One of the first things admirers or newcomers to our breed might notice about our horses is their abundance of long, silky hair. This characteristic exists for a practical reason, but nevertheless, it imbues the horses with an air of extravagance and exoticism. The next thing our dear admirers may notice is the complete, and deliberate absence of that same hair in certain individuals. This contrast between copious and complete lack of hair strikes newcomers as quite peculiar. What exactly is going on, here?
Like many aspects of Spanish horse culture, the traditional clipping of manes and tails follows a specific, and ancient protocol rooted in complete practicality. The abundance of fine, silky hair itself may seem a frivolous extravagance to the unacquainted, or even to fans of other sub-groups of Iberian horses, but in the region of southern Spain known as Andalucia, it is an essential characteristic intended to protect the horses against fairly extreme conditions and a blazing, nearly North-African sun, and the abundant flies and biting insects found in the countryside and swampy marisma.
With summer temperatures regularly soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and winter temperatures dipping below freezing, these unusual manes and forelocks provide “sunglasses” for the eyes; a shade from the heat of the sun, insulation against the cold, and a natural fly screen. As an aside, the predominantly gray coats with black skin are also an adaptation for surviving the searing summer heat in as much comfort as possible. French cavalry trends introduced the relatively new practice of shaving the forelock, and subsequently the Spanish invented the now iconic and decorative mosquero (literally, “fly swatter”); a forelock replacement.
So which horses are clipped, and why?
Colts: Colts’ mane, tail, and forelock hair are completely shaven until one year of age, and then never again.
Colts older than one year: Bridle paths of varying lengths may be clipped to just behind the ears, but tend not to exceed a few inches. No other hair is typically clipped.
Why: When turned out in mixed age groups in large Spanish pastures, the age of the colts may be identified months later by the length of the hair. Once in a stable, bridle paths make wearing halters and bridles more comfortable, and expose the horse’s muscular poll, and slender throatlatch for admiration. Long hair becomes sun-bleached and tangled without regular maintenance, so shaving it eliminates this problem on horses turned out for lengthy periods of time.
Yearling Fillies: Fillies have their manes and forelocks shaven until one year of age. Tails are shaven, leaving a lion-like tassel at the very end of the tail.
Why: Once again, large groups of mixed age fillies may be turned out together in vast areas, for long periods of time. They may be identified and sorted by age by the length of their hair. Additionally, arched crests are a hallmark of the Iberian breeds, but are typically found on mature stallions. Shaping a roached mane can create the aesthetic of a more shapely and arched neck on a mare or yearling colt.
Two year old fillies: After one year, many choose to allow the forelock to grow to shade the eyes from sun and flies, while some continue to shave the forelock. Shaven forelocks are currently in vogue in the PRE show ring. Manes are shaven and shaped. Tails are shaven from the tail dock to the bottom of the vulva, and banged at, or above the hocks.
Three year old fillies: Shaven manes, and tails neatly trimmed at a length between the hocks and pasterns, and shaven from the tail dock to the bottom of the vulva.
Four year old mares and older: Shaven and shaped manes, tails banged at the heels, and shaven from the tail dock to the bottom of the vulva. Forelocks optional.
Why: Shaving the tail from the tail dock to the bottom of the vulva prior to both foaling and live cover (breeding) aids in keeping the mare clean, tidy, and comfortable. Vet wrapping this region of the tail is a common alternative to shaving for unclipped mares of various breeds for the same function. Because mares are often turned out for long periods of time as adults during pregnancy and foaling periods, having little mane hair to tangle aids in providing comfort and tidiness. Live cover breeding is also complicated by full tails. Aesthetically speaking, a shaven tail will highlight the breed’s characteristic low set tails and rounded croups.
While even today Spanish horses are frequently raised out on the range in the “old fashioned” way, traditional clip jobs have persisted into the modern era of carefully managed stables. These specialized clip jobs have typified the breed’s show ring aesthetics; especially with mares. Understanding where these traditions come from is all part of the fun of showing these magnificent animals. While some may choose to allow their mares to “let their hair down”, especially those who must deal with harsh climates, others delight in the now iconic aesthetics of the traditional Spanish clips.