Should We Trim Horses’ Whiskers?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY ILISSA LOEWENSTEIN MEYER

Anyone who watches international competition is seeing changes to some long-standing traditions in turnout and appearance. Some research indicates that “hunter hair” affects helmet fit to the point that it’s unsafe, and so many long-haired riders are opting not to tuck their hair under their helmets. New and innovative tack options are changing the traditional look of bridles, girths, and saddles to achieve more comfortable fits for their horses. Gone are plain fillis irons in favor of lighter, safer, and more secure stirrups.

But what about the horses’ muzzles? Germany outlawed trimming of whiskers in 1998. Switzerland and France have now followed suit, claiming that whiskers help horses’ spatial awareness, although scientific research has thus far not been conclusive on this issue. The USEF rule book doesn’t require whisker trimming, even for the hunters. Should we leave tradition alone or work to change it?

Grand Junior Hunter Champion at Devon, Evermore, sporting an unclipped bottom muzzle with owner/rider Mimi Gochman. Photo © Emily McNeill.

We asked for input on this practice, and Ilissa Loewenstein Meyer shared her thoughts as part of the ongoing conversation about the ethics of trimming whiskers:

For the last several years, the equestrian world has engaged in dialogue regarding shaving the whiskers on the equines that we own, show and love. Trimming of the vibrissae on the muzzle has been a ritual for the show ring for a long time, but is this cosmetic procedure in the best interests of animal welfare?

With Germany, Switzerland and now France banning the shaving of whiskers on horses, I believe it is time for our governing bodies to begin a serious conversation. Perhaps a ban is too extreme, but we could allow owners, trainers, riders and handlers the decision to shave or not shave without penalty.

Vibrissae are longer, thicker, and well-innervated hair follicles that provide sensory feedback to all animals that grow them. They offer the animal a way to sense food, water, and danger. In this way they protect the horse’s muzzle and eyes from trauma.

Photo © Ilissa Loewenstein Meyer

The external appearance of the animal seems to be paramount to some, while others are drawn to performance and behavior. We should not be forced to decide between the two. No one should be required to trim their horses’ whiskers if that might not be in the best interest of their animal just to win a class.

There was a time when I never thought that I would see a rider’s hair hanging down in a ponytail in a competition ring, but times are changing. We must be willing to embrace the change not just for ourselves, but the horses that we care for.

Our sport must start looking closely at the well-being of our animals. I have personally seen horses and ponies tranquilized to the point of falling over in order to remove body hair. There must be another option.

As equestrians, I think it is time that we are allowed to decide without worry that a judge may penalize us for choosing not to trim whiskers.

Do you have an opinion on horse whiskers? We’d love to hear from you. Email [email protected] with your thoughts.