There’s nothing nicer than a tidy row of sewed-in braids on a hunter or a half dozen button braids on a cresty-necked dressage horse, but getting those lovely looks requires shortening of the mane, often by the practice of pulling, which can be fraught with frustration, pain and dread for both horse and human.
With discussions about equine welfare, such as the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s recent ban on whisker trimming, at the forefront, is it time to look at mane pulling and consider alternatives to it?
Yes, according to Suzanne T. Millman, VDPAM, Ph.D., a professor of animal welfare at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“As with any interaction we have with animals, I do not ban it if there’s a way to do it humanely, and if it doesn’t have a cost,” she said. “The cost to the animal is, is the procedure itself painful? [With mane pulling,] it depends. Anyone who is doing this should care about the welfare of the horse, and they should experiment to get the same result that they need to be competitive in the ring while using the technique that causes the least harm.”
While a procedure like trimming whiskers around the muzzle and eyes doesn’t hurt, it takes away one of the horse’s sensor modalities. In contrast, mane pulling doesn’t seem to have a long-term impact on the welfare of the horse but can be painful to do.
“[The mane] does provide some relief from flies,” said Millman. “It can be hot, so it can be a cost. It can also get really dirty and be hard to keep clean. I think if we’re going to remove the mane from horses, we should be mindful primarily about fly control. In the winter, it could provide some heat source. But those are relatively minor things in the way we keep horses, especially the way we keep horses when we’re competing with them. Generally weeks. She found that heart rates were significantly higher when manes were pulled instead of just touched. Increased heart rate was also found to be associated with other behavioral indicators of pain like moving around, tightening of the mouth, tail swishing, head tossing and rearing.
Feeling The Pain
Anyone who’s ever pulled a mane or tail has probably encountered a horse who will resist, sometimes violently, so it’s not a stretch to think that it’s a painful process.
Mane and tail hair is connected to sensory neurons with specialized nerve endings. Tail hair endings are closer to the skin and spine, which could make that hair more painful to pull out. Touching areas with pain receptors closer to the skin can give different sensations over the body. Some areas can be pleasurable, while others are more sensitive—think of the flank area or the dock. It’s usually easy to tell by grooming which areas on your horse will be more sensitive.
The mane is separated from the spine by muscle along the neck. Although it’s further from the spine, and the skin is generally thicker than that along the tailbone, pain receptors are still there at the end of each strand of hair.
“For evolutionary reasons, it would make sense that the horses don’t have extreme sensitivity on their neck because they use that for mutual grooming,” said Millman. “If they have predation, they need a lot of flesh around the neck because that’s often where they would get pulled down, so they need something that could be ‘sacrificed’ if they got pulled down and attacked. The mane is quite different from the tail. There are other ways of making the tail look beautiful by braiding it or shaving it, but you have to make sure you’re attending to the other costs of removing that part of the tail. There could be flies and so on.”
Stacie Boswell, DVM, a large animal surgeon at Hardaway Veterinary Hospital in Belgrade, Montana, and author of “Unwanted: The Ultimate Guide For Horses In Need,” added that wild horses like brumbies or American mustangs do use their manes for pest control, but horses kept at show barns have different concerns.
“When they shake their heads, those hairs go back and forth across the neck in such a way that if there were flies there it would help remove them,” she said. “The mane certainly serves a purpose, but there’s so much variability in it from horse to horse and breed to breed. It’s hard to think that having a shorter mane impacts their well-being significantly. We have enough tools at our disposal that we can help make up for that, like fly sheets and fly spray.”
Listen To Your Horse
If you must pull the mane, be aware of the signals your horse is giving you, and make sure to back off if they seem unhappy, said Millman.
“The challenge with any animal or any non-verbal person is we don’t know exactly how they feel because we can only indirectly measure it,” she said. “We can only indirectly measure it with other people as well, but they can verbally report.”
As herd animals, horses want to avoid pain and fear. “There’s a very close relationship between pain processing and fear. If the animal is fearful, it’s going to be highly reactive to a painful stimulus,” said Millman.
Signs of a horse in discomfort include tail swishing, teeth grinding, fidgeting in the crossties, rearing, stamping and resistance. These behaviors can ramp up in the process of pulling the mane.
“If you really know your horse, and they trust you, some horses like having their manes pulled as long as you’re doing it with very little hair being pulled at a time,” said Millman. “If it’s part of your regular grooming activity, and [you] are sort of once a week going and tidying it up, rather than going from a horse that has to go from a 6-inch mane or longer to a 3- or 4-inch mane to make really pretty plaits. Some horses do seem to like it. They seem to like it if you start at the wither area, which is an area they would mutually groom each other. I would always start there, and I know they’ll always be fussy around the poll, so I would do a little bit there and come back.”
Boswell, a Fear Free-certified veterinarian, recommends distractions and spreading out the mane pulling over several days.
“Most women, and probably most of us, have had our hair pulled at some point, whether it’s one or two hairs that catches on a button. You can feel that, and it hurts!” she said. “In my line of work, [distraction] means we’re feeding treats or putting his head in a bucket of grain when he’s getting an injection, for example. But you can use that same distraction technique during mane pulling. If it’s interested and focused on the grain, then we can pull a bit of hair,” she said. “There is research in human literature that giving children sugar makes an injection more tolerable, more accepted and less painful. For whatever reason, that little glucose rush helps people tolerate them.”
She also says owners should consider Dormosedan gel rubbed into the mane, which blocks pain response, but that’s not always practical or affordable.
Like humans, a horse’s pores will be more open after a workout, so timing mane pulling after riding might help. But although the hair may come out easier, the pain receptors are still there.
So what about the horses who seem to fall asleep when they’re having their manes pulled? Boswell says that although they could just be less sensitive, it might be a behavior called learned helplessness.
“Learned helplessness is when an individual has a sense of powerlessness, and it comes after a traumatic event or persistent failure,” she explained. “If an animal tries to tell us, ‘This hurts’ over and over, and instead we discipline or punish that animal and say, ‘No, you have to stand still and tolerate this,’ then that’s when they
get to a place of learned helplessness. It’s very hard to look at the outside of a horse that’s experiencing learned helplessness and tell that that’s what that is. They’re prey animals, and they’re motivated for survival by not showing us everything they are internalizing.”
While mane pulling can be a stressful activity for a horse, watching for signs of discomfort and knowing when to stop, or finding other ways to shorten the mane (below), are the best ways to ensure a happy horse with a neat and tidy look.
Alternatives To Pulling
Eventer Doug Payne’s longtime groom Courtney Carson has never enjoyed mane pulling and has phased it out of her horse care routine.
“The horses that I didn’t think [were] bad about having their manes pulled are much more pleasant to braid,” she said. “I could pretty much braid anything in the stall without having to tie it up now, when before it was always having to tie them, and I think that directly correlates with how they had their manes pulled prior to that. I don’t pull tails anymore either. It’s the same idea.
“There are just other alternatives,” she continues. “If you really want the look of a pulled tail, you can clip it and make it look the exact same. These horses do enough for us. We don’t need to subject them to something like that just because it’s always been the practice. I think they tolerate it, at best.”
She’s seen jumper grooms and riders who scissor a mane, but she prefers other methods.
“[Former top eventing groom] Emma Ford showed me years ago how to use an older set of detached clipper blades that might not be sharp enough to actually body clip with. You would push the mane up with a mane comb and razor underneath,” she said.
These days she uses a mane knife from Smart Grooming. “Honestly, the horses fall asleep, and it’s faster than pulling,” she said. “You hold the mane, push up, then change the angle of your hand, and it cuts through the mane that’s there. If you need to properly thin it, you can just brush the mane with the knife itself, and the mane doesn’t look like Edward Scissorhands got ahold of it.”
Other more humane options for thinning and shortening a mane include the SoloGroom Solorake, Solocomb or another type of mane and tail thinning rake.
Millman was a show jumping groom in Europe and learned a technique she still uses today.
“Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 1980s, and people used to backcomb their hair to make it fluffy!” she said. “You backcomb it, then instead of wrapping it around the mane and jerking it, if you have some sewing scissors that are small, then trim it. All you’re doing is brushing the mane. It’s completely painless, and it looks great.”
Show jumping groom Emma Chapman, who takes care of grand prix rider Adrienne Sternlicht’s horses, said she still pulls manes depending on the texture and how a horse reacts to it, but she has other methods if that’s not an option.
“Mainly we’ll try to thin it out with scissors or braid them over for a little while, which kind of weakens the hair a little so it will get thinner, but usually you just have to deal with it,” she said.
Starting from the withers, she’ll use scissors to cut at a 45-degree angle going up, then down, forming a sort of triangle. It usually ends up blunt, she said, so she tidies it up with the scissors.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Sept. 5-19, 2022, Issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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