There’s a nightlife in Westchester County few are privy to. When dusk falls and most of us slip into bed, subscribers to this lifestyle spring into action. Under the cloak of darkness, they convene at barns, stables and farms across our bucolic landscape. Armed with only a small set of tools and a headlamp to guide them, they get to work on the task at hand — braiding.
We’re talking, of course, about the time-honored practice of horse braiding.
Equestrian enthusiasts will be familiar with horse braiding, the self-explanatory custom of braiding a horse’s mane in an intricate manner to show its polish and prestige during competitions. Its original application, according to braiders and horse professionals interviewed for this article, was more practical — riders were tired of their horse’s long locks getting tangled while out riding. Although braiding began as an effective means of keeping one’s mane tidy, it eventually evolved into a method of showmanship. Professional horse braiders like Aron Valadez, who has been employed by horse owners across the country, also describe it as “an art.”
Growing up in Mexico, Mr. Valadez became well-acquainted with horses and found it easy to transition into stable care when he migrated to the United States over a decade ago. It was during this time he first observed a friend braiding a horse in preparation for a photoshoot. Attracted to the skill required and the intricate end-result, Mr. Valadez began training to braid on his own. He has been working as a professional horse braider for 10 years now, employed everywhere from the equestrian community of Wellington, Florida, to the pastures of prestigious barns in the tri-state area, like Enrite Farm in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“This is more lucrative than taking care of horses,” Mr. Valadez said in a phone interview. “As a horse braider, you’re independent, it’s like you’re your own boss.”
Horse braiders are generally paid per horse. They can make hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for one night’s work, depending on the number of horses that need braiding. But the job is demanding. Mr. Valadez doesn’t usually begin braiding until between 10 or 11 p.m. when there is no other activity in the barn. He works with only a headlamp, yarn, a comb and scissors to get him through the next five, 10 or more hours of braiding. With a natural talent for braiding, he takes no detailed measurements before beginning his work. “I think I just learned how to do it by feel, so I’ve never really measured, I just use my fingers to estimate,” he said.
Nicole Wright, who owns Enrite Barn and employs Mr. Valadez, said his work stands out. “I have a very good eye for detail, and he has meticulous braids that are spaced out perfectly, no matter how many horses you give him they’re all extremely well done,” she said.
Having grown up in England, Cathleen Davis, professional trainer and owner of Windsor Farm in Bedford Hills, said she was shocked when she came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago and discovered that horse braiding was a paid profession here. “In British horse society training in England, we do our own — we do our own mucking, we do our training, we do our own braiding — we learn to do everything,” she said.
In England, it’s customary to plait a horse’s braid with needle and thread for fox hunting or showing. The end result is a tightly-wound braid that looks like a budding rose. “There’s a whole art to it, to be quite honest, and a skill that not everybody has. You can make a neck look fantastic and you can make a neck look ‘god-awful’ if you don’t do it properly,” Ms. Davis said.
When she began riding professionally at 14 years old, she could finish braiding her own horse in 15 minutes flat. Her methods haven’t changed much these many years later. At Windsor Farm, Ms. Davis still braids her own horses in the same fashion, using a single comb, some yarn and spray bottle with water. “I’m just a bit slower now,” she said with a laugh.
Lisa Cowan, who rides with the Bedford Riding Lanes Association, also knows the tedious work that goes into perfecting a horse braid. Though now a journalist, Ms. Cowan once worked part time tending to horses in both Florida and Oregon as a means of funding her own passion for riding. When she began showing hunter-jumpers later in life, she taught herself how to braid for competitions. “It was something that I figured I could do and practice and get better at, and then I would save myself some money,” Ms. Cowan said. Her skill became so advanced that friends who showed for dressage or three-day eventing (also known as horse trials or equestrian triathlons comprising dressage, cross-country, and showjumping) asked her to braid their horses.
Ms. Cowan said she still enjoys prepping her horse with a braid for the “high holy days” on the equestrian calendar, like opening day of hunt season. On those special occasions, she, too, becomes part of the unique horse braiding nightlife, setting out to work while the rest of us slumber. By morning, her living canvas is wearing another intricate piece of art.