Is it Cruel to Pull a Horse's Mane?

Written by Monday, 05 December 2016 17:05

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!

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  • Comment Link Catherine Chattwell Thursday, 12 January 2017 10:37 posted by Catherine Chattwell

    I don't like doing it to our connie, even though he is super mellow. But he doesn't like his face/head touched either for grooming or plating. So that is enough for me to know not to pull his mane.
    I imagine horses are a bit like us. I remember having some hair removal sessions by electrolysis some 10 years ago. My therapist was not impressed with my poor pain threshold and told me most of her clients were on their phones during their sessions and barely noticed anything. I was grabbing the couch tightly, anticipating each electrical pulse.

  • Comment Link Amy Cunnington Tuesday, 03 January 2017 12:53 posted by Amy Cunnington

    I think if people have such sad lives that they find seeing a horse with a natural mane upsetting, then that is their problem! My pony has a mane down past his shoulder which gets him many compliments. I cannot show him because of it though, despite him being a native and supposedly they should be shown natural. It is also on the wrong side which is another absolutely ridiculous thing if you ask me!!! Horse people can be so hilarious! I just love horses for being horses.

  • Comment Link Zoe Tegg Tuesday, 03 January 2017 09:12 posted by Zoe Tegg

    My horse hates having his mane pulled. He's a very amenable horse generally and it is obvious that mane pulling is something he finds incredibly distressing - he will throw his head constantly and slam you against any nearby walls. He has very thick coarse hair, and using a solo comb, or a thinning blade is not an option because there will be thick spiky bits within a week or two which just look ridiculous when it is plaited.
    This past 18 months I have decided to try and let the mane grow long enough for a running plait in the style of native and baroque breeds, but because my boy is ISH x Hannoverian I have encountered great disapproval from dressage judges (despite only competing at prelim level.)
    I have tried pulling just a few hairs each day immediately after exercise but find this just makes him constantly upset and wary every time i go near his mane.
    If your horse is not bothered by the process, or even one of these that appear to find it relaxing, then that's fine, but some horses simply cannot tolerate it. I have had other horseowners at the livery yard express disgust or disbelief that my horse has a long mane, but they have hogged their horses (which is a look I'm not keen on for many horses).

  • Comment Link Amy Cunnington Monday, 02 January 2017 18:41 posted by Amy Cunnington

    I think that some horses appear not to be bothered by mane pulling simply because they are mentally shut down to it. They have displayed a dislike in the past, however subtle and they have been ignored so they simply shut down just as they do in response to being kicked and having a piece of metal in their mouths. When you watch the terriers at crufts before in between their classes thy are just the same. The groomers constantly pluck away and the dogs stand perfectly still with a glazed expression, poor things know there is no point in doing anything else.

  • Comment Link Shirley Verhoef Monday, 02 January 2017 16:26 posted by Shirley Verhoef

    The thing is that the horse should be warm from exercise. But the most important thing is that you take only a few hairs at a time; not a big bunch as I have seen done. It might take two times to get it all done. Of course it won't work with Thelwell type Pony manes.

  • Comment Link Megan McCusker Thursday, 08 December 2016 22:18 posted by Megan McCusker

    Interesting topic :) I think if you try to be as sympathetic as possible it isn't necessarily painful, it's sometimes just the quick pulling movements that they feel uncomfortable with and perhaps this startles some horses? I think you're rights it's different for every horsey :)