Sticking in animal (or people) hair and being carried from place to place is nature’s way of making sure burr seeds are spread around. But when your horse comes up to you with burrs stuck to different parts of the body–like a forelock so packed with burrs he looks like a prickly unicorn or with a tail matted into a club of pickers–it is really disheartening. Not only can burrs be difficult to remove, doing so can break the mane and tail hairs. If your horse has a really sparse mane or tail, the mess can be really unwelcome.
There are several different types of burrs. The most common is the round burdock burr and the other is a small heart-shaped burr that grows in wet areas. Both can make a mess, and both can be removed in the same way. Every area has its own burr variety, but burrs all can cause a mess of your horse’s hair.
If there are only a few burrs and they’ve been in a short time you can probably pull them out easily with your fingers. Really thick mats of burrs might need a slightly more aggressive attack.
For really awful mats of burrs, it's tempting to just cut them out, but with patience and proper grooming technique, this isn't usually necessary.
De-Tangling Burrs From Hair
The easiest way to break up a mat of burrs is by dowsing the area with a de-tangler or baby/mineral oil. This is an especially helpful tip for addressing the mane or tail areas. It sometimes helps to let the oil or de-tangler sit a bit, softening the burrs up before you start pulling. Start from the bottom of the mat, and gently pull apart the hairs while dislodging the burrs. Very gently brush out the hairs as you go, being careful not to break the strands. Don’t be tempted to use a metal comb or ‘rake’. These tend to break the hair at the best of times. Grooming sprays are good for this, especially ones that contain ingredients that make the hair slippery.
The pickiness of the burrs combined with the oil or conditioner can be irritating to your hands. A close-fitting pair of rubberized gloves you can buy for gardening gives enough feel and dexterity for the job while protecting your hands. Household or surgical gloves may be too sloppy.
Getting Rid of Burr Plants
Once you’ve cleaned all the burrs from your horse, make sure that you dispose of them where they won’t sprout. Dumping them on the manure pile or sweeping them out the barn door might mean you’ll eventually have a good crop of burrs right next to your barn. Don’t put them in a composter either. Either put them in the garbage or burn them on your next bonfire.
To avoid having to pull burrs again, you’ll need to eradicate the weeds from your paddocks and pastures. In addition to making a mess of your horse’s leg hair, mane and tail, they can irritate or even injure eyes, ears, and noses. Burrs can also crowd out the more desirable plants growing in your pasture.
The common Burdock is a biennial, growing leaves the first year and flowering and seeding in the second. If you just cut down the plant before it goes to flower, it will simply wait to flower again the following year. There are two times when you can chop it and stop its growth. Early in the spring, chop the first leaves down beneath soil level and this should kill the plant. A sharp spade seems to work best for this. If you don't catch them very early on, they just keep growing and a hoe, unless it is really sharp, won't go through really thick stems.
If the plant already has leaves cut it down just as it begins to flower. This way the plant thinks it has produced seeds and shouldn't grow again next spring.
Chemical herbicides can be used, but these need to be used with great care in horse pastures. Horses will need to be kept away from any sprayed areas until the herbicide is gone.