The whiskers and ear hair on a horse might look untidy in appearance, but you may want to reconsider trimming it before you reach for the scissors or clippers. Although many competitors and show judges consider these hairy strands unsightly and unacceptable in the show ring, there is a reason why they are there in the first place.
Since 1998, under paragraph 6 of the German Animal Welfare act, Germany has forbidden the cutting or clipping of vibrissae from around a horse’s eyes and muzzle as well as removing hair inside of the ears. Any competitor found not observing this rule at German horse shows can be disqualified or fined.
While the rest of the world permits the trimming of whiskers and ear hair it has created much controversy among the equine fraternity. Many argue that having no excess hair on a horse’s face is visually pleasing, looking neat, tidy and smart while others claim that vibrissae serve vital sensory functions.
Horses are highly sensitive animals who rely on their senses to receive vital information essential for survival. Whiskers are tactile hairs known as vibrissae that differ to the other hairs on the body because they are stiffer and longer as well as being a sensory organ. The word vibrissae are from the Latin word “vibrio” which means to vibrate.
A vibrissae follicle is around six times larger than the normal hair follicles on a horse and embedded deeper into the skin with distinct blood and nerve supply. The whiskers are extremely sensitive to touch, and each one sends an electrical impulse to the sensory section of the brain to determine what is being felt, giving the appropriate reaction that is either voluntary or automatic.
Although whiskers do not follow a shedding pattern like the rest of the hairs on a horse’s body, they do have a growth cycle where they form, mature and then naturally shed being replaced by new ones.
Whiskers are located on the horse’s face on both the upper and lower eyelids and around the muzzle allowing them to understand and explore what is happening in their environment. Vibrissae around the eyes have a good nerve supply that pick-up vibrations and, when touched, elicits a blink response which protects the eyes.
Because the horse’s eyes are on the sides of their heads, they have a blind spot in front of the face and under the nose. Therefore, the whiskers on the delicate muzzle area act as a “third eye” for the horse helping them to explore and identify objects, protecting the lips and nose from touching something. Quite often a horse relies on its whiskers to gather information about what is happening in these blind areas.
Horses evaluate objects they cannot visualise due to their blind spot by using their whiskers, which allows them to judge the texture, distance, temperature, shape and movement. How often do you see a horse sniff something, yet stand quite far away? Whiskers around the muzzle help gather information about their surroundings, searching for food and water, as well as detecting danger.
Foals are born with a plentiful supply of whiskers, more than that seen on an adult horse which is also longer and look quite comical in appearance. These sensors enable them to find their mother’s teats to suckle soon after they are born. In fact, vibrissae are the first type of hair that forms during the embryonic stage.
Whiskers make everyday life easier and safer for the equine, as they have done for millions of years, helping them avoid injury or from eating the wrong thing. The whiskers in conjunction with the lips, guide the horse towards edible food, pushing away anything undesirable.
A horse with no vibrissae risks eating something poisonous or suffering injuries or lacerations to the eyes, ears, face and lips due to the lack of pre-warning, being unable to tell when they are too close to an object. This is a particular problem with stabled horses who are surrounded by walls, buckets, tie rings etc.
Some researchers believe that the whiskers on animals allow them to detect vibrational energy, which could explain why horses with vibrissae put them near electrical fencing to test if they are on, avoiding an unnecessary electric shock.
Vibrissae are particularly crucial to a horse that is blind or partially sighted as they rely on other senses to compensate for their loss of vision. Horses also use their whiskers when interacting with one another through grooming, assessing the mood of their friend by feeling the muscles contract and relax.
The tactile hairs inside the horse’s ear perform several vital functions and by trimming them removes the ear’s natural protection against the sun, foreign objects and flies, increasing the chances of ear mites. Today, in many equestrian competitions, the use of ear bonnets for horses are permissible, acting as a bug repellent, so there is no need to trim. If you do decide to clip inside the ears, always use a fly hood when turning your horse out in the field.
Clipping the whiskers and ear hair of horses has long been a tradition that is purely for cosmetic reasons. Although trimming doesn’t appear to hurt, many horses appear unhappy or impatient when this practice is carried out plus you are reducing the animals’ ability to use these tools as nature intended. Removing vibrissae from the horse’s muzzles takes away their ability to “feel” and could compromise their safety.
Although there is circumstantial evidence that implies that horses with shaved whiskers are more prone to facial injuries, there are no scientific studies as to how vibrissae provide feedback to the horse’s brain regarding their environment. All studies carried out so far were conducted on rodents and sea mammals. Many equestrians who do trim their horse’s whiskers have not seen any ill effects, but more research is needed to determine if vibrissae are crucial to the equine species.
There is no right or wrong answer and the debate will continue to run and run. It is a personal preference of the horse owner, but nature put those whiskers there for a reason.