Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, horse hair shaving brushes were common. Which made sense, with the automobile still ascending horses were much more common, and the rise of shaving with the advent of the safety razor meant that affordable shaving brushes were rising in demand. That changed dramatically during World War I, when outbreaks of anthrax traced to horse hair shaving brushes resulted in public health investigations and drove away customers.
Badger, boar, and synthetic brushes now rule the market. But horse hair is still available, and for the last several months I’ve been using one. I’m a happy convert, it’s been a great brush and I have no desire to go back.
The brush I’ve been using is this one, the Vie-Long 04312 Professional, which retails for about $20 on Amazon:
Horse hair brushes tend to cost less than badger brushes, meaning that you can get great quality for less money. I would think the cost has to do with there being a lot more hair to a horse than to your average badger, but I really have no idea. Whatever the reason, if you’re looking for an inexpensive shaving brush these are a great option.
The brushes take hair from the mane and tail of the horse, with mine being 25% from the mane and 75% tail (I’ve seen some info saying that it may be 50/50), the difference being that mane hair tends to be softer so when you combine them you get a good mix of soft but firm. Unlike badger hair brushes, where the badgers are commonly killed in the process (most badger fur comes from parts of Asia where badger meat is eaten), horses aren’t harmed in the trimming process. So if that’s something that’s important to you, then this is the better option of the two.
My first impression of the brush was that the bristles felt stiffer than my badger brush, but with use they have softened somewhat with use. My second impression, upon wetting the brush, was the smell. Be warned: horse hair has a funk to it. My dog wanted desperately to eat the brush for the first few days, but after three or four days of use the smell washed out.
The most important part of a brush is, of course, how well it lathers, and there the brush has truly shined. In my experience, the horse hair holds water as well or better than badger hair. What that means is that the lather doesn’t dry out as quickly, staying moist on the brush and moist on your face. In fact, using the horse hair brush has made switching back to a badger a bit difficult, as I’m finding that my water/soap ratio doesn’t work as well.
I’ve always lathered directly on my face, and the slightly stiffer brush works well for a paintbrush style application. The stiffer bristles seem to pick up soap faster than a badger, and while the bristles aren’t so stiff that it’s uncomfortable or scratching they retain their shape well during lathering. Clean up takes slightly longer, as soap seems to want to hide deep in the bristles more than with badger and it seems to take longer to dry. But the difference is at most marginal.
Based on the last several months of use, in my opinion horse hair is the superior product. I still have my badger hair brush hanging right next to my razor, and I still use and enjoy it frequently. But the horse hair seems to do the job better, while at the same time costing less money. It lathers well, feels great, and in my opinion looks better. I’m sold.