For the avid showman, learning how to braid or band your horse(s) (or who to pay to do it for you), is an essential skill. It requires endless patience, the acceptance of callouses and eventually arthritis in your hands, and a few other helpful tools I’ll never turn out a mane without…
My absolute favorite invention, never intended for horse grooming, is the step-tool box.
This little beauty will set you back a bit, but it’s worth every penny. I think when I bought my Craftsman model like this, it ran around $60, and that was several years ago. There are interior trays to organize your show grooming tools, each removable so you only keep out what you need, and it’s super sturdy. The best part though, is the removable extension cord/outlet reel. Instead of dragging a lengthy extension cord through the barn and risking getting it tangled around hooves and your own feet, you plug your step box in, then your clippers to it. Genius!
The other can’t-live-without item is a pocketed apron of some kind. I usually picked them up at a hardware store, they were inexpensive but served the purpose. There are plenty of options though, and as long as they keep all your tools safely within easy reach, then just find the one that suits your style!
If your horse is going to be shown regularly, it’s important to start with a healthy, well-kept mane. During our off season, I try to only groom and do minimal trimming or thinning. Just before show season kicks in, I’ll give it a good trim and thin, but not too much. If you consider a perfect mane for banding or braiding at 100%, I try to keep mine around 85%. Remember, braiding and banding pulls hair out too, and you’ll probably trim a little bit each time, so if you start at 100%, your horse’s mane will look like an old toothbrush before you finish the season. You can always take more off or out, you cant put it back on!
It’s up to you to determine the “ideal” mane for your horse. It may never need thinned if the horse has a narrow crest to begin with, others may need regular maintenance. If you don’t have a lot of experience, practice as much as you can when you aren’t showing, so when the season comes, you’re prepared rather than trying to figure it all out the night before! If friends will let you, borrow their horses for practice make-overs too, the more experience you can get ahead of time, the easier it will go for you. Banding isn’t as tedious as braiding, but when the muscle memory in your fingers is developed, it will all seem like second nature.
For a great banding job, remember the purpose is to make the horses mane appear to blend right into it’s neck. A banded mane lies flat and smooth, helping to create the appearance of a smooth-gaited horse. If their mane is long and blowing in every direction, it looks like they’re a bumpy ride, or have a sloppy headset. Uniformity is key.
In my apron for banding, I’m partial to the Healthy Hair Care brand of super bands. They’re available in every mane color, they come in a good size pack so you won’t have to run to the tack store every weekend, and they last as long as any others I’ve tried.
Unless your horse has the most gorgeous headset that you really want to showcase, always use bands that match their mane color as closely as possible. If you’ve got a paint, or other multicolored mane, then buy a couple of bags in different colors to accommodate. If you do want to showcase a pretty neck and a great banding job, then choose the opposite color of their mane (white for dark manes, or black/brown in white/flaxen). I also liked to keep the braiding comb in my apron.
Most professional grooms will tell you, they really aren’t great for braiding because no two manes are the same, but I like to use one section to isolate each section of mane to band at a time, to help keep my bands all the same size. Another helpful item is a human hair clip. It’s distracting to have extra mane in the way, so keep the side you’re working towards clipped up and out of your hair, ha ha ha!
A dirty mane tends to stay in place better than a squeaky clean one loaded with conditioner or show sheen. If the mane is recently washed, a little human hair gel works well to give it some tack. The dollar stores around my barn were great resources for inexpensive grooming supplies!
When applying the rubber bands, a common mistake is thinking that wrapping it as many times as you can is the way to keep them secure. I usually only wrapped them four times. It places less stress on the mane, and if the horse does rub some loose, those are easier to fix than one wound a dozen or more times around. It’s also more comfortable for the horse. Ladies, remember when mom would pony up your hair as a little girl and wrap those bands too tight? It got itchy and gave you a headache didn’t it? Your horse feels the same way. Don’t crank bands down as tight as possible, then get mad at your horse for rubbing them out. He’s trying to find some relief, and you only set yourself up to fail.
Lastly, when snugging them up, don’t grab all the hair to split and pull apart, just a bit from the back of each band. If you use all the hair, they’ll end up sticking out sideways, where if you just pull from behind, it helps them lie nice and flat against the neck.
Once your banding job is complete, you’ll likely notice that your horse’s mane might not be perfectly even in length. Yes, a trim is fine, but no, don’t go at it straight across so your horse ends up looking like a stooge. Your first snips should be short and vertical instead of horizontal. Work back and forth in the area that’s too long, very carefully, until the length is pretty close to where you’d like it. Then you can go back in and snip horizontally to even it up. The vertical cuts first makes it look a bit more natural, and less like you just held up a piece of cardboard as a straight edge and start hacking away. Sometimes it’s helpful to trim the underside a bit shorter than the top too. Your horse’s neck isn’t perfectly straight, you can’t expect the mane to be on it’s own. Again, do a little at a time so you don’t end up with the mistake of having to “even it up” over and over until you run out of hair! Don’t be afraid to ask for a spotter. Have a friend stand back a ways and watch over your scissors, to help you keep perspective and turn out a great finished product.
Braiding is a true test of patience, for both you and your horse. If you’re lucky, they’ll stand quietly with minimal fussing and head bobbing, but if you’ve got one that can’t keep still… good luck to you! Something I picked up that helped was music. I don’t recommend headphones or ear buds around horses, you need to have your hearing on point in case of trouble, while you’re standing on something near a 1000 pound animal, and they often have extra wires that only end up getting tangled. Music will help (hopefully) keep everyone more relaxed, and pass the time.
Before starting, I’ll cut my yarn into strips and have them draped over the apron string for easy grabbing. Again, use a color that closely matches your horses mane. To make sure the pieces were long enough, I’d wrap it around my arm, like I was rolling a hose or extension cord, 30-50 times, depending on how much you need for the horse, and make one cut at the top, leaving you with enough length to braid through the bottom half of the braid, knot, double under, and tie off with. Separate the yarn into smaller bundles around the apron strings. If you leave them all in one big clump, there’s a better chance of reaching to pull one loose, and flipping the entire batch onto the ground.
In your apron with your yarn bundles, keep scissors, a spray bottle of some kind or diluted hairspray or spray gel to help the braids stick, a latch hook or plastic darning needle for pulling the yarn through, a seam ripper for undoing your work (when you make an error, or when you’re done showing, it makes removal so much easier), a comb of some kind-I prefer the metal pulling kind, and a human hair clip to keep the extra mane out of your way.
As I braid, I prefer to finish each braid completely, rather than braiding all the mane, then going back to tuck them under and tie off. It keeps any extra mane out of my way, and I can see my finished product as I go, in case I didn’t make all my braids the same size. You can still use that little braid comb I showed you earlier, but keep in mind that it’s three sections might be too big for your mane. Use it more as a measuring guide, for example, my horse’s mane braided nicely using two sections of the comb to divide it (still braiding three strands). Whatever amount works best, divide it off, clip the rest out of the way, spray and braid! You’ll learn how to manipulate the braids to make them lie neatly against the neck, and where you may need to make them closer together or farther apart to create the illusion of a perfect neck.
Braids unlike bands, do need to be as tight as possible, which is where your finger strength comes into play. It takes time to develop a good rhythm, but once you do, it never goes away. Remember that you’re asking your horse to be uncomfortable, and try to be forgiving. Pack an emergency repair kit in your show grooming gear in case you have a blow out, and always remove them as soon as possible when you’re done showing.
A tail braid isn’t as common at the weekend shows, but requires the same level of muscle memory and grip in your fingers to produce, and the same tools. The trickiest part is the top. You horse flexes his tail there, and any place that hinges will create loose hairs, keep that in mind. Once it’s completed, I’ll wrap with vet tape to keep it safe and secure until we’re at the show, and also remove as soon as possible after.
A well turned-out horse was my calling card at shows, and got me a lot of side work in boarding barns. It’s a great way for people with extra time to make some extra money (and help offset your own show expenses!). The more time I spent grooming for other people, the more I appreciated my own horse. I knew every hair in his mane after so many years of braiding and banding, and he was content to stand quietly for hours, just because I was paying attention to him. Those are probably some of the best memories I have of my Buddy, late nights in the barn, the radio in the background, singing along to an underwhelmed audience, getting him all spruced up for the weekend.
Grooming might be tedious and time consuming to some, but to your horse, it’s some of the best time you spend together, remember to enjoy the moments!