Erin Critz relays the story of how it only took her two decades and a discipline change to learn out how plait a mane.
Moving to a new discipline after a life time in another means that you spend a lot of time refreshing and updating your existing skill set and re-training your eye to assess and appreciate the nuances and differences. I’ve grown to love skull caps and full-seats, but I’m struggling to let go of the past when it comes to braids.
I grew up back in the day of the AHSA, Navajo pads, white rubber reins, Ulster boots and clincher browbands. My amazing Aunt Merry was (and still is!) my Fairy Godmother and intrepid guide when it came to all things Equine. She made sure that I had horses that were safe, sane and appropriate for my level. She made sure I was appropriately attired, that my mother was well educated as to what we needed to look for in a trainer and that my father (her brother) was at least somewhat prepared for what this whole adventure would cost.
I was lucky in that I wasn’t thrust in to an A-Circuit barn straight out of the gate as I was able to learn some skills that many of my friends never did — how to wrap, how to pull a mane, etc– and some degree of independence. However, one of the things I was never able to master was braiding. I wasn’t just bad at braiding, it was a cataclysmic failure of epic proportions. My best braid-jobs were train-wrecks that took hours to accomplish. The worst took even longer and looked like mutant mushroom growths sprouting from my poor saintly pony’s neck.
Fortunately, between the ages of 8 and 12, I was primarily going to unrated, one-day shows where braiding was not required. When I went to the occasional rated show it was a time to splurge and so we paid for a professional to work their magic. It came out much better.
My equitation may have been lacking and my sleeves too short, but those are some FANCY braids!
I remember visiting my Aunt in Washington one summer and demanding she show me the arcane sorcery behind proper braiding. I was embarrassed by my ghetto fabulous rubber band braids and wanted to learn the technique behind putting in a million perfect little braids. I had a braiding kit, with a pulling comb, a three-pronged comb and these other strange tools that seemed completely unrelated to the task at hand. From these tools, I surmised that in addition to yarn there must be some sort of dark magic involved.
I watched attentively while she knocked out three perfect little braids in a matter of minutes. The yarn was woven in with the braid, knotted around the end, pulled up through the top of the braid with one of the weird tools, then the yarn did some sort of wrap-around voodoo knot-move that turned it in to a pretty little braid flush with the horse’s neck. It looked easy enough. I tried my hand at it and none of my braids came out looking anything like braids should look. They were twisted, uneven and lumpy with stray hairs popping out all over the place. I made a sour face and my aunt made a conciliatory statement along the lines of “You’ve got the steps down, but it takes practice. You’ll get it eventually!”
After that summer I would find myself periodically finding the urge to practice braiding, but always ended up discouraged. After we moved to Pebble Beach I was exclusively doing rated shows and paying the braider $65 each night that my horse needed to be re-braided added up quickly. I had wanted to be able to braid well before I went off to college because I figured that I could come home with a few hundred bucks for a few early mornings of work but I just couldn’t get my hands to function properly. When I moved on from the Hunters and Equitation to the Jumper ring I essentially forgot about braiding and accepted the notion that if I ever needed my horse braided, I’d just pay a braider.
The odd and most frustrating thing is that I was able to demonstrate the steps to other people who were magically able to braid. Even through my mangled braids and poor technique, they were able to see the proper process and able to actually turn out a nice set of braids. It was embarrassing. When I transitioned over to Eventing I limped along with some still fairly horrible braids of both rubber band and yarn varieties. I spent an eternity on them and tore them out after Dressage as quickly as I could.
You’re really going to make me go out in public with these?
Two summers ago, I went to a rated Morgan show with my mare Jing. I fretted a bit about the braiding, but Jen reassured me that I could get away with rubber band braids or pay someone if it really came down to it. I practiced a few times with both rubber bands and yarn and had resolved to just pay for them to be done. I did an In-Hand class on Friday and my rubber band braids came out reasonably. I didn’t like them, but they weren’t as heinous as previous attempts had been. I did not show again until Saturday afternoon, so I resolved that I would really take my time to do some proper Hunter braids the next morning. If they were as terrible as I expected, I could do the adequate-but-not-gorgeous rubber band braids again. I showed up at six in the morning and got to work. Somehow, that day it all came together. After twenty-something years of sporadic braiding practice, I turned out a passable set of hunter braids. Yes, they were large and a little chunky, but they were straight and did not look like mutant mushroom growths.
Passable Braids – and it only took me 20 years to figure out how!
I was so very proud of myself and best of all it wasn’t just a one-off. I was able to turn out a decent set of braids the next day as well. After a few more sets, my technique improved and I was able to make them smaller and tighter. It took me forever, but I was able to crank out a bunch of tiny little braids that felt ring-worthy. It felt good – I could finally call myself someone who dabbles in the arcane mysteries of braiding.
I’ve always admired well done Dressage braids in that sense that they look nice on other people’s horses. My eye and mind has been so accustomed to the ideal of a billion tiny, perfect braids that it’s a hard adjustment to accept that I can get away with eleven button braids. I love to sleep in, so they’ve always been tempting. I practiced the other morning and turned out some passable rubber banded, button braids in about thirty or forty minutes.
You can put a mane in to less than 30 braids?
Same rubber band technique! Now 90 percent less embarrassing!
Even though I was able to get the poof on a few, I still found myself making a face and feeling like I needed more of them. I’ve got some waxed thread on order and hope that will make my feelings about button braids change. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to love them the way I love hunter braids, but I am sure that the extra time to sleep in on a busy morning will eventually win the day. Maybe this time it won’t take me two decades to sort out the technique.
Go Team DF. Go Braiding. Go Eventing.