Shaving off a horses whiskers has long been common practice in dressage and show rings and is always done purely for aesthetic purposes.
However, there are many ethical concerns about the practice. It was made illegal in France earlier this year and has long been illegal in Switzerland and Germany.
Horses that have had their whiskers removed in these countries can be immediately disqualified from competition.
When deciding whether you should shave them or leave them it is important to understand the function and purpose of whiskers.
Whiskers are not the same as regular hair. They are much longer, thicker and more rigid.
The scientific term for whiskers on all animals is vibrissae, or tactile hairs. They are found in specific locations around a horses face including the bottom of the jaw, between the upper lip and nostrils and around the eyes.
And though the whiskers themselves do not have nerves, they are deeply rooted in follicles filled with nerves and blood vessels. This makes them functionally very different from ordinary hair.
Whiskers are, in fact, an important sensory organ, helping the horse to gather information about their environment. Specifically, they help a horse to ‘see’ where their eyes can’t.
It is important to remember that horses do not sense their environment in the same way that people do. The positioning of their eyes creates blind spots directly in front of them and below their nose.
The whiskers are positioned to help the horse to ‘see’ these areas. When a whisker touches an object vibrations are sent along it to the follicle, where nerves are activated and signals sent to a specific region of the brain to be interpreted.
It is these signals that aid the horse in navigating their world, forming an environmental map and helping to keep them safe.
This includes helping the horse to sense safe distances from objects and protect their eyes from injury. They use them to determine edible from inedible objects when grazing and enhance sight in the dark when vision is poor.
The shaving of whiskers is done purely for cosmetic reasons. A horse should never receive lower marks in competition if they are not shaved.
Because the act of shaving the whisker itself causes no pain, and many have always done it with no obvious detrimental side-effects, many do not view the practice as harmful.
However, the evidence shows that removing the whiskers also removes a significant part of the animals sensory system, forcing them to adapt to living with reduced ‘sight’ capabilities.
For those countries that have banned shaving, their view is that owners need to take equine ethology into deeper consideration when deciding how to manage their horses.
Therefore, the decision to leave the whiskers on or shave them off should only be made after due consideration of all of the welfare concerns with the practice.