Did anyone else notice the enormous array of plaiting styles at the London Olympics? I was surprised at the wide variety on show as well as wondering how most of them were created!
I grew up with the ‘bobbles on the top of the neck’ brand of plaits held together with rubber bands. I was pretty quick at them but I’m sure if I saw a picture of my work now I’d cringe. For special occasions we’d do the dressage tape plaits. Yes, ok, I was a teenager in the 80s if you’d not already noticed! Interestingly there were some of the tape plaits on show in London, it made me a little nostalgic.
I was taught to plait by friends. Little did I know this meant I was then installed as ‘chief plaiter’ for their eventers. Smart friends, keen teenager equalled a good result for them.
After wondering how they created some of the masterpieces at the London Olympics I wondered how I’d go trying to recreate them without the benefit of assistance or instructions – badly I assume! For those out there who’ve come to horses as an adult or not done any competition before I’ve put together a little pictorial plaiting demonstration.
These photos are a how-to guide for English plaits. These sit softly along the neck instead of sticking up. Now my plaiting’s hardly going to earn me a turnout award at a big show but will serve the purpose of showing how to make these braids. Also, for the sake of clarity I’ve used black thread against a white mane in these pictures so you’re able to see where the thread goes. If you were plaiting for a competition you’d use white plaiting thread on this mane, black thread for a black mane and so on. If you’d like to see more detail simply click on the photos and you’ll see an enlarged image.
First up we need some tools. I have a box purchased cheaply from hardware or sewing stores with many little compartments to it. It fastens shut so nothing can fall out. In it I have plaiting thread, rubber bands, a mane comb, a divider and needles. The needles are stored in a little piece of rubber sponge so you can find them easily. Other things I have on hand are a pair of scissors, a quick unpick for undoing plaits at the end of the day, a crochet hook for the forelock plait and hairspray or other hair products.
Step One – You want to start with a clean and short mane, my lovely model Gerry isn’t sporting the cleanest mane in the world for these pictures so please ignore the dirt. Make sure you don’t use any conditioning products in the mane prior to plaiting, they will make the hair super slippery and hard to manage. Firstly you want to divide the mane evenly into sections. The number of plaits will depend on how much mane you have to work with. Aim for an uneven number of plaits on the neck, with the forelock plait making an even number. Sometimes you’ll need to be ‘creative’ if there’s a thinner part of the mane but the aim is to have even sections to work with.
Step Two – You now need to plait each divided section down. Some people prefer to plait with the hair damp as it can make the hair easier to manage. Keep a water spray bottle handy and ensure your horse is ok with that if you’d like to plait with damp hair. Divide the section of mane into three equal parts, using your plaiting divider can help with this or just gauge to by eye and plait it. One invaluable tip to having great looking plaits is to make sure the plait’s quite firm, particularly at the base.
You don’t want the plait to be loose as it’s going to be much harder to work with in that state when we go to roll it. Once you’ve plaited down as far as you can before the hair gets too thin to keep your plait firm, secure it with an elastic band. I then will often cut the whispy ends off the plait to stop it from sticking out and looking untidy in the finished product. You can also turn the bottom of the plait on itself and secure it with the band. I never seem to be able to make that way work for me consistently!
Step Three – Once you’ve plaited down your sectioned mane you’re ready to roll the plait. I like to have three or four needles already threaded with plaiting thread or wool depending on your preference. Often you’re plaiting the night before a show and the light can be hard for threading needles so be prepared! I also don’t put knots at the base of my thread, again for time saving reasons, and have a nice long thread which will get me through between two and four plaits. To secure the thread without a knot I go through my elastic securing the bottom of the plait. I start with going through the plait downwards as you’ll see in the first picture of the montage and then go through the plait upwards, or towards yourself as you’ll see in the second picture of the montage, finally I go though it again so the thread is both secured and on the side of the plait closest to the horse.
At this point we’re going to end up with the plait folded in half. Take your needle as I’ve done in the third picture of the montage and push it through the base of the plait as close as you can to the neck without spearing your horse of course! Draw the thread through as you can see and you’ll have the plait folded in half.
Step Four – We now need to secure the plait in half. I’m going to sew down the plait in three steps. Push the needle through about a third of the way down, then back up again a little further down and then through the end of the half of the plait on a downward stroke as you can see in the second photo on the montage. We then repeat the previous step of sewing through the base of the plait as you can see on the third photo to fold the plait in half again and form the final plait.
Step Five – It’s now time to make sure the plait is secure. It should be resting on along the neck. You’ll see that the hair’s not pulled super tight at the base of the plait even though you’ve plaited securely. This makes it ok to really secure that plait. Sew through the plait three or four times, pulling the thread as tight as you can each time without making the plait look wonky. This also serves to secure the thread and you simply cut it off as shown below. I often cut the thread off on the bottom side of the plait, just to ensure there are no sneaky threads sticking out but for the purposes of photography we’ve shown it from above.
The final step is to stand back, admire your handiwork and try to remember tomorrows dressage test!
Many thanks to Bec Jackson from Tuesday Studies for her fabulous photography!