Monday, June 18, 2012

What 'hairstyle' your horse prefers?

Natalija Aleksandrova

Have you ever thought on the fact that the horse's tail, mane and forelock aren't there only for pleasing the humans eyes? That when we selfishly cut, pull, or fully remove the mane and forelock of our horses, shorten and pull their tails, we are actually removing one of their natural defenses?

The mane is an important factor of the horse's thermoregulation mechanism in a colder time of year. Horses grow a thicker mane before winter, and change it to thinner one before summer, just like they change their summer and winter coat. We can see the naturally thicker and better growing manes and forelocks in the native north horse breeds. Also we see the thicker manes in pony breeds who, due to specifics of the thermoregulation mechanisms (their greater body surface to body weight ratio, "Thermoregulation in horses in a cold time or year", N. Aleksandrova) need a thicker hair layer to keep the internal body temperature in a proper range. In horses with underdeveloped, atrophied neck muscles, indicating problems with blood circulation there, with chronically tensed neck muscles, the mane is especially important in keeping the neck warm in winter.

Throughout a year, the mane helps to insulate the head and the major blood vessels to the brain (Pilliner and Davies, 1996), not allowing the blood to cool down on its way to the brain in winter and preserving it from overheating in summer. This way it helps to keep the temperature in the brain in a narrow range needed for the chemical reactions on the cellular level function properly.

In summer, the mane along with the tail become important instruments in defending against insects. The forelock is extremely important in the summer because it also protects the eyes of the animal against getting infected and sore from flies, dust particles, mold and spores. The longer the tail, the more effective it is in the protection against the insects — more body areas it covers, and especially important it can reach better the underbelly and sheath, which are especially loved by the insects.

On windy, rainy summer and snowy winter days, when horses take the typical protective position standing with their tails to the wind with their heads low, their manes and fetlocks effectively protect their necks, heads, ears and eyes from water, snow and wind. The water and melting snow run down by the long mane and fetlock hair, not getting to the skin and the eyes. Different length of hair in the mane with longer one in the middle of the neck has its role too, making a better protective layer against running water. While the tail serve to protect the animal's rear end — the shorter hairs on the dock fan out deflecting water, snow and wind, helping to keep underbelly and sheaths dry and warm.

It is unnatural for the horse to have her mane to go only on one side of the neck. In wild horses and in properly kept healthy domestic horses, we can see usually the whole mane or parts of it go on both sides of the neck, or it changes its side from moment to moment. It is not only beneficial for the protective reasons, it also shows that neck muscles are developed evenly. In many domestic horses, the mane laying perfectly on one side of the neck isn't only a result of the human's perception of beauty, but also a sign of muscles developed more on one side through unnatural keeping and usage of these animals, when their natural asymmetry turns into unnatural over-developed one.

Stallions usually have naturally thicker manes. When stallions fight they bite each other's necks and their manes act like a sort of armor.

Wild and domestic horses kept naturally can take perfect care of their manes, forelocks and tales by themselves. They may rub against trees or fences, or groom in each other's mane when they feel it is a time to 'touch up' their 'haircuts'. Horses surely know better than we what 'hairstyle' suits them the best.

Photos Berenika Bratny, Zbigniew Wroblewski

Photo © The Cloud Foundation

Photo Helmut Hussman
Pilliner, S., and Z. Davies. 1996. Equine Science, Health and Performance. Blackwell Science, London.

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