Lots of Locks

Braiding and bagging the mane and tail provides protection to the individual hair shafts and can reduce hair loss from environmental causes. However, braids that are too tight or left in too long will begin to experience frictional damage. The tensile strength of hair is the maximum amount it can be stretched before breaking. A full mane may require as many as 8 to 10 braids to allow the horse to put its head down without putting tension on the braids. Some cuticle damage is inevitable when using rubber bands or ponytail fasteners. Locating these items as near to the bottom of the braid as possible and take care when removing them will minimize this damage. To avoid further damage resulting from tangles, always remove the braid by untwisting the hair from the bottom and work up.

Biological factors can also play a role in the health of the hair, particularly when it comes to the tail. Many horses rub their tails in response to itching. The result can be significant hair breakage around the tail head. A regular deworming program aimed at eliminating pinworms may help reduce the itching and lessen tail rubbing. Sanitizing feed tubs and other places where the horse has rubbed will also reduce the possibility of reinfestation. Mites, however, may also be the culprit. To check for mites, wipe the tail with a dark cloth. The mites will appear as tiny white spots underneath a magnifying glass. The buildup of smegma in the sheath of male horses and between the udders of mares has also been identified as a cause of tail rubbing.

Are you envious when you look at a picture of a gorgeous horse with a long flowing mane and tail? Have you ever wondered if your horse could sport that type of hair? Chances are, if you've googled how to grow and care for a horse's mane and tail, you would have found a multitude of ads for horse hair care products. You may have even tried a few. But growing and caring for a long mane and tail requires more than an arsenal of shampoos, conditioners and detanglers. It takes a basic understanding of the mechanical process of hair growth and structure.

For starters, a horse's predisposition to growing a long mane and tail is determined, in part, by genetics. A British study, that looked at the growth rate of the mane and tail, found that the manes and tails of native pony breeds grew faster than those of English Thoroughbreds. Other factors that contribute to the appearance of the mane and tail, such as the total number of hair strands or the coarseness of the hair, are also controlled by the horse's genes. There is no doubt that some breeds, like the Andalusian and Friesian, have a greater genetic capacity for fuller, longer manes and tails.

This doesn't mean that your horse can't grow beautiful locks and tresses. But it does mean that you may have to work a little harder to achieve your horse's peak genetic potential. So let's take a look at the science behind hair growth and apply that knowledge to basic techniques of hair care. And before you know it, your horse can have that gorgeous mane and tail you've always dreamed about!

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The remaining components of hair include water, lipids (fats), melanins (pigment) and inorganic minerals. These elements are incorporated into the structure of the hair to provide hydration, coloring and strength. There is also an intricate balance of vitamins and minerals that play a role in hair growth. These include phosphorus, iodine, zinc, and vitamins A and E. Dietary deficiencies of these nutrients or protein are associated with poor hair quality or hair loss.

While a balanced diet is essential for the growth of healthy hair, supplementing an already balanced diet is not likely to produce better results. In some cases, excesses of nutrients will lead to hair breakage and loss. In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain areas, horses that graze on selenium-rich plants will often exhibit a loss of mane and tail hair as one of the first symptoms of excess selenium intake. Excess dietary selenium replaces sulfur during the production of keratin. This produces less stable bonds and substantially weakens the hair shafts.

Likewise, biotin (vitamin b7) is often marketed as an ingredient in hoof and hair supplements. Although biotin is used in the production of keratin, scientific studies have not conclusively proven that adding this particular B vitamin to an already balanced ration will improve hair quality in horses. Not only is biotin readily available in grass, hay and oats, it's also synthesized internally by the horse's body. Biotin deficiencies have not been identified in horses. 


Over time, physical and environmental factors can chip away at the surface of the cuticle resulting in the loss of the cells or scales. When this happens, small holes form in the cuticle. As the cortex becomes porous, moisture escapes from the inner layers of the hair shaft. Dry, brittle hair is the telltale sign of damaged cuticles.

Once damaged, the cuticle can never repair itself. As it becomes weaker, more of the cortex is exposed and the sulfur bonds that hold the keratin together weaken and break. Luckily, there are many steps equestrians can take to prevent cuticle damage and hair loss.

Environmental damage comes from more than just the wind and the sun. Fences and protruding nails can snag hair and pull it out. Certain plants, such as burrs, can tangle in the hair while thorny bushes can catch the hair as the horse grazes. Blankets and tack can also rub the hair. Reducing this type of damage involves finding theses areas in the horse's environment and correcting them whenever possible. 

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As humans, we often consider the horse's mane and tail to be aesthetic characteristics of the animal. Seldom do we realize that these attributes also have a function for the horse. For instance, the mane and forelock shed rain water away from the head and the major blood vessels that feed the brain. The tail is the horse's primary defense against flying external parasites. As such, we must remember that exposure to the elements, swishing at flies, and even rubbing from tack can damage the hair. 

​Since it can take a year or more for the mane and tail to grow to a desirable length, preventing breakage is essential if we have any hope for thick, healthy looking locks. To understand how breakage happens, we need to look at the three structural components or layers of the hair shaft.

The medulla and the cortex are the two inner layers of the hair. The medulla consists of loosely packed, rectangular cells that can shrink when dehydrated. This can result in hollow spots in the center of the hair shaft. The cortex surrounds the medulla and is primarily made up of keratin. These protein structures provide mechanical strength to the hair. The cortex also houses melanin granules that are the pigments that determine the hair's color. 

The outermost layer of the hair shaft is the cuticle. It consists of overlapping cells, much like the scales on a fish. The primary function of the cuticle is protection. Not only does the cuticle prevents the inner layers of the hair shaft from physical damage, but it is believed the cuticle is a waterproof layer that keeps the hair shaft from dehydrating. The key to preventing hair breakage, and thus allowing the mane and tail to grow long, is to assist the cuticle in its effort to protect the medulla and cortex. 

Unfortunately, even carefully protecting the hair won't eliminate the natural aging process. The surface of the hair shaft is coated with a thin hydro-lipid layer or sebum. This natural conditioner protects the hair from moisture loss, makes it more elastic and helps preserve the cuticle's scales. It also gives the hair it shiny or glossy appearance. It's natural for the lipid layer to become thinner and the scales to weaken over time. This is why the hair toward the ends of the shaft tends to be dryer.

Frequent washing or the use of heavy detergents will speed up this process of scale loss by drying and removing the lipid layer. Shampoos containing harsh chemicals, such as sodium lauryl sulphate, break down the oils and fats that coat the hair. These chemicals are effective cleaning agents as dirt sticks to the oily residue found on the hair. Likewise, bluing shampoos that are designed to whiten urine-stained tails work by opening up the cuticle layer and dying the hair shaft blue. This makes the hair appear whiter, but can result in a purple or blue colored tail if these products are left on for too long.

Whenever cleaning or bluing products are used on the mane and tail, it's essential to rehydrate and condition the hair. Conditioning shampoos, conditioners and detanglers contain a variety of ingredients that are used to coat the hair and fill in the holes or porous areas that occur where cuticle scales are missing. While these products are easily washed away, they do provide a temporary fix for a damaged cuticle and allow the hair shaft to function normally. Common conditioning ingredients include proteins (panthanol), oils and silicone (dimethicone and cyclomethicone).

Providing a balanced diet containing high quality protein, protecting the mane and tail from physical damage and reading hair care product labels is the scientific way to care for your horse's mane and tail. Most importantly, keeping the mane and tail cleaner will result in less frequent shampooing and working to reduce tangles will result in less breakage. Growing a longer, healthier mane and tail can be as simple as changing a couple management routines. And before long, your horse will have that long and lush mane and tail you've been dreaming about. And who knows, maybe your horse will even become the envy of other equestrians!

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The shaft is composed of three layers.

A British study concluded that hair grows faster at the poll than at the withers.




Hair growth originates in the hair follicles, which are located in the three layers that comprise the skin. The process of hair growth occurs in the bottom of the follicle as the living cells continually divide and push the older, dying cells toward the surface of the skin. As the hair grows, the hair shaft lengthens and continues to emerge from the skin. Thus, the newly formed part of the hair shaft is closest to the body while the oldest hair is found near the ends.

Each hair follicle is a living organ that requires a variety of nutrients for both maintenance and growth. These nutrients come from the horse's diet. Providing a balanced diet over the course of many months is essential for producing mane and tail hair that is healthy from root to tip.

Protein is the most abundant substance in hair, counting for 80 to 85% of its structural composition. Much of this protein is in the form of keratin, an extremely strong protein structure comprised of amino acid chains held together by sulfur molecules. Keratin is found in the hair, hooves and skin of horses. As much as 25% of the horse's daily protein requirement is used for the formation of keratin.