Does your horse hate anything done with its mane? Here are some ways to get her okay with combing, pulling and braiding.
This may take a few sessions, but it will really pay off if you take a little time with your horse! The amount of time depends upon you keeping your ‘cool’ and the horse. A horse that is extremely sensitive, has little handling or one that does not understand boundaries, will take a little longer. But the biggest factor depends mostly on you keeping your ‘cool’. This CAN be accomplished during your regular grooming sessions.
Wearing a helmet is a good idea, even a safety vest. You only have one head and brain, protect it! The vest can protect you from a fall or if you get bumped into. If a mistake is made, or an accident occurs and you have protective gear on, it could really save you from some pain or worse. And helmet hair is totally in this season (and every season), and safety vests go with everything!
Quietly Establish Boundaries
If your horse pulls away while you are removing her halter, then some boundaries are misaligned. Everything starts with boundaries. You need your horse to understand that she is safe standing quietly with you. She needs to understand that some things may be a bit uncomfortable at times, but she is safe and life is fair (not sure if fair for people and horses really translates to the same!) but there is an ‘agreement’ that you can make with your horse with some things that are not totally comfortable, but discomfort will not last long and all will be okay. So, how do you get there?
If your horse does not understand boundaries, then you will need to take some time to establish those, and a refresher is always good. This really does not take long it is just being consistent about your expectations. So, basic leading and standing are part of this, then you need your horse to not step into your space when something bothers her.
Think about having a hula hoop around you as your personal circle. She is not allowed to step into your ‘personal circle’. Your job is to pay attention to your horse’s body language and soften and reward when she gives the correct answer, yet quietly correct rudeness. This really needs to be part of handling your horse in all situations. Getting the timing with this correctly can be a challenge. Watching someone else that has good timing and a good temperament is a helpful tool (videos of yourself are helpful as well so you can see how you move and respond).
Also, when you are working with your horse on establishing boundaries, it is NOT a time for multi-tasking. If your horse needs your help in this department then it is super important to keep your quiet focus with her.
Teach your horse to lower her head with light pressure from your hand and from the halter; you should be able to do this from either side and while you are in front of her. When a horse lowers her head and neck it relieves tension and is calming (the opposite is high head and neck with high alert senses). When you ask her to lower her head it should be with light pressure and not a pushing/pulling contest.
Pay special attention to, and have the goal, of your horse taking deep breaths while you are handling her. Those deep breaths translate to relaxation and understanding – and you want that!
During these ‘exercises’ your only agenda should be to spend a little time working in the deficit areas, not achieving a specific goal. Some days may feel like you went backwards – don’t fret, stay the course. We all have ups and downs. Also, I do not like to tie or crosstie a horse while working on these exercises and activities until she is able to stay calm while accomplishing them.
Once you and your horse have those areas fairly well accomplished (you will likely need to revisit at times) you can progress.
Combing (yes, combing, not brushing)
Again, probably not good to tie or crosstie when you are working on this step until she gets comfortable with it.
The best tool for combing is a metal pulling comb with a handle. This tool will allow you to comb as little amount of mane hairs as you like without losing control of that part of the process, and it will withstand some pressure without breaking.
However, for a horse that is extremely sensitive to having her mane combed, a metal curry (the round curry with a handle) is a solid faux comb. This tool is helpful to desensitize your Drama Queen about having her mane touched.
Another, often, productive methodology is to start combing the mane from the other side. Yes, you are bringing the mane to the side you do not want it to lay on; however, many horses will tolerate their mane being combed from the side it does not lay on. Combing pulls out little bits of mane too, so you are establishing some action and sensation situations.
Start working on the part of her neck that she is most tolerant of and if she moves around follow for a few steps, then quietly remind her about the boundaries (stop her as gently as possible). Move her back into the original place and start again. Do only as much or little as she can tolerate without getting terribly upset. And if she does not move and is now compliant with your requests, then stop and rub her neck or face or wherever she likes, maybe even give her a treat.
Take those moments and build on them SLOWLY. Take a little progress and be happy with that for the day, do not keep pushing.
These videos show progress from hating combing…
To tolerating it two days later after sticking with the same methodology.
Pulling the Mane
You’ll need a metal pulling comb with a handle (extra tip: if your horse’s mane is in good shape and you want to get it in really good shape for braiding, use a men’s plastic comb).
Pulling after the horse is warm, but not wet, is usually the easiest. Just don’t even attempt to pull a wet mane; your fingers will suffer, and it just does not work out too well. Stick with the same methodology as combing when you are getting your horse comfortable with having her mane pulled – go slowly, take frequent breaks and reward when she is quiet.
Find your horse’s ‘rhythm’ and how many hairs she is comfortable with during each ‘pull’. Some are better when the pulling moves up and down the neck rather than in the same area. Some are okay with larger amounts of hair pulled at a time while others are okay with just a few hairs. And some horses prefer to do the ‘pulling’ (once you select the hairs and wrap them around the comb the horse leans away, the hairs come out and the horse leans back to where it was), and do so calmly after that is all figured out.
For the thicker manes it is easier to pull the underside of the mane, and this holds for the super thick pony type manes. Take hold of the underside (closest to the neck), ‘rat’ the mane upward with your comb, then wrap that underside hair around the comb and pull. It should come out fairly easy. Do this up and down the neck, working more on the areas where the mane is the thickest.
Have a long mane that needs to be shortened up? If it is thick then I start pulling and pull every other day until the mane is close to the thickness desired, then I razor the mane to shorten close to the length desired. I finish up by pulling to the desired length. Why not cut? My experience with scissors on a mane has been DISASTER! I just do not recommend using scissors on a mane.
Have a helper for the first few times. And cookies are okay during this process! The more positive and the less stressful the braiding session is, the easier it will be the next time.
Yarn versus rubber bands? To share some personal experience, I thought rubber bands would be best for an overly sensitive mare’s first time being braided. It did not work out too well because I am no good with rubber bands. I spent more time messing around with the bands and the mare started getting antsy towards the end of the braiding session. Use materials you are comfortable with and know how to use. And, if you are new to braiding, then practice on a horse that is used to the process.
Start braiding where the horse is more comfortable with you working on her neck. If she is more comfortable at the top of her neck, start there. If it is near the withers, start there. If you have to start in the middle of the neck, just mark out your sections with your comb and start in the middle.
If yarn is your material of choice know that the yarn hanging on the horse’s neck adds a ‘tickle’ factor when it hangs on the neck. To alleviate this, braid down a few braids, then tie up and cut off the excess, then continue. Often you can braid down three or four braids on an extremely sensitive horse before needing to tie up and cut off the excess yarn.
Work in breaks during the braiding sessions. They are good for the horse and they are good for you. You need to stay calm and empathetic.
And be okay if you cannot braid the entire mane. For example, you may not be able to get the top 2 or 3 braids in (nearest the ears) or bottom (nearest the withers). But if you are patient and stay the calm and quiet course, over time (and maybe it is another time) you will be able to braid the horse’s entire mane.
These methods and processes have worked well for hot Thoroughbreds, hot chestnut mares, horses that were previously sedated for mane pulling, somewhat feral horses, drama queens, and many types in between. By staying patient, consistent and not getting overzealous just about any horse can learn that having her mane combed, pulled, and braided is all okay.
These tips can help you and your horse be more comfortable and have more enjoyable grooming and show preparation sessions.