Scientists, Federations Applaud FEI Whisker Shaving Ban

The Horse asked researchers and equestrian federation representatives for their takes on the new FEI rule banning shaving of facial vibrissae, which are sensory organs commonly called “whiskers.”

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Scientists, Federations Applaud FEI Whisker Shaving Ban
Horse whiskers are sensory organs called vibrissae. Research in rats shows clipping vibrissae will cause the animals to drown when they swim. Young horses, especially, show signs of disorientation when their whiskers are shaved. | Photo: iStock
Removing long facial hairs that help horses “see” their close surroundings could deprive them of a safety mechanism and possibly make them feel disoriented. As such, the recent decision of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) to ban removal of horses’ “sensory hairs”—the whiskers around the mouth and eyes—constitutes an important move to safeguard equine welfare, according to equine veterinary researchers and industry leaders.

“The move by the FEI to ban the trimming of equine whiskers is to be applauded,” said Roly Owers, MRCVS, CEO of World Horse Welfare, in Norfolk, U.K., an international charity partnering with the FEI on welfare matters for more than 30 years. “Whiskers, or vibrissae, play an important sensory role in protecting the muzzle and eyes of the horse and, hence, removing them because it looks neat is completely unjustifiable.”

Horses appear to rely on sensory hairs for judging how close their heads are to objects, especially when they’re so close they can’t see in front of their noses, since their eyes are on the sides of their heads, said Machteld van Dierendonck, PhD, who’s associated with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.

“All vibrissae are a kind of safety measure, not only above the eye (where horses have seven vibrissae on each side, including a ‘very, very long one’ nearest the nose),” van Dierendonck said. “Because a horse is not able to ’see’ under his nose, he ‘sees’ with his vibrissae

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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