Through patience and proper technique, these pesky mane and tail tangles can be removed and save a lot of embarrassment.

Has anyone ever received the advice to wear underwear without holes in it? I was always told that it’s to ensure that in the rare occasion you have an unplanned visit to the hospital, you would be relieved to be wearing decent underwear. My grandma teased me about this growing up and I was never certain of the reason. Is this to avoid embarrassment? I guess so. 

I suppose this same sentiment can be reflected with our horses. It’s nice to have their feet trimmed, coats well-groomed and manners in check, just in case they need to be whisked off to the vet or someone drives in the yard unexpectedly. This can be especially true when horses are your livelihood. You want them to represent you and show others the quality care you give your horses. And for me, one of the most embarrassing things when it comes to the horses in my care is when there are witches’ knots in their manes and tails. 

a witches' knot in a horse's mane
It’s inevitable that a horse on pasture will come in at some point with a witch’s knot in its mane.
Photo by Kelli Neubert

Witches’ knots are the tangles that form in a mane and tail over a period of time. They remind me a bit of dreadlocks in human hair. Often, when a bramble, stick or piece of hay that gets intertwined in the hair, it twists, curves and wraps around so intricately that it takes a long time to remove. Sometimes the wind, rain or mud can cause them. Rolling and shaking with wet hair will can form them. Horses chewing and grooming each other can create these tangles, too. And sometimes just a long period of time without any combing is the culprit. Some horses have very fine, long hair and are more prone to these knots than others. 

We get plenty of horses in that haven’t been handled at all, and witches’ knots often accompany them. Our place is set up in a way that the least broke horses are near the driveway. The ones that everyone sees when they enter. So naturally, once they’re gentle enough, I try to tidy up that mess as soon as possible. I always take time to work through them with my fingers, a little detangler serum and a brush. I don’t ever cut though them with a knife or scissors. (Although, I know plenty of cowboys who won’t waste their time working them out, and I can understand why!) I can think of a couple of geldings that were in such bad shape that I roached their manes. But usually I can salvage a lot of the hair with a little patience and the proper technique. 

There is quite a bit of mythology that accompanies the witches’ knot (aka elf locks and fairy knots). Folklore claims that a witch will borrow the horse at night and ride it, leaving a “braid” in its mane by morning. Others say that fairies flit around and create them while we aren’t looking. There are even some people who believe Bigfoot is responsible. It’s hard to imagine that some of the horses I’ve seen carry these knots would stand still as a big furry monster caught and dolled them up. 

Even Shakespeare gave his two cents about the mysterious tangles in his play Romeo and Juliet, in Scene 1, Act 4:

“She is the fairies midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate stone …

That plaits the manes of horses in the night

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.”

Whatever the case may be, as long as we have wind, round bales, manes and tails and half-broke horses, I’m pretty sure I’ll be untangling these knots for years to come. And should I ever have to haul something in to my vet to get looked at unexpectedly, I hope I can do so in confidence, sans witches’ knots. 

And not to worry Grandma, I’ll be wearing a decent set of chonies, too.

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