Should You Trim Your Horse’s Whiskers?
If you are attending a show, you will want your horse to look at his very best. There is no doubt that whiskers, also known as vibrissae, don’t do much for your horse’s look, but they are a sensory tool for your horse.
Whisker trimming / shaving is legal in the UK but the outlawed in Germany where a trimmed / shaved horse may be disqualified from a competition. The question is, which country has got it right?
Sensory Aids for Horses
The whiskers around a horse’s muzzle provide sensory feedback. They help to create a picture of the environment and so enable the horse to keep a safe distance from unfamiliar objects and substances. The whiskers assist horses to detect small inedible objects in their food. Whiskers around the eyes have a good nerve supply and so pick up vibrations. When something touches the whiskers around the eyes, this elicits a blink response which protects horses’ eyes.
Whiskers appear to make everyday life for a horse easier and safer. So, it does seem a little ludicrous that a horse could be marked down in competition for their appearance if their whiskers haven’t been trimmed. Is the case of humans transferring their vanity to horses?
Potential for Injury
Many riders now refuse to trim their horses’ whiskers even at the risk of losing marks in competition. Horses have been known to bang their heads after having their whiskers removed because it takes time for them to realise that they no longer have them. It is much harder for horses to feel their way around in the dark without whiskers.
While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence which suggests horses with trimmed vibrissae are more prone to facial injuries, there is no actual scientific proof. Research is required into exactly how crucial whiskers really are.
There had been studies that looked at the role of whiskers in several species. However, no research conducted into the importance of whiskers to horses. That is until Dutch veterinarian Machteld Van Dierendonck ran a pilot study examining the function of equine whiskers and the effect of shaving them. She failed to produce definitive results and does not know whether this was because she only looked at a small number of horses or whether whiskers aren’t so important after all.
Many equestrians who do shave their horses have reported that there have witnessed no ill effects. Horses which live in controlled environments may do well without whiskers because they simply don’t need them. Whereas horses living wild may not fare so well.
This is a debate which will no doubt continue until scientists can provide more definitive proof one way or the other. The issue does rather expose the human obsession with aesthetics. Horses probably don’t much care what they look like especially when it comes to facial hair!