Recently there’s been a few articles circulating which explain the importance of whiskers on horses.
A lot of showing people trim their horses whiskers, as well as every other part of the body, and I remember at the yard at home the trimmers used to do the rounds before a local show, as all the girls’ ponies were smartened up. It was the done thing, and nobody questioned it.
Now I admit, I do think the clean cut shape a trimmed face makes looks very smart, and I can see the advantages in the show ring for showing the judge good facial conformation. But then I don’t like my men with facial hair….
However, horses evolved with whiskers so they must have a purpose. They do. Whiskers have individual nerves with direct links to the brain, and are used by horses explore their environment and investigate objects whilst protecting the sensitive muzzle and lips from damage. Whiskers will detect hazards before he comes into contact with it, thus avoiding injury. Muzzle whiskers also help a horse separate food, guiding the horse away from undesirable food and working with the lips to move it away from edible food. Additionally, horses will compensate for poor vision by using their whiskers to map out their environment.
Perhaps if your horse is purely a show animal, living in, with 20/20 vision, and wrapped in cotton wool then there is a justifiable reason for trimming whiskers, however for most animals they need their whiskers to keep them safe.
I know some people who shave their horses on an almost daily basis, and others who only trim them when they are clipped. Others trim the eye whiskers, which I think is ridiculous as the eye is so important and delicate. Ears can be trimmed too, which sharpens their outline immensely, and removing the inside hair can also make the horse look smarter, but it’s easy to make one ear look different to the other.
Where do I stand on all this trimming malarkey? I trim the beards, giving the horses a clean jaw line which really smartens them up, even when they only have few straggly hairs which just look a bit unkempt. I don’t trim muzzle whiskers without good reason. If the whiskers are really long then trimming the end can actually make them more useful to the horse as they don’t get trapped or bent over, and the same goes for eye whiskers. I have once chopped the last inch of Otis’s eye whiskers as it was so long it got tangled in the bridle and was getting damaged under his fly mask: I decided I’d rather it fully functional but slightly shorter – I think I measured it to be at least six inches long before I took off the bent end! I used to trim the outside edge of ears, making the definite shape, but Otis is so sensitive about his ears that I’d rather just touch them confortably, and I know he doesn’t like the sound of the scissors. I don’t think I’ve ever taken all of the inside ear hair out; after all it’s use is to filter out dust to keep the ears fully functional. I know if a horse has excessive ear hair I would trim it flush with the outer ear – avoiding any confusions with Granddad, and again helping improve the outline of the horses head.
There is a growing trend towards leaving horses au natural, Switzerland and Germany have banned the practice altogether, and I can see why. We don’t trim the whiskers on a dog or cat, but I think until the majority of people leave the whiskers alone there will always be a bit of a trend in the show ring.
I was reminded of this issue at Pony Club as one of the ponies had whiskers about an inch long. Either they were growing out or it was the showing Mum’s compromise between sense and fashion. I do think though, that a horse can be tidied up, presented well, look smart, but maintaining all their vissebrae – or whiskers to you and me. Educating owners and riders in the function of whiskers is really the only way to reduce this practice.