Horse Welfare: Whiskers – Why they are needed
After some time of absence from visiting and watching horse shows, I spent yesterday at a big international show showcasing numerous showing classes. And of course, the number of horses in these classes having their whiskers shaved, trimmed, clipped, etc. was astounding.
I grew up in Germany where the removal of whiskers is legally banned and I remember being taught early on in life by the elder horsemen and women around me that you never touch – i.e. remove – a horse’s whiskers. That is the world I grew up in and I was a little surprised, to put it mildly, when I happened to encounter the practice of shaving and trimming those important hairs to be a standard in certain equestrian disciplines in other countries. And when I asked about the reasons for doing this, the answer I received was that the horse looks ‘well groomed’, ‘neat and tidy’ and ‘smart’.
So why should we consider overthinking this practice? As shown, its purpose merely serves our own vanity and human based aesthetic standards with little consideration of the horse while depriving them to explore their environment in an appropriate way and thereby reducing horse welfare.
Horses are highly perceptive animals who rely on their senses to receive all the information needed for survival. One of these senses is their tactile sense which is also being exercised through their vibrissae – the long whiskers on the nose and over and under the eyes.
Vibrissae differ from other hair in that they are longer and thicker than regular coat hair, they have a tapered shape and their root lies deeper into the skin. The vibrissae’s hair follicle is about 5-6 times larger than a regular hair follicle (Andres et al. 1973) and it is surrounded by a blood filled sinus (Rice et al 1986) which is heavily innervated by sensory nerves. Each whisker has an identifiable representation in the somatosensory cortex of the brain. This dedication of a portion of the cortex to each vibrissa indicates that they must be extremely important to their sensory system and should not be removed for cosmetic purposes (McGreevy 2004). Vibrissae are considered to mediate a tactile sense which is complementary to that of the skin.
Horses use them:
- to judge texture and distance;
- to identify objects they cannot easily visualise and which are in the blind spot in front of and right under their noses which they cannot see;
- to help them explore their environment at night time;
- to forage, drink and graze;
- to conduct social contact;
- to investigate the ground;
- to detect the distance from surrounding surfaces and objects;
- to detect vibrational energies such as from electric fencing;
Why would you want to take this options away from the horses in your care and limit them?
One argument from those promoting the shaving and trimming of whiskers I repeatedly hear is, “I have done this for years and never seen that the horses are being affected. They are well able to function without them”. Well, if I have to wear gloves all day long I am also able to function, to get on and to cope with most tasks at hand similar as without, but surely the sense of touch of my hands is limited and restricted. And I can exercise my tactile perception of the things I touch more accurately and precisely using my bare hands and receiving information through my skin.
Also, horses that have their whiskers removed are more likely to suffer eye, ear, and facial injuries or lacerations, as they cannot tell when their head is too close to an object. And even though some horses do not suffer any harms does not mean that the next one does not as well.
I recommend to take the time to closely watch and observe horses and their behaviour concerning the use of their whiskers to see and experience their practical use and purpose yourself.
I am also aware that there are ‘bigger’ welfare problems out there. However, I like to ensure that the horses in my care get the best welfare I can provide and I personally do not see any justification in the use of a practice which has no benefit other than serving a sense of vanity while being able to negatively affect the horses’ way of experiencing its surroundings which may cause stress and thereby reduces the welfare of horses.
From an ethical standpoint, the horse’s need to make full unlimited use of its sensory functions without restrictions has to be valued higher than a horse owner’s/rider’s personal aesthetic and economic interests (as chances to win certain shows are considered higher with a clean shaven horse).