This is a reworked version of an article I wrote for The Western Horseman back in the early 1990s. We don’t have burdock in our part of the Ozarks and I don’t miss it. However, if it graces your pastures and your horses’ manes and tails, here are some tips you might use.
Beating the Burdock Blues
Burdock. From border to border and coast to coast, horse owners detest this pervasive pasture pest. Burdock flourishes throughout most of North America in grazing areas, fence rows, and barn lots, often to the detriment of forage plants. But that’s not why it’s hated. The real reason: from late autumn, throughout winter, and in some areas well into spring, burdock’s pesky Velcro-like burrs latch onto whatever passes by, including pants legs, dogs’ fur, and equine manes and tails.
At one time or another, most of us have dealt with a hopelessly burr-matted mane or tail. It can be a formidable task, and an ongoing one in parts of the country where burdock thrives. Still, there are ploys to help the burr-cursed cope.
Eliminate the Source
The best way to keep your horses’ manes and tails burr-free is to banish burdock from your grazing areas, but it isn’t easy. Herbicides tough enough to fry burdock are not equine-friendly. Still, persistent horse owners who recognize the plant and are aware of its growth patterns can manually eradicate burdock. Here’s what they need to know.
Burdock, also called among other things, clotburr, thorny burr, beggar’s buttons, bardana, and gobo, resembles garden rhubarb. Like rhubarb, its huge, wavy-edged lower leaves (up to three feet long) adjoin reddish stalks; unlike rhubarb leaves, they are wooly and white underneath. In late summer burdock’s reddish-purple thistle-like flowers bloom, after which seed ponds (burrs) form. Its bushy flower stalk included, common burdock grows up to five feet tall and great burdock up to a whopping nine feet tall. Both species were introduced from Asia and Europe as food and herb plants. Now they grow wild throughout most of North America.
Burdock is a biennial. A biennial plant grows from seed during its first growing season, and then goes dormant through the cold winter months. During its second summer its tap root weakens and atrophies even as its aerial growth flourishes and matures seeds of its own. Then the plant dies.
During its first growing season, burdock sends down a thick, parsnip-like tap root capable of boring straight down five or more feet into the earth, even in harsh, rocky soils. This taproot sprouts lateral side branches which hook under stones and other obstructions, anchoring the plant firmly in place. When lopped off or uprooted, first year burdock can grow an entire new plant from any root fragment left behind. Thus first year burdocks must never be dug or pulled because doing so helps them multiply and they’re harmless: first year burdocks don’t produce burrs.
However, because a typical second year plant produces up to 400,000 seeds, if you want to control or eradicate burdock, second year plants mustn’t be allowed to mature.
The solution: in mid to late summer, whack off burdock’s emerging flower stalks with pruning shears or a machete. Once is rarely enough; in warmer growing zones as many as three or more choppings may be needed. Persevere. No flower stalks, no burrs, no seeds, no new burdock—and after two seasons of diligent lopping, no burr-matted manes and tails to unsnarl.
Coping with Burrs
There are few tasks more daunting than de-burring a horse’s burdock-matted mane and tail. Some folks pick at stubborn mats for awhile, and then give up. They hack at that hair with a pocket knife or buzz it off with clippers, not realizing de-burring isn’t a hopeless task, if you know how it’s rightly done.
- Tie your horse securely before you begin. Most horses dislike this process.
- Don’t reef on masses of matted burrs; you can’t jerk them out intact and relentless tugging will irritate your horse. Split large mats into many manageable sections, and then untangle each hank by teasing hair away from the matted burrs, 10 or 12 hairs at a time.
- Slather a commercial detangling product or baby oil into tangles, spritz on PAM aerosol cooking spray, or sprinkle cornstarch on mats to help loosen them.
- Especially when dealing with tight mats and major tangles, wear close-fitting leather gloves. Burrs and residue may cling to them but they’ll help preserve your hands.
- If you’re willing to sacrifice some hair, invest in an inexpensive, sickle-shaped razor knife called a mat splitter. Buy it at pet shops or from some vets. Insert the splitter under major mats with its blade pointing upward, away from your horse. Keeping your fingers out of the way, draw it toward you to split tangled mass into manageable segments, and then proceed as above.
- If you must divide mats with a knife, hold it like a mat splitter: point up, away from your horse. Be very careful even then, especially when de-burring manes.
- And don’t drop those burrs! Toss them in a bucket and when you’re done, burn them. Comb your horse’s de-burred mane and tail to remove residue and seeds. Add that to the fire too.
- Try to keep your horse’s mane and tail burdock-free. It’s easier to remove a few burrs every day than tackle a major, matted mess. And mats shed burrs and seed, so to keep burdock in check, de-burr every horse (and dog) you own.