Why Do Horses Have Manes?
Horses are beautiful animals. They come in a variety of striking colors, have large and expressive eyes, and are powerful and heavily muscled. Two of the horse’s most attractive features, though, are the mane and tail. Have you ever wondered what purpose the horse’s mane serves?
Why do horses have manes? No one knows exactly why horses evolved to have manes, but it is believed that they serve to protect the horse from the rain and cold, the sun, insects, predators, and from attacks from competing stallions. The long mane that we see in today’s domestic horses is believed to have been a result of breeding, as truly wild horses do not have manes that look like our domestic equines.
The mane is one of the defining features of our horses, and understanding how they serve to protect them is fascinating and valuable knowledge. Keep reading to learn more about how manes protect horses, the difference between the manes of wild horses and the manes of domestic horses, and which breeds sport the thickest, most luxurious manes.
Why Horses Have Manes: Wild vs. Domestic Horses
In order to understand the evolutionary or biological purpose behind a horse’s mane, it’s important to look at wild horses since our domestic breeds have been bred for specific features over many centuries.
Though you hear about “wild” Mustangs and Brumbies, these herds are not truly wild; rather, they are feral. These horses have descended from domestic horses that escaped or were turned loose. They are not tame, but they are not truly wild, either.
There is only one truly wild horse left, and that is the Przewalski’s horse. This is an endangered horse that can be found in Mongolia and has not descended from modern domestic horses but from the wild ancestors of all horses. In both size and conformation, the Przewalski’s horse does not look all that different from a modern pony, standing at 12-14 hh and weighing between 500 and 800 pounds on average.
The mane, though, is quite different from our pet horses. The mane of the Przewalski’s horse is thick but quite short and stands upright. They also have no forelock at all (the forelock is the hair that falls down over the horse’s forehead, the “bangs”).
Domestic horses have long, usually thick manes, including a significant forelock that can fall down the forehead and over the horse’s eyes. The explanation for the difference between domestic and wild horse manes is that the long manes and forelock have been bred into our modern horses. Why have they been intentionally bred into our horses? One reason is looks – the mane is a beautiful attribute of the horse. The other reason is to increase the protective traits of the mane for the neck, head, and eyes.
How The Mane Protects The Horse
There are multiple ways that the mane serves to protect the horse, and we are likely oblivious to some of them. It is believed that the mane can help a horse maintain its body temperature in cold weather, can protect the head and neck from rain, can shield the eyes from sunlight and from insects, and can protect the sensitive neck from predatory and social assaults.
Manes protect horses from the cold
When a baby is born in the hospital, he or she almost immediately gets outfitted with a diaper and a hat. Everyone knows what the diaper is for, but do you know the purpose of the hat? The hat is to help regulate body temperature – it prevents heat from escaping through the head. The same is true for horses – in especially cold climates, the mane helps to prevent heat loss.
It keeps the head and neck warm, which in turn helps to keep the rest of the body warm. Most of the horse breeds that have the thickest manes come from cold Northern climates, which is evidence that one of the mane’s “main” purposes is to provide protection from the elements.
Manes protect horses from the rain
The mane also helps to protect a horse from the rain. As the rain falls, the water often runs right off of a thick mane, keeping it out of the horse’s eyes and further helping to regulate the body temperature. As noted, the Przewalski’s horses do not have forelocks or long manes.
What is interesting is that their native country of Mongolia is a rather dry climate. There is not much precipitation, and this may be why these wild horses have the manes they do.
Manes protect horses from the sun
The long forelocks of many domestic horses help to protect the horse’s eyes from the sun, especially horses that have lighter-colored eyes. Przewalski’s horses have dark eyes, which may explain why they do not have forelocks to protect them.
Manes protect horses from insects
If you’ve been around horses in the Summer, you know that flies love them – especially the secretion from the eyes. This is very irritating for horses, and a long forelock can help prevent flies from landing on their eyes. The mane and forelock also allow them to flick their hair at insects, allowing a (very) temporary reprieve.
Manes protect horses from attack
The neck is the most vulnerable part of a prey’s body, and predators know this. The thick mane on a horse can help to protect it against injuries caused by bites – both from predators and from rival stallions.
This may explain why the males of any breed of horse tend to have the thickest manes – they are the ones that must defend the herd against both predators and rivals. Further evidence for the theory that manes help to protect an animal’s neck from injury is that the Przewalski’s horse’s mane, though quite short, is very thick.
There is another reason that the mane might help to protect against predators. The mane, especially one like the Przewalski’s horse which stands upright, can make the animal look taller. This is a beneficial trait for prey animals, as it can cause a predator to hesitate. Predators do not like to take risks – they want the easiest prey to take down. The larger the animal, the more challenging it may be to hunt.
Which Horses Have The Thickest Manes?
Almost all domestic horses have long, beautiful manes, but some breeds are especially gifted in this area. Ponies of all breeds tend to have especially thick manes, and this makes sense when you consider that most breeds of pony originate from colder Northern climates.
The other horses that sport especially thick manes are the Gypsy Vanner (from the UK), the Haflinger (from Austria), the Friesian (from the Netherlands), the Icelandic (from Iceland, of course), and the Black Forest Horse (from Germany). As you can see, all of these horses that have the thickest of manes originated from Northern climates, where the thicker hair helped to insulate them in the coldest of Winters.
Which Horses Have The Sparsest Manes?
The breed of horse that is known for having the sparsest mane is the Appaloosa – particularly the “old-type” Appaloosas. This is interesting because Appaloosas originated in the United States – specifically the Pacific NorthWest. The Winters in this region are not particularly cold when compared to the Winters of many other Northern climates, but there is quite a bit of precipitation.
I personally would expect the horses with sparse manes to come from a tropical or desert climate, but for reasons unknown (to me, at least), the Appaloosa did not seem to need a thick covering in its native land.
Another breed that typically has a pretty sparse mane is the Akhal-Teke. This breed originated in Turkmenistan, which borders the Middle East. This seems to make sense – the region is hot and dry, and a thick mane would not serve much purpose for a horse in this climate. It may, in fact, be a hindrance in regulating body temperature. Akhal-Tekes were developed in a rather harsh landscape, and only those who had the traits to thrive in this area went on to procreate.
There Are Likely Many Purposes That A Horse’s Mane Serves
No one knows exactly why horses have manes, and while the theories presented here are likely, there are probably other reasons that we do not know (and may never know).
Nature is a beautiful thing, and we mere humans will never have all of the answers to its great mysteries. While the long, lustrous manes horses are so well-known for today were likely a result of breeding, there are certainly advantages for wild horses to have manes, as the truly wild horses we can observe today also have them.
If you’d like another wild example – look at the zebra, which is in the same species Equus as the horse. Zebras also have manes that are short and upright, similar to the Przewalski’s. While we can theorize about the many purposes that the horse’s mane serves, what we do know for sure is that they are evolutionarily beneficial for the horse. And as a secondary benefit, they’re beautiful as well.