Braiding is something that people can either do or they can’t. We’ve seen people spend hours braiding a mane and it looks awful before they’ve even finished, while someone else can speed though in 30 minutes and it looks fine all show weekend.
Good braiding doesn’t even seem to be something that can be taught. We talked to several professional braiders who all said they just sort of learned on their own by doing. But if you’re only braiding your own horse once or twice a month through a show season, you may not get enough practice to perfect your technique.
There are several ways you can pick up some tips that can improve your braids. The next time you’re at a show with stabling, take some time to just stand and watch someone who knows what they’re doing. Ask questions — they’ll have plenty of time to talk while they work. Then practice, practice, practice.
If you want to see the real pros at hunter shows, you’ll have to get up very early or stay up very late. They work at night, since they have to have 10 to 20 horses and ponies ready for the ring by 8 a.m. Krista Hunter of Annapolis, Md., braids hunters at major Eastern shows. She said it takes her about an hour per horse (mane and tail), and she does 10 horses a night, although some braiders may do as many as 20 or 30. “Each one has their own short cuts and style,” she said.
Professional braiders are becoming harder to find, since the hours are tough and long. Some horses at rated shows now are being left braided for several days, which used to be rare. A person with an aptitude for braiding can pick up some quick money if they show up at the right time.
We found one videotape that can almost duplicate the experience of learning how to braid while watching an experienced braider. “Braider’s Friend” was filmed by Susan Friend of Lake View Terrace, Calif., who is a professional groom. She gives clear instructions about how to prepare a mane for braiding and then how to proceed braiding step by step.
Friend has also produced a handy waist pack with separate pockets for all the tools someone should need for braiding: Bottles containing hair spray and finishing spray plus an extra sprayer for water, scissors, rug hook, seam ripper, hair clip, marked pulling comb, and yarn (choice of chestnut, black or white). The waist kit costs $34.95, the video $24.95, plus shipping/handling.
Except for the finishing spray and pulling comb, you can pretty much buy everything you need to braid at a discount store, although you may do a lot of trekking around to find them. You also need something to hold them and a portable stepstool. There are a few other items that you can find at the tack store.
One of the most useful is Quic Braid, from Exhibitor’s Lab ($8.98/16 oz.; $22.95/64 oz.). This spray gives some grip to the mane hair without being sticky, so it makes the actual process of braiding much easier — it’s one of the few commercial products used consistently by pro braiders. It can also be used to help train a mane to lie flat. One tester’s horse that was inclined to rub its braided tail didn’t do so when Quic Braid was used.
Tips for sewn braids:
Mane should be pulled even and thin, usually about just past your knuckles.
To keep the braids even, use a marked comb, start from the top and keep the neck low when you get to the base.
Stand as close as possible to the horse and use a step stool so you can look down.
Spray the top and bottom of the mane with water and then with Quic Braid or hair spray.
Spray on hair spray when you’re done and then finishing spray like Show Sheen so that bedding and dirt won’t stick to the braids and they’ll be more likely to last the weekend. Never spray your horse’s mane with a finishing spray BEFORE you braid it — it will become too slippery to handle.
While hunter braids at rated shows are always sewn in, you may find braids done with rubber bands at schooling shows, dressage shows and combined training events. Braiding with rubber bands can be quicker than sewing braids in with yarn, and of course there’s less technique involved.
However, it’s almost impossible to get the braids to lie perfectly flat unless the mane is very short to begin with and they’ll come loose more easily. Plastic bags of bands should also not be left out in the sun because over time they’ll lose their integrity and become more likely to break when they’re used.
We braided with rubber bands from Healthy HairCare that come in ?? pound bags in black, white, gray, red and brown for $4.50. The bands seemed easy to handle and stronger than some other bands we’ve tried. Healthy HairCare sells bags to hold the bands plus other braiding supplies in 10 colors for $11.95. They’ve also adapted a traditional paper cutter for use as a braid ripper ($2), and some of our testers felt it was less likely to cut hair than the traditional seam ripper when taking braids down.
White adhesive drug-store tape is used at dressage shows to enhance braids done with either yarn or rubber bands. In fact, you can even braid with just tape if you’re really in a hurry. However, if the basic braiding job is messy or uneven, adding tape won’t help matters and will even emphasize your braiding mistakes.
Here’s a rule of thumb for how long you can get braids to last: With just tape, your braids will self destruct 10 minutes after your second class; use rubber bands and tape and your braids should last all day; with yarn and tape your braids should last all weekend.
Tips with tape:
Cut five or six lengths at a time and stick the ends on your shirt front so you don’t have to keep picking up and putting down the tape and your scissors.
Buy fresh tape every couple of months or else store it in your house. If it sits in your braiding box through heat and humidity for very long, the tape can lose some of its “stick.”
Rather than rebraiding the second morning, fresh tape placed over the old tape can get loose hairs back in place or spruce up any tape that has gotten dirty.
If you like to braid with tape and have a friend traveling to Germany, see if they can pick you up rolls of a no-brand braiding tape available there. It’s thinner and stickier than drug store adhesive tape. It can also be found in the Dressage Extensions catalog (800/541-3708) and stores that carry dressage accessories.
Grooma Bandettes from White Horse Trading Co. are reusable plastic coils that have the look of white tape, but brighter. They’re sold in bags of 20 for $6.95.
These go on quite easily and don’t get dirty like tape can. However, they should be used with rubber bands or with yarn braids that are fairly long. Because they are wider and stiffer than tape, they can cause a braid to stick out at an unwanted angle if the braid isn’t tight to begin with.
Contact your local tack store or: Exhibitor Labs, Inc. Quic Braid 800/377-7963; Braider’s Friend (Grooming By A Friend), 888/565-1656; Healthy HairCare 800/253-0286; White Horse Trading Co. Grooma Bandettes 800/531-9632.