The Horse’s Whiskers

The Horse’s Whiskers

It has long been a tradition to shave the horse’s whiskers, known as vibrissae, around the muzzle and eyes as well as trimming the ears to make them look smart and tidy for the show ring. 

However, in recent years, the shaving of vibrissae has created much controversy in the horse world, becoming illegal in some countries. While a horse with no excess hair on the face is aesthetically pleasing, whiskers are there for a reason and serve vital sensory functions.

Whiskers allow a horse to maintain a safe distance from obstacles, and there are many stories of horses who have had theirs removed encountering facial injuries. Many horse owners though, claim never to have experienced any adverse effects and continue to shave their horse’s whiskers. 

Germany, Switzerland and France have banned the trimming of horse whiskers and ear hair on ethical grounds. Competitors not observing this rule face disqualification from competing at shows as it violates the country’s animal protection laws.

In this article, we discover what whiskers are and how they work, helping you make an informed decision on whether or nor not to trim your horse’s vibrissae.

What are Whiskers?

Whiskers are long, tactile hairs found on the face around the muzzle and eyes but differ to the other hairs on the body of the horse as they form sensory organs. They are embedded deep into the skin having a far richer blood supply and a stronger connection to the nerves than regular hairs. Whiskers follow a growth cycle whereby they form, mature and shed naturally before being replaced by new ones.

The word vibrissae originated from the Latin word “vibrio” meaning “to quiver or vibrate.” They are incredibly sensitive to touch with each one sending an electrical impulse to the sensory section of the brain to determine the appropriate response, be it automatic or voluntary.

How do Whiskers Work?

In every animal’s genetic make-up, natural selection has enabled traits that serve a purpose to carry forward, and vibrissae are no different. Each whisker provides the horse with essential information on their surroundings. They also act as a third eye as horses have blind spots in front of their nose and directly behind them.

Examples of how whiskers help horses are as follows:

  • Vibrissae protect delicate body tissues. The eye whiskers cause the horse to blink automatically whereby the muzzle whiskers allow the horse to feel its way around keeping their lips, nose and face out of harm’s way.

  • The lips and whiskers work together to help the horse find and evaluate food, making decisions on what is safe to eat and what to avoid.

  • Whiskers allow a horse to judge the distance, shape, temperature, texture and movement of an object.

  • Whiskers allow a horse to detect when an electric fence is on and therefore avoiding an electric shock.

  • The long whiskers allow the horse to navigate its way around at night and detect any danger such as predators.

  • The horse’s whiskers detect how far they are from a surface to aid comfort behaviours like head rubbing. By removing vibrissae, a horse is likely to bump into items and risky injury to the face and eyes especially in the stable.

  • Whiskers play a vital role when interacting and socializing with other horses. Mutual grooming helps assess the mood of the other horse.

  • Whiskers are crucial for horses that are partially sighted or blind as they rely on these sensory organs to compensate for the loss of vision.

  • Foals have extra-long whiskers which, although comical looking, is vital in helping them locate their mother’s teats for feeding.

Hair Inside the Horse’s Ears

The hair inside the horse’s ears provides some vital functions, protecting the inner ear skin from the sun, bugs, blowing dirt and foreign objects. Although a closely trimmed ear looks smart, removing the hair increases the chances of ear mites. 

It is now permissible in many equestrian competitions to use an ear bonnet on horses which acts as a bug repellent, reducing the need to trim them. Any horse with trimmed ears should wear a fly hood when out in the paddock.

Should You Trim Your Horse’s Whiskers?

Trimming horse whiskers is done purely for a clean and tidy cosmetic appearance. Since 1998, Germany has outlawed the trimming of horse vibrissae, and Switzerland and France have also followed suit as they claim it aids the horse’s spacial awareness. 

Trimming the whiskers doesn’t cause the horse any pain, but as they are so sensitive, the vibration of clippers may be uncomfortable. By removing horse vibrissae, owners need to be aware that there is an increased risk of a potential injury, especially to the eyes. The horse fails to avoid objects near their faces due to a lack of warning, and because the eyes are on the side of their heads, they cannot see right under their noses. There is also the possibility that any equine without whiskers may eat something undesirable like poisonous plants.

Studies on the function of whiskers carried out on rodents, and sea mammals apply to horses, but limited research fails to back up any evidence that equine whisker removal is a welfare concern. Much is down to circumstantial evidence, and more research is needed. 

Machteld Van Dierendonck, a Dutch veterinarian, discovered no detrimental effects during one pilot study. However, she is quick to state that the lack of results may be due to the small sample size or that vibrissae are not as crucial to horses as many scientists believe.

Although removing the whiskers around the horse’s muzzle may not cause problems, the same cannot be said for the vibrissae around the eyes as they protect against injury to the sensitive eye.

Other than the countries where equine whisker removal is banned, the trimming of vibrissae and ear hair is very much personal preference. Horses though are prey animals who depend on all their senses to survive and avoid injury. Whiskers are highly sensitive, multi-functional sensory organs that help the horse navigate its world, and by removing them, you reduce their spacial awareness.  We have given you all the facts, so whether you choose to trim your horse’s vibrissae or not is entirely your choice. Remember, though that nature gave the horse whiskers for a reason and you must seriously consider this fact.

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