Even professional braiders admit it: Braiding is a challenge. The most seasoned show horses will frequently rub their braids, the horse show’s schedule can be fickle and unpredictable, and young horses have little tolerance for the tedious braiding process — and that’s assuming you’ve already perfected your technique.
Braiders are constantly fighting an uphill battle, which is why we’ve attempted to level the playing field by testing products designed to improve, facilitate and speed up the braiding process. We tested a variety of different kinds of products in our trial, including: tools, shampoo, antiseptic and anti-rub products, yarn and bands and even a how-to video. Our question was always the same: Does this product make braiding easier'
Products were tested on a variety of different horses with different textures of mane, and our anti-itch products and wound salves were tested on horses that had a proven tendency to rub their braids or who had the skin conditions listed on the labels. Our testers used these products in conjunction with a professional braider, who incorporated them into her regular braiding routine.
Before You Braid
Besides pulling and shortening your horse’s mane to the appropriate length and thickness, you may think there’s little you can do to improve a mane’s texture for braiding. The adage that a dirty mane is easier to braid, however, is ready to be put to rest. We found that Lucky Braids by Ruthann Shampoo actually improves the texture of the mane and tail for braiding by adding conditioning agents that help to repair damage and detangle the hair. Aloe vera adds natural texture and grip to the mane, so it can be braided directly after washing. It also reduces drying and discomfort in the hair — a common side effect of a dirty mane — that can encourage the horse to rub.
Of course, your routine and materials will vary slightly depending on your disciple and whether you are banding, braiding, or mane training; braiding hunter-style or making button braids. In general, the necessary tools for a hunter braiding kit are yarn, a comb, a latch hook, scissors and a seam ripper. Certainly, there are ways to add to this list — a braiding clip to hold back hair and a hair separator comb, to help section off the hair, are two common examples. And while we tried some variations on tools such as the seam ripper and latch hook, in general, we did not find the newer products on the market to be as effective at removing or pulling up braids as the classics. If you’re starting from scratch, stick to the basics — or kits that include them.
One kit we recommend is Lucky Braids by Ruthann’s Essential Braiding Tools. The basic tools — a latch hook and scissors — are attached to a strap which increases the braider’s ability to braid quickly and safely, since he or she doesn’t need to worry about dropping tools or leaving them in the mane of a startled horse who is pulling back in its crossties.
Many professional braiders have rigged similar devices to increase their braiding efficiency, since sturdy tools at the ready are a priceless commodity for time-pressed braiders.
We were also impressed with Lucky Braids by Ruthann’s Yarn, which offers everything a braider looks for in a braiding material. Many pro braiders seek out the strongest yarn they can find, such as rug yarn, since nothing is more frustrating to a braider than breaking a strand mid-braid.
Rug yarn, however, can be harsh on a braider’s hands and being thick in texture, creates knots that can be difficult to hide behind braids. Lucky Braids yarn is easy on the hands and remarkably strong — we couldn’t break it when we tried! But it is also thin and creates knots that are practically invisible when made correctly.
Finally, spray and mousse braiding aids, designed to increase the braider’s ability to grip the mane and contain stray hairs, also have their place in the braiding regimen — though not without controversy (see sidebar). We thought that spray products such as Exhibitor’s Quic Braid and Mane 'n Tail Spray 'n Braid were especially useful for younger braiders, who can use the added control and braid-tension that they provide.
Any frequent braider knows that preventing some horses from rubbing their braids can be an impossible task. We were intrigued by the J??z Mane and Tail Therapy products in our trial, which helped lessen discomfort in braided horses without using ingredients such as steroids and antihistamines, which are illegal in the show ring. These products didn’t stop rubbing in horses that were notorious for doing so, but they seemed to lessen the intensity. We also felt that J??z Braid Therapy, in particular, helped our braided horses to feel more comfortable, especially before pulling and during consecutive days of being braided.
If you’re looking to kick off your braiding career — be it as an amateur or a professional — you can’t go wrong with Lucky Braids by Ruthann’s Better Braiding Video and Essential Tools Kit.
For actual braiding materials, our favorite product was Lucky Braids Yarn. It’s strong but thin and easy to work with. Colors work beautifully.
Our best-buy pick is Exhibitor’s Quic Braid, which uses a light resin to impart a grip in the hair that is tough to beat. As a braiding aid, it levels the playing field, since even younger braiders can use it to create the kind of tension and tightness in their braids that are essential to a good, final look.