I Joined the Braiding Mafia (and Lived)

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Photo courtesy of Alison Kratish

BY ALISON KRATISH

If you are equine-centric and active on social media, chances are you have seen the funny meme with the graphic image that says “If you see me on the stripper pole, mind your business. Horses are expensive.”   

Well, I am way past the acceptable age and weight to strip for extra pony dollars so, enter yarn, latch hook, seam ripper, pointy comb, and scissors. Instead of a pole, up the ladder I go! Mind your business, or come and join the shrinking army of braiders. They are as anxious for new recruits as the military guy parked at a table in the food court at the mall trying to sign your little brother up for boot camp.

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

Braiding does feel a little like boot camp, actually. It can be a bit physically demanding (meh, I need that anyway) and there is constructive criticism whilst learning the ropes and the nuances of horsehair twisting. But it is a useful tool to have in the toolbox and a tradition in our sport that is steadfast.

Braiding isn’t going anywhere, but the braiders are.   

In case you didn’t know, the stealthy battalion of braiders who show up after the rings are long closed to dress up our horses and are gone by the time we show up for our first morning class are diminishing. They are a dying breed. New braiders are suddenly welcome, a change from the common prior perception that it was a closed club that was hard to break into—unless you wanted the air let out of your tires if you stepped onto “their turf.”  

I braided a little as a teenager to help contribute something to my horse show bill.  It was never an all-night endeavor but my own horse plus a few others at $25 per mane (man, I miss those days!) helped satisfy my dad’s request for me to participate in funding the weekend. From time to time, I have had non-horsey friends marvel over pictures of braided horses. They wonder how and why it’s done, and if I do it myself.  When I tell them what it costs (because we all know the $25/mane days are LONG gone), they always say, “Hey! You could do that for extra money!”  

My answer is always the same and usually accompanied by a chuckle, “It is generally ill-advised to encroach on the territory of the braiding mafia.” 

Photo courtesy of Alison Kratish

While I have always found braiders who happen to be awake while I’m at a show during the day to be friendly and nice, it is well known that they are fiercely protective of their client pools. I respect that. This is their profession. But, enter Covid.   

Covid changed a lot of things in the world and the braiding algorithm does not seem to have escaped unscathed. For whatever reason, many have left the profession and moved on to other things. It’s left a deficit, which leaves some of our trainers scrambling to find someone to beautify our ponies in the night. Some braiders are even flying in help from afar to work on our horses at the bigger shows. 

My bestie is a part time, freelance braider. Rob also has a corporate job and competes on the AQHA hunter circuit, so we have lots to chit chat about during our dinners together. I am privy to all the trials and tribulations of the braider life and the amount of work they have taken on lately. It’s a lot. He and other braiders regularly dutifully stand on their ladders from sundown to sunup braiding as many as 18-20—per night!  

Photo courtesy of Alison Kratish

He has been prodding me for months to brush up my long-lost braiding skills, which, if I’m honest, were not that great to begin with. But here we are, in the thick of horse show season and I find myself without a horse to show while my boy recovers from hock fusion surgery. So, why not try? 

Braiding is a way to stay involved and participate instead of merely sitting on the sidelines living vicariously through my barn mates. It is a way to have a different kind of sense of accomplishment at the horse show. It is above the horse, but not on the horse. It is in the barns instead of in the rings. It is making a little money instead of spending a lot of money—and I really am in no position to say no to that. Again, horses are expensive and I like to horse show so, what better way to add to my horse show budget?

Photo courtesy of Alison Kratish

Now enter Keavy, professional, full-time braider, long on clients and short on time. Add to that the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show, because, why not start this new endeavor at the biggest horse show of the year in this part of the country? I mean, go big or go home. Keavy opened her roster to some new “ladies of the night” (in the horse show context, of course). She is taking us under her wing and patiently providing us with valuable tricks of the hair twisting trade as she checks her list and dispatches us into the barns.  

We braid down, albeit a little on the slow side, and she comes behind us to tie up and critique our work, sometimes asking us to redo a few to make them right. After all, this is a learning process for the new recruits and the skills I am relearning and perfecting along the way will stay with me as a useful tool to have in my back pocket for as long as I need them. The work is relatively intricate and braiding down must be done correctly in order for the tied up finished product to look beautiful. She has been welcoming, educative and patient—not at all what my past perceptions had me expecting. 

Photo courtesy of Alison Kratish

With Pin Oak in the books and my Monday morning desk job looming over me, I find myself tired and a little body sore but also feeling proud that I’ve taken on something new and useful and have been able to help take some of the pressure off these ladies (and a few gentlemen) while they tackle their ever-growing lists of subjects to twist. 

I am told future shows will be a killer. The lists are long, as will be the nights, but I am ready! Bring it on.  

And when my own horse is back to showing, I will be able to save a not so insignificant amount of money by braiding my own. By then, I will surely be up to speed on the whole shebang. 


Alison is an Executive Assistant in the oil and gas industry in Houston, TX. In addition to being a devoted Corgi mom, she is also a re-rider who enjoys showing in the hunters on her mid-life crisis purchase, Rocky.