The trick to combing out a mane and tail with as little breakage as possible is cleanliness and conditioning. The technique in this article will help save time and hair breakage (and money!) no matter if the horse's hair has a few wind curls or full blown dreadlocks and matts.
Forget the $15 bottles of "magic" horse detangler. These are a few low cost items that work equally well:
Offbrand version of Johnson & Johnson's "No more tangles" - usually runs around $1.00
1 box (contains 3 tubes) of Suave Hot Oil Moisturizing/Strengthening Treatments for about $2.50
1 brush (NOT a mane and tail comb, but a flexible human hair brush)
Pair of Thinning Shears. Thinning Shears are scissors that only cut some of the hairs they are scissored down on- making them great for breaking up serious matts.
The hot oil treatment works fantastic to make hair smoother and stronger before you start (so it will be less likely to break while detangling) but must have hot water to heat up your oil. (if no hot water in your barn, try microwaving a cup of water and transporting it to the barn in a travel mug or thermos) Hot oil is a trade secret of the Arabian show barns, but suave's handy versions work just as well, are easier to find, and much more manageable.
Cleaning and Pretreating:
Begin by shampooing the mane or tail thoroughly, working the soap deep into the tangled portion and then rinse completely. Dirt is the "glue" that helps keep tangled hair tangled, so getting it really clean is the first step.
Then use 1 or 2 tubes of the suave hot oil (presoacked in hot water) and massage it deep into the hair- avoiding the roots unless necessary. Allow hot oil to sit for 5-10 minutes or so, then shampoo all the oil out and rise thoroughly.
With the mane we or dry, water down your detangler by half and douse the mane or tail- whichever you are working on. You can spray on but with the large amounts needed to make the job easy, I recommend applying directly to the hair with a clean tack cleaning sponge or similar small applicator. massage the detangler into the tangles and begin finger combing it- starting at the bottom and working up. After the oil and the detangler, the hair shafts should be very smooth and slick and untangle fairly easily. After you get it finger-combable, then use your brush to get it all smoothed out.
If you get into matts and tangles that are really impenetrable, the Thinning Shears are handy. Traditional scissors will leave you with a detangled, but choppy looking mane or tail. Thinning Shears have jagged teeth so they don't cut a straight line and will leave a more natural edge. To use, detangle the horse's hair as much as possible with your fingers, then use the Thinning Shears parallel with the hair (up and down, not horizontal- very important) to scissor into the mat once or twice- then finger comb- then scissor once or twice, then fingercomb, etc. Thinning Shears allow you to break up a matt with much less hair loss.
Once all the tangles have been combed or scissored out, it's best to shampoo one more time to remove the residue of the detangler. To prevent future tangles you may want to consider various leave-in braid types that keep manes and tails long and luxurious without tangling.