Guest Blog by Rebecca Peregoy
Everyone always loves the look of a perfectly turned-out hunter with perfect little hunter braids all in a row. It makes the horse’s neck look elegant and refined, it presents an image that respects tradition, and it gives the horse and rider’s appearance that polished turnout that is such a huge part of the horse showing. However, achieving that elegant look of perfect hunter braids is not as easy as it may look. Many factors go into perfect braids, including time, effort, and the horse themselves. The skill, experience and artistry of the braider are a large part of this equation. However, YOU the owner/rider can assist in making your horses mane a masterpiece at every show! This article will discuss a few topics that are good to know to help you achieve that perfect braided turnout for your horse and to have a smooth stress-free barding experience for you, your braider and most importantly your horse.
Preparing Your Horse
Just as you would not expect your horse to load in a trailer or compete without practice at home or prior experience, the same applies to braiding. It is important to teach your horse, especially the young ones, to stand quietly tied in stalls or crossties, and be comfortable with spray bottles, or sponges, and people on ladders near their ears. The quieter and calmer the horse is the better the entire experience is for everyone and – this may be surprising – but the braids actually turn out better when the horse is quiet and relaxed, and the braider is not following them around a stall or stopping and restarting many times over while getting up and down a ladder.
This may seem obvious to some or seem to others as a question of how does fussing and fidgeting effect braid QUALITY, not just the time it takes? When horses stretch their necks as high as they can, and tense, in a nervous desire to avoid contact, the braider is braiding basically sideways (so the braids are being placed horizontally to the braider’s hands, and braiding on an angle, as opposed to in parallel and vertically) and the braids are starting off twisted. Additionally, it interrupts the flow and restarting makes the person braiding lose their rhythm and feel, which in turn makes resuming much more conscious and the braids are not as naturally consistent. The best thing is practice or prebraiding for young horses, like at an open or small show where it is not super important, and everyone has extra time to be patient. Even if you just braid practice braids, or “mane training braids” (not flipped up) for the horse to wear around the farm.
If it is a horse’s first time at a show, then the most important thing becomes communicating that with your braider. They can then prepare to spend extra time and place the horse at a point in their schedule that allows the extra care. Communication is certainly a key factor in braider relationship as well as making sure the braids are on point, will arise again, later.
Also in this frame, if your horse’s mane falls on the left side, which is non-traditional for hunters, let the braider know if you plan to keep it on that side or not. Do not be surprised if you do not speak up, to arrive in the morning to find the horse’s mane braided on the traditional right side. Ninety percent of the time this is not an issue except for some young horses who are not used to the feel of their hair (think of how you feel in a new hair style, it takes getting used to!) and will focus on the braid-feeling and not riding and shake their heads.
Preparing The Mane
The ideal braids come from, no surprise, ideal manes. However, the ideal mane for braids is different from an ideal mane for bands or reiners or other disciplines. For hunters, a medium volume mane, which is an even consistent volume from ear to crest, with good under-roots is what one likes to find. The under-roots are what helps the braids lay along neck and not too high on the crest. Manes that are too thick makes the braids too close together, which cause the braider to not be able to work between the braids and the braids become crooked and twisted sideways. They lay diagonally, as opposed to vertically.
Manes that are too thin are often just too brittle and while they often look lovely, they can easily break, and braiders will add extra yarn for support and to enhance the appearance. Often, it is genetics and there is little an owner can do to rectify a thin mane besides being careful with it and not leaving braids in too long. Most horses’ manes will be thicker at the crest, the idea is to pull the mane to even this so it not a dramatic difference and more subtle. Pulling manes is also important for bringing very thick manes into a manageable volume. Length is important as well. Always consider the difference between pulling for length and pulling for thickness. An ideal length is between 3 and 4 inches, but not below the bottom of the horse’s ears. A mane pulling comb sideways gives you a sense of length, it should be a smidge past the bottom, as well as the bottom of the ear/head juncture if that is easier to think of.
A too long mane is easier to correct than a too short or too thick mane. When manes are very short and very thick, they become unbraidable. This is not your braider being finicky. it is because the braids themselves pop loose when folded under. The ideal size of the braid is now thicker than your pinky finger, with about half to one-third that in space between braids, for manageability. At the thickest part of the mane, you want it to be pulled thin enough to make this size braid out of a section the width of the first joint of your thumb for guidance.
Ideally manes being braided are always pulled and not cut. However, in the world of All-Around horses that is not always possible. The mane is still braidable, just then blunt ends will mostly likely need trimmed not tucked. If banded first, leave some length for this, and communicate to your braider as well, the plans for your horse’s show schedule. If you have a long ranch mane, make sure this is discussed in advance, as well. It can be done but it is much more time-consuming and requires artistry.
Preparing The Tail
So far, we have focused on manes, but let’s turn it around to tails. There are things to consider on the backside. Tails need to have long side hairs to be braided, so rubbed tails often cannot be done well. Fake tails should be discussed with your braider in advance, as some prefer to put them in as they braid but other people prefer to braid over a tail already attached at the owner or trainers desired height and attachment style. There are as many ways to attaches tails as there are people! Just remember if you asked are to apply your own fake tail in advance – remember to leave your braider enough hair from the back to bring around and braid over it. Also, it is important to make sure the real tail is completely tangle free.
It is now time to address the elephant in the room. PRODUCT. Conditioner, oily fly sprays, Showsheen, Pepi, MTG, other mane regrowth or softening products. Some of which are very beneficial for banding but make braiding very difficult. Even left over hair gel from banding can cause the hair to be hard to work with. Most products create a slippery texture that not only makes getting a good grip on the hair challenging, but also makes the hair come loose inside the braids.
If the braider does not want you to use “product” on your horse’s mane, what SHOULD you do? Wash the mane with a clarifying shampoo or Ivory Dish Soap or Dawn. Ideally about a day before so it is clean, but the natural oils have returned. This is one akin to when hairdressers ask for “second-day hair” for prom or wedding hairstyling. If you cannot wash it early, do still wash it! Clean manes are better for braiders and horses. They are less itchy and help lessen braid rubbing. The same rule applies to tails, but you can feel safe conditioning the lower tail below the dock.
RUBBING AND PRESERVING
Once you have done the homework to help your braider and have achieved perfect lovely braids, how can you help keep your horse both happy and beautiful until his class? The obvious answer is a slinky, it helps protect the braids to a degree. It very effectively keeps shavings out of them, so you don’t have to brush over the braids changing loosening them or spend time picking shaving out of the braids. It also keeps the shavings from giving horses an extra reason to itch. On top of this, rather basic precaution, if your horse doesn’t like the feel of braids or the tight roots bother him, you can add a moisturizing conditioner after he’s braided to the roots and spaces between the braids. This softens the hair and skin and helps lessen that too-tight-ponytail feeling. You can also use plain water. It especially helps when the mane needs to be flipped to traditional side if it naturally lays opposite.
Saving the backside for the end again, tail should be wrapped in something breathable and not vetrap. Ace bandages or polo or cotton tail wraps work very well. Mane braids can be left overnight for a second show day, with a little care and no harm, but tail hair is not as firm and should not be kept overnight for a second show day.
Circling back to what may be the most import aspect of good braider/client relations… communication. Keeping open communication is key. If the horse is a baby or has never been braided before, or has never had its tail braided, let your braider know. If they are nervous or sensitive around their ears or hindquarters, be open about it. Also, if they prefer crossties or stall ties, or need held. Plan when you and your braider both have time, in these cases. Also, be clear about your schedule, not just the classes the horse is showing in but also lunging or schooling plans. Be open and communicate.
At some point in their career, a braider has braided the wrong horse due to misunderstanding… do not let it be yours! Put the horse’s names on the stalls, provide name and stall number as a double check, and if you use a barn board it never hurts to add the name/class and “braid” to the board or stall door. If you enjoy colored yarn or any additions, or if you don’t, make sure you let your braider know in advance. Also, do reach out if you feel like you have not had enough feedback from your braider.
If you have any issues with the professionalism or service provided, it is best to discuss this before the end of the show so a solution can be manifested.
Braiders should also be as open and responsive as possible and communicate clearly as well. You should have this as an expectation from your braider, as good communication is not a one-way street.
Finally, coming down to the always awkward part, payment. Be sure to find out your braiders preferred method, most have several options, and pay in a timely manner. Braiders hate having to call/text and ask. Most braiders feel uncomfortable having to bother people about past due payments and they recognize that everyone is busy, the end of a horseshow is always chaotic, and it is very easy to forget. Just be upfront if this happens when you realize it, or the braider reaches out.
There are lots of small things, that perhaps a rider never thinks about, that can facilitate a pleasant experience and beautiful turnout for your show hunter! Perfect braids are only a few small steps away!
Be open about schedule Use “product” on manes or tops of tails.
Have the mane clean and pulled if needed Wait till the last minute to find a braider or send your schedule.
Have horse prepared Forget to tell braider if horse is likely to be nervous
Pay on time Miss your appointment
Put specialty requests in beforehand Cut mane too short or let it be too thick
Thank you to Rebecca for sharing her insights and experiences from years of braiding!