Pulling a horse's mane, as most of you I'm sure already know, basically involves pulling out sections of hair using a small metal comb, in order to make it shorter, thinner and neater. And I can't deny it, I think a horse with a well pulled name looks extremely smart, and of course, it makes plaiting easier too. However, there is also no denying that some horses really dislike having this done; my old horse used to get all fidgety as soon as he caught a glimpse of the mane comb, and would stick his head in the air like a giraffe so I couldn’t reach. But, can we really blame them? I mean we know all too well how painful having our hair pulled or yanked can be, particularly if the perpetrator comes away with a fistful of hair, which begs the question - does pulling a horse’s mane cause enough unnecessary discomfort to deem it cruel?
Whilst horses have far thicker skins than humans, it is also commonly thought by some that horses do not have nerve follicles in their hair which means that pulling it doesn’t hurt. However, vets have pointed out that actually, this isn’t the case, and horses have sensory nerves at the ends of their hair just like we do. This means that they are bound to feel some kind of discomfort from having their manes pulled, especially when large amounts of hair are removed in one go. 'DUH' says my horse,'that's what I was trying to tell you!'
But just to be sure, a study was carried out recently by student Louise Nicholls who looked in to the effects of having the mane pulled on a horse’s heart rate. Taking a survey of 20 horses, Louise found that the heart rate rose significantly when the mane was being pulled as opposed to when it was just being touched by a human, an obvious sign of increased stress. Similarly, the body language of these horses changed when their manes were being pulled, with many of them exhibiting clear signs of discomfort such as putting their ears back, bracing themselves and swishing their tails. These results highlighted that mane pulling was definitely something that caused stress to these horses, and was certainly not by any means as relaxing for them as other kinds of grooming.
However, there do seem to be horses who don’t seem bothered by it at all, and appear happy to have their hair pulled out. To me, the effect of mane pulling is very personal to the horse. Some clearly hate the feeling and are scared of it – it could well be that this is due to a bad experience in the past with someone doing it too aggressively, so now the horse is anticipating a similar kind of pain. Others do not seem bothered, especially when it is done gently and carefully.
In order to minimise discomfort and stress caused by pulling the mane, it is suggested that you begin at the bottom, by the withers, and work upwards towards the poll. The same study by Louise Nicholls found the heart rates of horses were significantly higher when the mane pulling began by the poll and worked downwards rather than the other way around. Also, it is better to pull the mane when the horse is warm, such as after exercise. This is because the horse’s pores open up when their temperature rises, meaning that the hair can be removed from the follicle with less force. It is also suggested that rather than spending hours on end pulling a mane, you do it in small sections over a period of time. This way, you can avoid the likelihood of it becoming a stressful experience.
Having said all that, there are alternatives to pulling the mane, full stop. Whilst cutting a mane with scissors is tricky and can risk making your horse or pony look like you did as a kid after your mum had cut your hair, there are some special trimming tools on the market such as the ‘Solocomb’ that combines a comb with a blade to shorten and thin hair it in a way that doesn’t cause discomfort. Using a grooming tool like this can make the whole experience much less stressful for both of you and that can only be a good thing, right?
What are your thoughts on pulling manes? Does your horse dislike it? Do you think it's cruel? Do alternative tools do as good a job? I would love to hear your opinion and of course any tips!