The Function of Horse Whiskers
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Oct 11, 2023
If you're a horse owner, you may have noticed the long, thick hairs protruding from your horse's muzzle. These are called whiskers and serve an important purpose for your equine friend. Whiskers are highly sensitive sensory organs that help horses experience, explore, and react to the world around them. With this being the case, many horse owners have started to think about the impacts of trimming these highly sensitive hairs. This has led to bans in many countries regarding trimming horses’ whiskers. Despite their importance, some horse owners clip their horses' whiskers for aesthetic reasons. However, it's important to understand the potential consequences of trimming your horse's muzzle.
The Anatomy of Horse Whiskers
Horse whiskers, or vibrissae, are specialized touch sensors on a horse's muzzle and around its eyes. These sensory hairs are longer, stiffer, and larger in diameter than other hairs. They are also connected to the horse's nervous system.
Their location is not random. They are concentrated around the eyes, between the nostrils and upper lip, and on the bottom jaw beneath the lower lip. These locations compensate for the blind spots a horse has in front of its face and underneath its nose. Horse whiskers provide feedback to the horse on their surroundings, helping to determine the safe distance from objects. They also help to protect the eyes and muzzle from potential harm.
The Purpose of Horse Whiskers
Horse whiskers are touch sensors that provide additional sensory input to the horse's brain. Whiskers help horses in object localization and detection of movement. They can help discern an object's distance, texture, temperature, shape, and movement. This ability is particularly useful when horses explore new environments or are in low-light conditions, such as dim barns or night-time.
Each whisker sends a unique, identifiable signal to the brain when stimulated. They help horses to understand their surroundings. Whiskers also aid in texture and shape discrimination and movement in response to a stimulus. They play a crucial role in a horse's locomotion, maintenance of equilibrium, swimming, and locating food.
Horse Whiskers in Newborn Foals
Newborn foals are born with longer whiskers than adult horses; some even curl all the way under their chins. The whiskers are the first hair to form during embryonic development. These whiskers play an important role in the foal's early life. They are believed to help the foal find its mother's teats to feed. Whiskers also help protect the foal’s muzzle and eyes while exploring new environments and socializing with the herd.
Trimming Horse Whiskers
Many horse owners trim their horse's whiskers for aesthetic reasons or horse shows. Aside from removing the sensory ability and protection, trimming can be scary for horses. Here at Parelli Natural Horsemanship, we teach students to build their horse’s confidence with clippers in case of medical needs or to remove other excess hair that does not serve a sensory purpose, but we do not recommend trimming a horse’s whiskers.
The Prohibition of Trimming Horse Whiskers
Different countries have varying attitudes toward horse whiskers. For instance, the United States has no specific laws or regulations regarding horse whiskers. However, some horse shows may have their own rules regarding the trimming of whiskers for horses competing in their events. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) has recently prohibited the trimming of whiskers at USEF-sanctioned events.
In Germany, the German Equestrian Federation prohibits the trimming of horse whiskers. This aligns with the Animal Welfare Act, which states that animals should not be subjected to unnecessary harm or suffering. Similarly, other European countries such as Switzerland and France have also banned trimming horse whiskers.
The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the international governing authority of horse sports, has also taken a stance on horse whiskers. They banned the removal of horses' sensory hairs, including the whiskers around the mouth and eyes, as of July 1, 2021. This ban applies to all competitive disciplines, including dressage, jumping, and eventing. The FEI ban does not apply to trimming for medical reasons such as surgical procedures.
The ban on trimming horse whiskers is based on equine welfare concerns. Whiskers are highly sensitive and crucial to a horse's sensory perception. Removing these sensory hairs can cause discomfort, disorientation, and even injury to horses. They help horses navigate their surroundings, detect potential dangers, and communicate with other horses. Before picking up a pair of clippers or allowing anyone else to touch your horse’s whiskers, we encourage you to think of the sensory purposes they serve. And most of all, remember to put the relationship first so that both you and your horse can have the best horse life possible.