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Quoting A Wiki of Ice and Fire:

The Dothraki’s proof of valor is their braided topknots. Whenever they lose a battle they must cut their braids as a sign of defeat.

However, in the television series, I've never seen the Dothraki display mercy to a defeated opponent. Even the tiniest dispute seems to be settled by combat to the death. I recently read the first book, and I recall a moment where a Dothraki questioned Ser Jorah's bravery because he wore armor. Ser Jorah insulted him back, they drew swords and Ser Jorah killed him. This seemed to be business as usual for the Dothraki.

If conflicts as trivial as this mean death for the loser, when would the braid-cutting rule ever be relevant? In which situations would a Dothraki be spared after being defeated in combat?

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    What if they fight someone who isn't a Dothraki? – Probst Apr 28 '16 at 16:35
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    Got no reference for this, but I think braids get cut when an entire Dothraki khalasar loses to another khalasar or army. There could be many survivors from the losing group, which is exiled (or enslaved?), but they would have to cut their braids to signify the defeat. – hairboat Apr 28 '16 at 16:43
  • @Probst: good point. A possible counterargument might be that the Dothraki usually seem to be the aggressors and they are probably feared and loathed by other people, so I'd expect mercy toward a Dothraki to be a rare event. If a Dothraki being spared is a rare event, it seems unlikely that a custom would be invented for it. – KoenP Apr 28 '16 at 17:18
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    If they are growing their braids from a young age, they may be dueling others for training. One might be able to tell if they lost their last duel at at 20 rather than age 10 perhaps. Drogo's is at or below his buttocks and he has never lost. So one with hair mid back has lost some in the past, while one with shoulder length has lost recently. – Skooba Apr 28 '16 at 17:27
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    It sounds like the TV show hasn't established that rule, and thus doesn't have to follow it. In the book the rule exists, and there's an example of it, in the TV show the rule may or may not exist, but as it's never explained nor exhibited, it might as well not exist. – Adam Davis Apr 29 '16 at 15:48
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Simply put - if a Dothraki army attacks, they are defeated, and they retreat, then they cut their braids.

Speaking of the book series, I can think of one reference for Dothraki cutting braids:

A Storm of Swords, chapter 8 - Daenerys.

Ser Jorah discusses Unsullied warriors with Daenerys and he recalls the events of the Battle of Qohor.

The Dothraki charged. The Unsullied locked their shields, lowered their spears, and stood firm. Against twenty thousand screamers with bells in their hair, they stood firm.

Eighteen times the Dothraki charged, and broke themselves on those shields and spears like waves on a rocky shore. Thrice Temmo sent his archers wheeling past and arrows fell like rain upon the Three Thousand, but the Unsullied merely lifted their shields above their heads until the squall had passed. In the end only six hundred of them remained . . . but more than twelve thousand Dothraki lay dead upon that field, including Khal Temmo, his bloodriders, his kos, and all his sons. On the morning of the fourth day, the new khal led the survivors past the city gates in a stately procession. One by one, each man cut off his braid and threw it down before the feet of the Three Thousand.

As for TV series - HBO's official viewer's guide website gives following description of the Dothraki.

The Dothraki are a nomadic band of horse lords who live in Essos on the plains beyond the Free Cities. They travel in packs known as khalasars, led by khals. A khal's strength can be determined by the length of his hair, as the khals only cut their hair after a defeat.

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    Yes! This is what I was failing to recall fully in my comment on the Q. – hairboat Apr 28 '16 at 17:29
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    So 20k - 12k = 8k screamers went one by one and cut off their braid? I admire the patience of the Unsullied more than their bravery. – Zikato Apr 29 '16 at 5:54
  • "in the end only six hundred of them remained" is this referring to six hundred remaining Unsullied or six hundred remaining Dothraki? – TylerH Apr 29 '16 at 19:48
  • @TylerH it's referring to the Unsullied. – The Giant of Lannister Apr 30 '16 at 7:22
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We know of only one incident where braids were cut in defeat. In the battle of Qohor the Dothraki attempted to invade the aforementioned city, easily defeating the local garrison and the hired sellswords. All that was left to oppose the Dothraki were 3000 Unsullied soldiers that Qohor had bought in anticipation of the siege. The Dothraki failed to pierce the Unsullied defense and incurred very heavy losses in the process. In the end, the Dothraki conceded defeat. The whole Khalasar cut off their braids and laid them at the feet of the victorious Unsullied.

So it would seem that this is one possible scenario where that might happen. Where a Khalasar would conceded defeat in lieu of getting completely wiped out.

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