Horses are majestic, noble animals who are also highly intelligent and very sociable. These characteristics (along with their general usefulness for travel or labor) led to a long and fruitful relationship with humans, who have been breeding horses for a very, very long time. In that long history, we came up with some interesting grooming techniques for the horses.
Braiding a horse's mane or tail is a practice that dates back centuries. As horses became the primary mode of transportation, braiding or plaiting their mane was a way to prevent it from getting excessively tangled up and/or getting ensnared in items like a soldier's musket. It's also a great way to preserve the health of the horse's hair.
Some of the earliest references to horse braiding come from European folklore, where it was thought that fairies would sneak into the stables at night to tie "elf knots" in the mane.
These tangles supposedly served as makeshift stirrups for the fairies to ride the horses with at night.
Another old story states that knots in a horse's hair were a way for thieves to mark a horse they intended to steal.
In reality, however, horse manes and tails get knotted from a variety of natural causes (as does human hair if not properly maintained). All horses have natural oils that help keep hair from getting too tangly, but a horse in the wild will still get pretty knotted up. That's why stable horses must be brushed and cleaned almost daily.
Braiding and plaiting are a very practical and effective way of keeping hair from tangling.
Plaited horses were even immortalized in literature by Sir William Shakespeare himself, who wrote the following in Romeo and Juliet: "That plaits the manes of horses in the night. And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs. Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes."
These days, plaits and braids are most popularly seen during equestrian shows. The style of braid or plait depends on the horse, the event/competition rules and the overall equestrian discipline of its owner. There are so many variations though that personal preference also plays somewhat of a role.
Certain breeds known for their long, free-flowing manes are supposed to be presented without braids, and for these horses in particular, the braid is more part of day-to-day life to keep those long locks from breaking. Other competitions like Halter and Showmanship require a more "polished" look.
The popular "Hunter" braid uses yarn in a color that matches the horse. This type of braid goes back to the times of prepping a horse for a traditional fox hunt.
"Button" braids are used in dressage events. These are more complicated and usually need a needle and thread.
The "Running" braid is an elaborate French style of braid that is plaited along the length of the horse's neck. This is best suited for horses with very long, thick manes.
The "Continental" braid is a woven pattern that almost reminds me of a wool blanket. It's also meant primarily for horse's with abundant manes.
If braiding your horse's mane sounds a little too complicated for you, there are braiding kits available for purchase online. There are also professional braiders that you could hire.
As with human hair, there are a lot of ways to style a horse's mane. The looks seen here are just a small sample of how many kinds of possible braids and plaits there are out there. Be bold and experiment.