Any child’s picture of a horse is recognizable, thanks to four legs, a tail, and of course, the mane. We all know that horses have manes of different lengths and colors, which may be combed out or braided with ribbons for decorative effect. But what purpose does a horse’s mane really serve?
The purpose of a wild horse’s mane is to shield the horse’s neck from predators or during a fight, as well as protecting the horse from insects. Human beings have also bred domestic horses with longer, thicker manes for aesthetic reasons.
The color, length, and style of a domestic horse’s mane are due to a long history of breeding and selection. Read on to learn everything you need to know about horses’ manes.
What’s in a Mane?
A horse’s mane is the hair that grows along the back of the horse’s neck. It is longer than the horse’s coat and might be a different color from the main coat.
The forelock is the hair that grows forward between the horse’s ears and over its eyes like bangs on a human. Many consider the forelock to be part of the mane.
A Mane Comes in Many Forms
Just as different breeds of dogs can be distinguished by their different colors, coat lengths, ear shapes, and so on, a horse’s features, including the length and thickness of its mane, are an indication of its breed.
For example, the Akhal-Teke traditionally sports a short, sparse mane (source), whereas breeds such as the Gypsy Vanner are bred for their exceptionally long, thick manes and tails (source). These ‘hairier’ horses also often have long ‘feathers’ – which are tufts of hair on their lower legs.
The Human Influence
The endangered Mongolian wild horse is considered the only proper wild horse still remaining today (source). It has a short, thick mane that stands upright like the bristles of a brush. Other wild relatives of the horse, such as zebras, also tend to have manes that stand vertically on the neck.
All other horse breeds have been domesticated to various degrees over thousands of years, including mustangs, which are descended from horses that were brought to America by the Spanish conquistadors (source).
This means their appearance has been selected through deliberate breeding by human beings.
In general, humans have bred domestic horses to have manes that lie flat on the neck. The length of the mane varies according to the breed and the role the horse is expected to perform.
The Mane Purpose
The bristly mane of a wild horse serves a function that may help the animal survive attacks and fights. This is very different from the purpose of a domestic horse’s long, silky tresses, which is usually aesthetic and carefully moderated by human breeders and owners.
In wild breeds, a mane probably evolved to serve as a protective feature. Male zebras, which are a relative of the domestic horse, frequently fight over females (source). During these fights, stallions often bite each other’s necks, and the battle can end in death for the losing horse.
A thick, bristly mane may provide some protection from a rival’s teeth. Since predators like lions also aim for an animal’s neck during an attack, a mane may serve to protect the wild horse or zebra to some extent from these predators as well.
In wild animals, including non-equids (species not related to horses, such as antelope), the mane is also used to ward off flies. Zebras and other herbivores can twitch the skin beneath their manes, using the hairs to flick flies and other biting insects away. It’s likely that wild horses used their manes for the same purpose.
To learn more about the characteristics domestic horses have inherited from their wild ancestors, take a look at another striking question, “Why do Horses Eat Poop?”
Finally, a mane may function as a secondary sexual characteristic for wild horses. Secondary sexual characteristics are features that are not directly involved in reproduction but differ between the sexes – for example, a woman’s breasts or a man’s beard and chest hair.
It has been suggested that male horses have thicker manes than female horses (source). In the wild, female horses may use the condition and thickness of the mane as a signal of how healthy a potential mate is.
For example, zebras may appear fat even when they are starving because they store a layer of fat under their manes. When they are short of food, this fat layer will reduce, causing the upright mane to droop, giving away the zebra’s poor condition.
Wild animals experience far more hardship than domestic ones. Fighting with rivals, damage from bushes, and poor nutrition may all ensure that a wild horse’s mane remains short, scarce, or bristly.
Domestic Horse Breeds
Since humans first began to domesticate horses, we have selected particular characteristics for different purposes, initially to enable horses to assist with farm work and other heavy labor they were used for, and later, for show.
For example, the Gypsy Vanner is a draft horse, bred to be strong enough for heavy work, such as pulling a cart, and for its patient temperament. The Arabian is a racing breed, selected for its speed and intelligence.
For show purposes, the appearance of the mane in a particular breed of horse is contained in a breed standard, which also specifies the size, color, markings, temperament, and other characteristics of that breed.
However, all domestic horses have manes that grow more pronounced than those of their wild cousins, which is thought to be due to a particular genetic defect called hypertrichosis (source). Hypertrichosis prevents the shedding of mane and tail hair and allows it to grow much longer.
Not only have horses been bred to grow longer manes, but grooming and styling methods also affect the length and thickness of a particular horse’s mane.
Function or Beauty?
Although the purpose of a horse’s mane today is mostly aesthetic, humans may initially have bred horses with longer manes for a more practical reason. A longer mane provides grip for a human rider, which would have been very useful in the days before saddles, stirrups, and reins.
A longer mane may also have the side effect of keeping a horse’s neck warm, protecting it from insects, and helping rainwater to run off of the neck. Additionally, even domesticated stallions occasionally fight in a very similar way to male zebras, and their manes may then also help protect them from their rivals’ teeth.
Practical considerations play a role in mane grooming and styling as well. For example, police horses and horses that participate in sporting events such as polo often have their manes “roached,” or completely shaved off, to prevent the mane from tangling with a rope or mallet.
For more about the relationship between humans and horses, you can read “How Do Horses Show Affection to Humans?”
The Aesthetic Approach
Breed standards dictate the appearance of a horse’s mane when allowed to grow naturally, but different disciplines of horse riding, sports, and show demand particular styles be applied to the mane. In this sense, a horse’s mane performs a traditional function, upholding the culture and history of the discipline.
Domestic horses’ long manes must be regularly groomed to remove twigs and tangles. Owners of show horses also shampoo and condition their manes, especially in the run-up to a big show. To encourage growth, the mane may be loosely braided, which prevents the hair from breaking.
For sporting events and racing, various kinds of braiding and styling are also customary. For example, “hunter braids” are required for important horseback hunting events, while “button braids” are often necessary for show jumping. When braided, the mane is usually expected to lie on the right side of the neck.
A horse’s mane is also often pulled to thin out the hair and make it easier to style. Contrary to popular belief, this can be painful for the horse, and some experts recommend gentler methods such as using a razor to thin the hair (source).
The long mane that we associate with horses is a product of thousands of years of human selection and breeding, rather than a feature that horses have evolved into in the wild. But manes do perform some functions in both wild and domestic breeds.
A mane may help protect stallions from their rivals’ teeth, and help horses ward off biting insects. But, in domestic horses, the mane plays mostly an aesthetic role.
Human beings find manes so attractive in horses that we celebrate breeds with flowing locks of record length. We now use mane style as a “uniform” for the various disciplines of horse riding.
However short and bristly the mane of a wild horse may be, and however long and luscious the mane on a record-breaking show horse, a horse’s mane is ultimately one of its most characteristic features. Perhaps the most important function of a mane, then, is that it tells us we’re looking at a horse!