What are horse whiskers?
Horses have special tactile sensory hairs, known as their whiskers. The whiskers on a horse play an important role in their sensory awareness system. These amazing sensory hairs have their own nerve and blood supply and help horses navigate their surroundings.
Whisker follicles are deeper and larger than other hair follicles, with a richer blood supply and a connection to far more nerves than regular hairs. This helps make whiskers incredibly sensitive to touch, even if it's something as subtle as air movements.
Location and purpose of whiskers
Whiskers are a coarse hair-like structure found around the horse’s eyes and muzzle. The purpose of whiskers, both around the eyes and muzzle, is to provide sensory feedback on the horse’s environment and surroundings. The length of the whiskers determines the safe distance from unfamiliar objects, compensating for the blind spots a horse has in front of its face and underneath its nose1. In fact, many times the only information a horse receives about what is happening in these areas is provided through its whiskers. As well as this, they also enable the horse to understand unfamiliar characteristics of food or detect small inedible objects2.
The whiskers, present on both upper and lower eyelids, provide an automatic blink response when they encounter something like a fly or contact with an object which helps protect the eye itself.
Due to the whiskers having a good nerve supply, one study has even suggested that horses may be capable of picking up vibrational energy through their whiskers, which might help them detect sound frequencies, or feel the energy in an electric fence without touching it3.
Inner Ear Hair
Hairs within the inner ear also play an important role in the horse’s sensory system by providing feedback from their environment and also protecting the delicate structures of the inner ear.
The outer ear hair (more fluffy hair) encloses the inner hair, acting as a protective barrier to the sensitive inner ear skin from bugs, sun, and foreign objects.
Care should be taken not to excessively trim the outer ear hair, to help ensure adequate protection remains for the delicate inner ear structure. By gently holding the ear closed when trimming the outer hair, you will help eliminate the risk of taking off too much.
For many years it has been general practice to remove the horse’s sensory hairs for cosmetic purposes. Traditionally, horses that are shown competitively with untrimmed or unclipped whiskers might be considered by some to be poorly turned out. The BHS advises that sensory hairs located around the mouth, nose, eyes and inner ears are an important sensory organ for the horse and should not be removed for cosmetic purposes.
The practice of whisker removal is common in countries like Great Britain and America. However, in some countries such as Germany and Belgium, the practice has been banned for many years, due to welfare concerns. More recently the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) has banned whisker trimming as of July 2021, with some British governing bodies following suit. British Dressage (BD) included the following in its 2021 rule changes: “Trimming of the horse’s sensory hairs around the mouth, nose, eyes and ears is not permitted, as this may reduce the horses’ sensory ability.” Whilst British Eventing (BE) have confirmed that the rule banning sensory hair removal will be recommended this year and compulsory from 2022. The UK Mounted Policing section has also confirmed that they will no longer clip their horse’s whiskers for cosmetic purposes.
Impacts of whisker trimming on the horse
While many horses may tolerate the action of trimming, removing the whiskers will take away the constant supply of varying sensory information they deliver, which has the potential to cause:
- Increased risk of injury
Therefore, it seems horses are certainly much better off with them than without them.
But don’t just take our word for it….
Cathy Hyde, BHS Welfare Field Officer and a highly respected show judge:
I think it’s an excellent rule [FEI ruling] and I hope it will filter down through the other disciplines and at the lower levels. It’s seen as tradition to shave everything off, but people should realise that as we learn more, we have to adapt to what is and isn’t acceptable.
1) Emerson, L. Giffin, K. Stevenson, A. (2016). Practice and attitudes of trimming equine vibrissae (sensory whiskers) in the UK and Germany. Journal of Veterinary behaviour, Vol 15, pg 92.
2) Jenson, P. (2017) The Ethology of Domestic Animals, Third Edition. CABI. pg 182.
3) McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine behaviour. A guide for veterinarians and equine scientists. Second Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences., pg 49.