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How To Pull A Mane Properly

By Jeffrey Rolo

In another article entitled Mane Pulling: Could The Practice Be Harmful we reviewed some of the pros and cons of pulling a horse's mane, so if you haven't already it may be worth giving it a quick review first before moving onto this one.

Although pulling a mane isn't difficult, per se, it does require a certain level of patience and skill, so first I'll outline the procedure to follow when pulling a mane, followed by some advice on how to pull a mane with a minimum of discomfort or fuss.

  1. Ensure the mane is not tangled by combing it thoroughly first, because in order to ensure consistency the mane must be lying down flatly and evenly. If you need to use a detangler to remove any tangles, I recommend that you not pull the mane that same day. You don't want to pull a filthy, tangled mane, but you also don't want to pull a sleek, recently bathed mane either since a slippery mane makes the process more difficult. You want the bit of "grip" afforded by dust, sweat and oils.

  2. Work on the mane a section at a time. Each section should be a few inches in width, preferably 3-4. Many prefer to start at the top of the mane near the ears and work their way down, but this is not mandatory. You can start at the top, start at the bottom, or even bounce around at will.

  3. Grab the bottom of a section of mane with your left hand and hold the ends firmly. If the mane has hairs of multiple lengths and your goal is shortening, try to focus your grip on the longest hairs. Gently but firmly stretch the length of mane you grabbed towards you.

  4. With your right hand, use a regular comb and backcomb most of the mane upwards until you are holding just a few ends with your left hand. If you are new to mane pulling, I recommend you leave 2-4 hairs in your left hand. Once you become proficient with pulling, you can increase this quantity, but I wouldn't recommend more than 7-10.

  5. Wrap the few hairs you are still clinging with your left hand around your left index finger, then give it a sharp tug downwards. While you're tugging with your left hand, you should be supporting the crest with your right. If the mane hairs don't come out, or your horse shows serious discomfort, you probably attempted to pull too many hairs at once.

  6. Move down the mane, targeting the longest lengths of hair in each section. Depending in the length and thickness of your horse's mane, this process may take a few days.

And there you have it: how to pull a mane. (Obviously if you are left-handed, you would follow the same process, but reverse the roles of each hand.)

This is one of those procedures that is easy to learn but takes a bit of time to master. The process itself is simple, but it's important that you start slow and get a feel for how to perform the mane pulling quickly and with minimal discomfort before increasing the speed or quantity of hairs pulled during each yank.

Here are a few more miscellaneous pieces of advice regarding mane pulling that you should keep in mind:

bulletDon't pull a mane when your horse is cold. The cold tightens pores, while warmth opens them up. So to minimize pain and discomfort, it is advised that you pull a horse's mane after a rigorous exercise session, since hair will provide the least resistance at that point.
bulletMane pulling will not be finished in one session, so don't rush. It's a slow and steady process, and requires patience. If you attempt to pull the entirety of a mane in one session, your horse may become too fidgety or suffer boredom, which will turn the pulling into an even bigger negative experience than it already is.

On a related note, the best jobs will be those that take place over the course of a week, if not a bit longer. Ideally you should pull the mane a bit and then give it a few days to settle. Study the mane again and pull more hair as needed. When you try to pull all the hair at once, sometimes you can pull too much out, or find that it settles unevenly once you've finished. Slow and steady wins the race.
bulletIf your horse has a very long mane, some horse owners would recommend you first cut the mane with scissors before starting the pulling process. This can defeat the purpose of mane pulling by creating a straight line, so if you must cut some length before pulling then treat it like a hairdresser rather than a carpenter.

Instead of cutting horizontally, as most people would do, cut at a vertical diagonal in a left/right/left/right process. It will take a bit of practice to get comfortable doing this, and it will take more time, but by cutting a mane upwards rather than across, you'll allow the mane to retain its slightly uneven lengths (which is very helpful when pulling).
bulletMane pulling can be difficult on the left hand, to the point where the hair can eventually dig into your skin or cause blisters. One way to avoid this is using a pulling comb, whereby the comb does the wrapping/pulling action. I personally dislike this method I feel the hands give you more direct control over how many hairs are pulled. (As you'll see in the article Grooming For Glamour - Mane And Tail, I'm such a fan of hand control that I even do much of my mane maintenance/grooming using my hands rather than a comb.)

If you want to protect your hand without resorting to a pulling comb, consider using a glove. Although you can use a riding glove, you may find any "normal" glove to be a bit too cumbersome for such a meticulous process. For that reason, I'd recommend purchasing a pack of disposable sanitary gloves. They'll give you the protection you need without hindering your flexibility and nimbleness.
bulletFind ways to minimize fidgeting, since it can make your job a whole lot harder. Hanging a hay bag near his head is a great way to distract your horse during the process. Another good trick is to position your horse against a wall such that he really doesn't have room to sway back and forth. It's more difficult to pull a mane when your horse has an open space.
bulletIf your horse has a thin mane, pulling is obviously not advisable to control length. Stick with scissors, and remember to cut like a hairdresser as mentioned above. Similarly, if you want to shorten a mane but retain its current thickness, avoid pulling since it inevitably thins out a mane. Instead look into using some double-edged thinning scissors. You'll lose the length and thin out bottom of the mane (thereby giving it an uneven natural look) while retaining the overall thickness.
bulletOn a related note, people averse to pulling are often tempted to use thinning shears or bladed pulling combs (which cuts strands of hair rather than yanks them out). Both options can work for immediate effect, but they will cause spiky hairs to erupt a couple weeks down the road as the hair grows back. If you are grooming for a photo shoot or single show and don't mind the spiky hair growth later, this is a perfect option. If you want consistency over the long-term, mane pulling will provide a better result.
bulletOften horse owners will advise you to apply an ointment or liniment to the crest of the mane in order to numb the area out before pulling. I strongly disagree with this advice. Don't try to mask the pain and therefore justify poor work, because if you're causing significant discomfort or minor blood loss, you're doing it completely wrong!

Pulling a horse's mane is not going to be comfortable for your horse no matter what you do, but there's a difference between mild discomfort and outright pain/flinching. If you pull a few hairs at a time quickly and properly, it would be akin to you pulling a couple hairs out of your head you'll feel the tug, but it won't actually "hurt." On the other hand, if you prolong the yanking process or attempt to pull out too many hairs in one swipe, suddenly it stings!

If your horse fidgets, it's likely due to boredom or a response to the tugging motion, not actual pain. When outright pain is felt, you either didn't loosen the pores properly or you're pulling too many hairs out in a single swipe. Slow it down.
bulletBoredom is the enemy. Try to be quick, and do a session daily as needed rather than attempt to perform a complete mane pulling in one session. Don't wait until the day before a horse show to pull a horse's mane.
bulletSome horses are simply more sensitive than others. If your horse finds the experience painful or stressing no matter how careful you are, consider finding another approach. Learn how to mimic a textured natural look via the use of scissors and thinning shears. It may not be as ideal in the end, but it's not fair to our equine partners to inflict too much discomfort in the name of vanity.

Learning how to pull a mane is the easy part; the challenge lies in how to do it correctly. The above tips, combined with patience, experience and an eventual practiced eye, will allow you to start pulling a horse's mane with absolute accuracy and ease.

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