Whiskers are wonders
When I wrote this article in 2016 the trimming of a horses whiskers was illegal in Germany, France and Switzerland, but in some other countries it was actively promoted. Now, in 2022 I am pleased to say that the Fédération Equestre Internationale, British Dressage, British Eventing Official, the UK Mounted Police, the Great Yorkshire Show and the Welsh Pony and Cob Society have all banned whisker trimming! Such wonderful news for our horse kin and I'm sure that this is just the start. Who's next?
People are choosing to leave whiskers on their horse as the whiskers (vibrissae) are actually an incredibly important sense to them. The whiskers around the eyes and muzzle are extremely sensitive and have a rich nerve supply (9). Each whisker in mice has a region of the sensory cortex (in the brain) dedicated to it (2). As horses and mice have similar physiology we can deduce that horses do too. ‘This dedication of a portion of the cortex to each vibrissa indicates that they must be extremely important sensory instruments which should not be removed for cosmetic purposes’ (McGreevy, 2004:51).
Horses need their whiskers to:
o Judge the texture and distance to things (3). Due to the position of
their eyes, horses cannot see under their mouth (1) and so the whiskers allow them to explore and identify what is under their nose.
o Foals use their whiskers to help them locate the teats to suckle (1).
o The whiskers and lips work together to gather information about what to eat and what not to (4). Therefore, horses without whiskers may be more likely to eat a poisonous plant by mistake.
o The whiskers are used to detect how far they are from a surface (6) and so aid comfort behaviours such as head-rubbing. Without this sensory tool they will be more likely to bump into objects and injure their faces and eyes by accident. This is especially problematic for stabled horses, who are surrounded by walls, hooks etc.
o The whiskers are thought to detect vibrational energy (5). This explains why horses with whiskers will put them near electric fences to test if it is on and avoid an unnecessary shock.
o Horses use their whiskers to communicate with a friend while mutual grooming. Mutual grooming is vital to horses both as part of their social life and as a form of silent communication. Whiskers enhance their sense of touch and help the horse to feel the other horse’s muscles contract and relax. This allows a mutual grooming horse to assess the mood of the other (8).
Please see the references at the bottom of the page.
Now you know why whiskers are wonders please join us in a pledge not to trim your horses whiskers, and tell a friend too.
Now people may say who is this Emily? Why should we believe her? Well it's not just not me who thinks this, most of the top Equine Professionals would agree:
“An area that seems highly tactile in horses is the muzzle. The whiskers (vibrissae) of the horse’s muzzle all have blood-filled sacs at their base to amplify movement. They help foals find the teat and adult horses to feel structures that surround the blind spot at the end of their nose. It is entirely appropriate that countries are banning the practice of whisker trimming. Ethically, modifying this sensory structure in pursuit of human aesthetics is very difficult to defend.”
Professor Paul McGreevy
“First off, while I don't know of research data specifically in the horse, plenty of data in other species indicates a significant portion of the brain devoted to processing information from facial vibrissae, which correlates with importance of these specialized sensory organs. Until their function, and the effects of cutting them off, are fully understood, alteration for cosmetic purposes is not consistent with humane and respectful animal care. one has to wonder how that grooming tradition got started.
Secondly, I would hypothesize that equine athletes with intact vibrissae have a competitive advantage over those that have been altered, and that even for hacking out, a horse with whiskers and other facial vibrissae would be a safer mount. A scientific answer to that would be very helpful. If funding could be arranged, I would do the research to answer the question if funded."
Sue McDonnell, PhD CAAB Founding Head Equine Behavior Program, University of Pennsylvania Vet Med
“The first thing a wild horse does when it dares to approach you is examine the contours of your face minutely and exhaustively with its whiskers, to know you. Like its eyes, ears and nose, a horse’s whiskers are sense organs, collectors of information. They warn that the sensitive lips are near a surface and assess its form, texture and pliability, allowing the horse to learn what is beneath his nose safely and delicately. We can’t even imagine what else they do: feel air movement or ants in the feed, find where to nuzzle or play a significant role in naso-nasal contact, for instance. But we can imagine that being deprived of a sense organ amounts to mutilation.”
Lucy Rees - Ethologist & Horse Trainer
"If we genuinely care about horses, we need to go beyond our anthropocentric view of what animals should look like. Horse whiskers are there for a reason and should be left there, if we want to help horses to make as much sense as they can of the world around them.”
Prof Daniel S. Mills BVSc PhD CBiol FSB FHEA CCAB Dip ECAWBM(BM) MRCVS
European & RCVS Recognised Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine
"Sensing through whiskers is part of the E.caballus species typical exploratory behavior. This behavior is likely to follow prior sensory stimulation and often times precedes more intimate investigation through taste or further more physical touch. Considering that horses have a blind spot in the area of the muzzle, while grazing their perception of surrounding extraneous objects, especially during grazing and browsing, is enhanced through their whiskers. De-whiskering is basically parallel to blindfolding someone with his hands tied behind his back and left to explore the world by bumping his nose on things…"
Victor Ros - Naturalist & Behaviourist
"Horses, like many other animals, have these anatomical features to help them experience their surroundings and inform their decision making process. Who do we think we are to cut anything off for human aesthetics. Animals deserve basic rights and not to be mutilated must be one of them."
Caroline Ingraham, Author, lecturer and founder of Applied Zoopharmacognosy
“As en equine science journalist, I am often taken by the different attitudes to horses when compared to other pets. No cat owner would dream of cutting off their cat's whiskers. No hamster owner would deprive their hamster of its whiskers for cosmetic reasons. Yet many horse owners routinely do this, only because they think it looks tidy. Perhaps they don't know that horses need their whiskers every bit as much as cats, dogs and mice need theirs. Perhaps they know and they don't care. Domestication has robbed the horse of so much of its freedom to display its natural behaviours. Whisker trimming is one aspect of this problem which could easily be resolved by sending a strong message to horse owners.”
Julie Kaiser-Hansen - Equine Journalist
“Whiskers are so essential to a horse, that it is actually distressing to them when people shave them off. Horses need humans to love them for who they are, and how they look naturally.”
Margrit Coates - Author, Animal Healer & Communicator
“A horse's muzzle is the closest thing to the human hand in terms of nerve ending and dexterity. They have a very mobile top lip that enables them to manipulate objects and they use their whiskers to 'feel' with. When you remove your horse's whiskers you remove part of this very important apparatus - avoid doing it!”
Jane Myers - MSc Equine Grazing Behavior Specialist
“Have you ever watched a horse pick his favourite bits out of a feed or be able to find small grains on the floor? Their whiskers have a role in detecting different textures, as well as in understanding the space around them. To remove them for competition means depriving your horse of something he very much relies on.”
Suzanne Rogers - Animal Welfare Consultant
“As prey animals horses rely on all their senses to help them decide what is safe and what isn't in order to survive and avoid injury. Removing whiskers prevents a horse's ability to completely evaluate something that may compromise their safety and therefore may contribute to the horse responding inappropriately to a stimuli they may have otherwise have felt comfortable to be around.”
Anita Menzies-Udale - Co Founder of The Scottish Animal Behaviour and Rescue Centre
“The horse has whiskers - or vibrissae - to help him navigate his world. They are super-sensitive, multi-functional sensory organs with densely packed nerves at their root that send sensory messages to the horse’s brain.
These whiskers are so sensitive to vibration and changes in air current they can instantly inform the horse about his environment - for example helping him avoid injury by detecting nearby objects, differentiating between different textures, judging wind direction and identifying food. The horse has a blind spot beneath his muzzle and so his whiskers are a vital aid to his vision.
From the horse’s point of view, removing these whiskers reduces his spatial awareness and leaves him partially handicapped. We in the UK are very backward in many aspects of horse welfare and it’s time for us to catch up with Switzerland and Germany and ban the trimming of whiskers.”
Justine Harrison - Equine Behaviourist
"It is just plain unnecessary and wrong to remove the whiskers of equines for cosmetic purposes."
Ben Hart - Harts Horsemanship
Please see below for Lauren Emerson's study on peoples attitudes regarding whisker trimming:
Fraser, A (1992) The behaviour of the horse, CAB International, Wallingford
Harman, A (2002) personal communication cited in McGreevy, P (2004) Equine Behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh
Kiley-Worthington, M (1997) Equine Welfare, J. A. Allen & Company Ltd, UK
McGreevy, P (2004) Equine Behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh
Mills, D & Nankervis, K (1998) Equine Behaviour: Principles & Practice, Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford
Rees, L (1984) The horses mind, Butler & Tanner Ltd, GB
Simpson, H (2004) Teach yourself horse, D.J. Murphy Ltd, Great Britain
Simpson, H (2008) Meeting the needs of your horse, NAC Library Publiation, Great Britain
Talukdar AH, Calhoun ML, Stinson AW. Microscopic anatomy of the skin of the horse. Am J Vet Res 1972; 31:1751–1754.