulla, the core of the hair. Wrapping around the medulla is the cortex, which is mostly keratin, like your horse's hooves. The outer layer, the cuticle, is scaly. Without sebum, the cuticle is jagged and appears dull. With sebum, the reflection of light produces shine and smooths down the cuticle's rough edges.
The skin and hair follicle also contains nerves. The nerves tell your horse that the hair has moved, and sensory hairs like whiskers help your horse feel around his mouth. Looking for food, of course!
There is a persistent myth in the horse world that pulling manes doesn't hurt because there are no nerves in the mane. This is absolute bunk! There are nerves, and your horse can feel you pulling hair out from the root - it's like waxing. Some horses may not mind having their manes pulled, but they can still feel it.
The Hair Growth Cycle
Your horse's mane and tail are a type of permanent hair. Unlike your horse's coat, which sheds twice yearly to prepare for winter and summer, the mane and tail are relatively "fixed." The mane and tail do undergo a growth cycle, which is why you will find hairs in your grooming tools
The first phase, anagen, is when the hair follicle is actively growing hair. The anagen phase is a fixed amount of time, courtesy of genetics.
In the second phase, catagen, the hairs stop growing and rests as the hair follicle shrinks. During telogen, the hair is pushed out of the follicle by new hair. Your brush will collect the shedding hairs, much like our brushes collect hair.
Why are there so many articles about "make your horse's mane longer" if hair growth is a function of time? Use that time to make the hair as healthy as possible, to maximize hair quality and minimize damage, breaking, and soaking up stains. Healthy hair will grow longer because it's nourished from the inside and protected on the outside.
How to Maintain Healthy Manes and Tails
The primary tool for your horse's healthy mane and tail is nutrition.
An equine nutritionist is the best way to guarantee that your horse's diet is balanced for his age, lifestyle, type of forage, exercise, and even breed. Excessive nutrients are often as detrimental as nutrient deficiencies.
Supplements that encourage hoof growth often influence skin and coat health, too. Feeding Omega 3 fatty acids in proper proportions with Omega 6 fatty acids promotes healthy skin and hair. Excellent options include flaxseed products and Cocosoya. The "old school" corn oil as a top dressing is wildly unbalanced between the Omega 3's and Omega 6's.
Uckele Equine CocoSoya Fatty Acid Formula Liquid
The unique blend of coconut oil and unrefined, cold-pressed soybean oil in Uckele CocoSoya Oil horse supplement offers many healthy benefits. It helps to increase energy, maintain ideal weight, and improve both skin and coat.Shop This Product
TRM Curragh Carron Oil Omega 3 + Omega 6 Supplement
Curragh Carron Oil is an effective daily digestive aid enriched with essential fatty acids sourced from cold-pressed flaxseed oil, calcium, and magnesium. Simply add to your horse's normal rations to help support normal digestive function.Shop This Product
Your horse's overall health will also determine mane and tail quality.
Parasites will strip your horse of a healthy coat and hair by stealing all of the nutrients! Internal parasite loads should be measured by your vet with fecal egg counts and treated appropriately.
External parasites, like mites and lice, interfere with hair growth and create skin problems, like mange. Also, consider any allergies to bugs, diets, and products that your horse has, and any bacterial or fungal skin infections.
Your horse's living environment and grooming routine may affect hair quality.
Muddly conditions tangle up tails, excessive fly populations encourage too much swishing and mane rubbing, and blankets and sheets may rub manes. Noticing any signs of hair breakage is a clue that something may need to change in your horse's routine.
Hair quality may suffer when mane and tail care is postponed, instead of daily care. Tangles and rubs get bigger over time without attention.
Finally, products can influence mane and tail health.
It's important to remember that more product application is not always better, sometimes it's just more! Products that keep the sebum are always better than harsh detergents and dish soaps. Without that sebum, skin and hair are susceptible to infection, damage, and soaking up stains.
A Typical Mane and Tail Daily Routine
Keep your daily mane and tail grooming routine simple! The hair should be soft from conditioners, and use your fingers or a wide-toothed comb or brush to pick out any shavings or grass. Work from the bottom of the hair, moving upwards.
There's great debate about picking vs. brushing, and if the hair is healthy and robust, it doesn't matter. If your horse has brittle hair, gently pick it out.
Detanglers can help keep everything slick, protecting against knots and preventing things from sticking in the hair. Tail bags can be protective but avoid them if your horse needs his tail for fly-swatting duty.
Resist the urge to remove stains with harsh treatments. If your horse's tail is crusty and dry, follow any cleaning or shampooing with a conditioner. You might also find that untangling any knots is more manageable with some conditioner.
Random Mane and Tail Care Tips
After shampooing, rinse your horse's mane and tail with white vinegar to remove all traces of products. The vinegar also enhances shine. Follow up with a conditioner, and let that soak in for a few minutes before rinsing.
To protect your horse's mane as it grows long, use some long and loose braids after conditioning treatments. It's up to you if you want to rinse out the conditioner or not. Sometimes manes can get sticky and attract shavings and dirt.
Long and loose braids are a great way to train the mane to rest on one side of your horse. Tight braids are often itchy and encourage rubbing.
Your horse's blanket style may need to be changed if the mane is becoming rubbed out. Using sleazy covers under blankets is also an option.
A mane that is consistent in length and thickness from poll to wither is much easier to braid. Solo combs will thin your horse's mane without pulling from the root.
Don't braid a freshly washed mane. A day or so of dusty buildup helps braids be smooth and less likely to slide undone.
Body clippers are better than trimmers for roaching manes. You want a more substantial clipper to create that mohawk look, and leave more hair than you think to prevent sunburn.
Clippers are also a handy way to bang your horse's tail to create fullness at the bottom. Some disciplines, like the hunters, don't wear a banged tail. It's also not a good idea to bang a thick or full tail, like a Friesian.
Using tail bags are a great option to protect tail hairs from stains and tangles. They must attach below the tail bone and keep any braids loose. Because the bag is a barrier to dirt, it's easier to do a leave-in-conditioning treatment. Skip the tail bag if you have a mare and her urine stream hits the bag
Professional's Choice Tail Wrap
The Professional's Choice Tail Wrap includes a uniquely designed padded half cone that protects your horse's very top tail hairs from rubbing and fraying. Combined with a tough yet stretchy neoprene outer, non-slip lining, and three adjustable hook-and-loop closures, this wrap will stay put to protect your horses tail in the trailer, stall, pasture, or during breeding.Shop This Product
Weatherbeeta Lycra Tail Bag
Tie the Weatherbeeta Lycra Tail Bag into your horse's pleated tail to help keep it neat and clean. Made of light-weight and breathable lycra with two straps for easy attachment.Shop This Product
Professional's Choice Tail Tamer Trophy Tail Tail Bag
Help your horse grow a gorgeous, long tail by protecting it with the Professional's Choice Tail Tamer Trophy Tail Tail Bag. Avoid hair breakage and repel shaving and dirt with this stretchy Lycra tail bag that is bigger at the bottom so it can even accommodate big show tails.Shop This Product
Give yourself plenty of time to let your horse's hair health develop. Keep up with gentle, daily care and feed for healthy skin and coat. Your horse will have that "neighbelline" look before you know it.