In the realm of things we do with our horses, there is a practise that we must stop: the shaving of our horses’ sensory hairs. Your horse has special tactile sensory hairs, known as whiskers. Her whiskers play an important part in her awareness of the world around her, filling in gaps that cannot be covered by other senses.
These amazing whiskers on your horse’s muzzle are called vibrissae and have their own nerve and blood supply. Whisker follicles are deeper and larger than other follicles, with a richer blood supply and a connection to far more nerves than her regular hairs. This makes the whiskers incredibly sensitive to touch, allowing your horse to detect incredibly subtle things like air movement.
To really understand how these seemingly innocuous and long facial hairs serve a crucial purpose in your horse’s sensory perception by providing her with a finely-tuned ability to navigate her surroundings, we first need to understand how your horse sees and interprets her environment.
Your horse relies on her peripheral motion vision for safety.
Evolution has made this an unchangeable part of her, honed over millions of years. How well she can detect things in her peripheral vision dictates her need to startle and bolt.
Your horse has phenomenal panoramic, lateral vision. Each eye can see a horizontal field of about 190°, and when combined it becomes about 350° – only 10° less than true surround view. It’s hard for us humans, who are forward-focused, to imagine this.
Your horse’s eyes are equipped with specialised cells known as rods and cones, just like your own eyes are. Photoreceptors in the retina are classified into two groups, named after their physical traits. Cones detect precision and colour in light, rods are receptive to motion and cover the blacks and whites in our vision. Rods are the reason we can see in the dark. They detect low levels of light and make up what is called our scotopic vision (cones make up our photopic vision).
Rods are particularly important in low-light conditions and play a crucial role in detecting motion. When the rods and cones in your eyes transmit a scene’s pattern of light and dark to your brain, your system takes half a second to process each glance at the world and determine what has been seen; shape, colour, size, distance, meaning etc.
But a horse in the wild can’t afford to spend half a second twiddling her hooves while she decides if something is dangerous or not. She needs to notice the smallest flicker of movement — the twitch of a branch or the bend of a blade of grass — and run to a safe distance. Only then she can stop and assess what’s behind her. So, your horse’s eyes are loaded with rods and the rods are connected to cells that send information about motion on a fast track to the brain for a quick getaway.
Your horse can also focus on something better from a distance, so putting space between her and whatever startled her makes sense for her, because it allows your far-sighted horse to see better. If it turns out that she was running away from something harmless, like a bicycle instead of a wolf, she has lost nothing.
Imagine if we, as humans, possessed such an acute sensitivity to motion – our world would be a constant flurry of alarming movements. Horses’ sensitivity to motion is so pronounced that their reactions, often misconstrued as spooking “at nothing”, are in fact responses to stimuli that are beyond our human perception. It doesn’t mean that the thing your horse spooks at is dangerous, it just means that your horse doesn’t know whether it’s dangerous or not, and she’d better be safe than sorry.
In this context, whiskers – often regarded as unremarkable appendages – emerge as crucial sensory tools.
The whiskers on your horse provide her with sensory feedback about her environment. Due to the whiskers having a good nerve supply, one study has even suggested that your horse may be capable of picking up vibrational energy, meaning that she can detect sound or feel the current in the electric fence without touching it.
This is important because your horse has a blind spot in front of her face and underneath her nose. The length of her whiskers determines a safe distance from objects, preventing her from unknowingly bumping into things with her nose. Imagine how she’d feel running into the electric fence with her sensitive whiskers?
Despite your horse’s panoramic vision, her eyesight includes several blind spots. Without changing her position, your horse cannot see above her back or neck, beneath her belly or neck, or directly behind her. The best spot in her vision that has the sharp acuity needed to see, inspect, and identify objects is in the horizontal streak at her eye level. This is so because of how the cones and rods in her eye are distributed. This means that birds or balloons above her eye level, or dogs and children on the ground are hard for her to see without moving.
This means that if you want to show her new things that you want her to inspect and get used to, you either stand off to her side, a good few metres away and hold the item at her eye level. Hold it there for a while because horse eyes focus slowly due to having fewer muscles to focus the eye. So give your horse enough time to get it in focus. The other option is to hold it up to her sensitive shoulder, where she can feel it and turn her head to look at it if she wants to.
She can barely see anything behind her, which is why even the sweetest horse can kick out if surprised from behind. It’s an instinctive reflex and can do a lot of damage, even kill. And even from a small horse, all it takes is one surprised kick to the chest, and a human can drop dead instantly.
This is why safety is paramount around horses.
And this is why the first lesson you ever learn around horses is to never approach them from behind. The way to approach a horses hindquarters are from the shoulder, preferably sliding your hand along the back and over the rump, signalling to your horse where you are and what your intention is.
If you’ve ever had a massage, you’ll know how disconcerting it can be when you’re lying face-down on a massage table, the padded ring around your face blocking your vision to all sides, and the person massaging you takes their hand off you for an extended period of time without explaining what they’re doing.
As a professional masseur, I can tell you this is highly unprofessional. We’re trained to either maintain contact with the client on the table at all times, even when moving around, to offer them a sense of safety as to where we are and that we’re still in the room. We typically do this by keeping one hand on the client, while explaining what we’re doing, such as moving around to the other side, or giving a heads up when we finish massaging one muscle group and move to the next. If we do have to break that contact, we’re trained to then give a verbal heads up before we touch the client again, to prevent them from startling.
This same principle applies to horses, because we do a lot of things near them and in their blind spots. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to keep up a running commentary to your horse about what’s going to happen, but that constant contact of sliding your hand along your horse as you move, helps to communicate your intention to your horse, as well as provide her with a sense of being in the loop as to what’s going on.
Another major blind spot is directly in front of your horse’s face.
According to Janet L. Jones, PhD, in her book “Horse Brain, Human Brain: The Neuroscience of Horsemanship” (a book I cannot recommend enough) the blind spot is from about eye-level to the ground below her nose, and out to about 2 metres (6 feet). Any sudden motion in this area, such as a hand suddenly raised, will appear as if out of nowhere to your horse. You’d be surprised too if a hand suddenly popped out of nowhere in front of your face.
Generally, it’s a good idea to not touch your horse’s forehead too much because that reading gesture can startle your horse. Ideally, you’ll want to wait for your horse to offer you her forehead by presenting you with her friendship point. When she offers that to you, she’s offering a very vulnerable point, so for the best relationship, you’ll want to respect her boundaries — just as you ask her to respect yours.
You’ll also want to keep in mind that horses are far-sighted, meaning that the things in their immediate vicinity are quite blurry and out of focus, and she uses her other senses as well as lowering, raising and craning or turning her head to get things in focus.
Your horse can’t see the grass she eats, the bit she accepts or the poorly supervised child who runs up to kiss her soft muzzle. In order to sense what’s going on in this blind spot, your horse uses her whiskers.
So while shaving your horses whiskers for “a cleaner look” might seem insignificant, it’s anything but. It’s physically rendering her completely unaware in an already compromised are of her vision.
While many horses will tolerate the action of trimming, by removing the whiskers we’re taking away a constant supply of information that our horses depend upon to move in the world. Not having the whiskers can cause confusion and stress in your horse, as well as increasing the risk of her hurting herself. She will not like having her whiskers removed any more than you’d like going through the world with a bag over your head.
Several countries as well as the FEI have already banned the trimming of whiskers for cosmetic purposes. The decision of the FEI General Assembly on November 23, 2020 to prohibit the trimming or removal of sensory hairs is defined by the FEI Veterinary Committee as, “hard hairs located on the horse’s muzzle and around its eyes, also known as ‘whiskers’ that are used for sensation”, for any reason other than a veterinary purposes on FEI competition horses.
Traditionally, horses that are shown competitively with untrimmed or unclipped whiskers might be considered by some to be poorly turned out. However, what the FEI does is an indication of how the rest of equestrian sports will follow, and we can hope this will soon extend to all competitive horses.
The only time whiskers should be removed is for veterinary purposes, or in a case where they may interfere with (or be interfered with resulting from) the fitting of protective equipment, but this is mostly an issue for police horses, and again, vet approved.
The FEI have put out a video with good tips on how to trim your horse without trimming the whiskers:
And while on the topic of what not to do on your horse for cosmetic purposes, trimming the ear hairs down too far is another thing that needs to stop. They serve an important job in protecting the delicate structures of the inner ear from insects, sun, rain and foreign objects. To make sure you don’t trim them too far, you’re allowed to trim them along the conch (as shown in the video).
These new rules are great because they still allow for you to trim your horse and present a nice, clean horse for competition, but in a way that doesn’t interfere with your horse’s welfare. By not shaving the whiskers, we’re respect the evolutionary design that equips horses with heightened awareness, ensuring their safety and well-being in a human world.