Last weekend was horse show time for my daughter and a couple of her friends. They were entered in both English and Western classes, with the English classes first. When I arrived the girls were busily braiding their horses’ manes and tails. I have spent many hours in the past helping my daughters get ready for shows by braiding their horses' manes and tails. Braiding makes the horse look trim and sleek and also hails back to old traditions.
Although there are several ways to braid a mane, we've always done a simplified braid, since both girls always showed in both English and Western classes on the same day and it was much easier to take out running braids (French-braiding down the mane) for the Western classes.
Horses that are being shown on the eventing circuit, national and international hunters, and show jumpers braid their horses' manes differently, making small braids which are then tied up short along the crest of the neck, called hunter braids. Braiding a horse's mane this way takes some time and patience, as each section of mane needs to be braided, then - most often - sewn with yarn to hold the braid in place once it's looped back onto itself.
The tradition of braiding a horse's mane began with hunt horses in the field to keep the mane from getting caught in either the reins or the rider’s hands. It used to be that cold-blooded horses had their manes roached (cut completely off) while thoroughbreds had their mane braided, showing that the horse was a well-bred animal. Traditionally manes were braided on the right side for hunters and either side for dressage horses, and although many no longer adhere to this rule, it is still the standard for show jumpers and eventers. Another tradition in the hunt field regarding braiding was to have an even number of braids for mares and an odd number for stallions and geldings.
Another common braid is the dressage braid, or 'button braid' for dressage horses. Similar to hunter braids, dressage braids are fatter and are tied - again, with yarn - to appear knob-like along the crest of the horse's neck. Often times they're then covered with white (either yarn or tape) for dark horses and black for light-colored horses. This gives a nice, stark contrast.
A neat row of braids - whether hunter or dressage - accentuates the top line of a horse's neck and can help a short neck look longer by putting in many small braids. Conversely, fewer, thicker braids can help make a long neck look shorter. Braiding the horse's mane makes for a very well turned-out animal and can give that final “edge” to a horse's impression in the show ring.
For Quarter horses - whose manes are kept short for showing - it's common to see a banded mane when showing (whether in Western or hunter classes). This gives the horses a finished look and also helps to keep a 4-inch mane lying flat along the neck while the horse is moving.
Braiding the Tail
In regards to tails, for English classes it looks best to French-braid or plait the hair. It adds to the sleekness of the horse (especially if the horse's mane is banded or braided) and also accentuates the hindquarters. For serious competitions, a tight, neat braid is best. Here again you can braid in yarn to secure the end of the braid. Otherwise, for showing in multiple disciplines during one day, we simply weave a looser braid and secure it with a rubber band so it's easier to remove for the Western classes.
Be sure to practice braiding or banding on your horse before you get to the show, and even if you have enough time before your first class, realize that in a strange environment your horse will probably be more lively than he is at home! Many show riders braid or band the night before or early in the morning before reaching the show grounds, to ensure a nicer finish.