Lauren Fraser on May 08, 2012
Do you prefer your horse clean shaven, and tackle every stray hair with scissors, pulling comb, or clippers? Or are you in the “wild and wooly” camp, whose members sport shaggy beards, hairy fetlocks and whiskery chins? Whichever grooming club you belong to, you may want to reconsider trimming a certain part of your horse’s body the next time the urge to tidy things up overcomes you.
The horse is a highly perceptive prey animal, that relies on the information he receives from all of his senses to survive. Even though the majority of us are working with horses that have been domesticated, they still retain all of the instincts of their feral and wild cousins, and understanding how they perceive their world gives us valuable information to interpret their behavior. In addition to their other senses, horses rely heavily on their sense of touch to survive as a species. As many horse owners can attest, horses make quick decisions (and sometimes have fast reactions) when something unexpected touches them. The sensitivity along their sides is even greater than that of our own fingertips. Nature tends to not create superfluous items on animals, so seemingly everything on the horse probably serves a purpose. To many people, those wiry, long hairs that protrude from around the horse’s eyelids and muzzles are considered an eyesore or a nuisance. Some over-zealous owners attack them regularly with clippers or scissors, without a second thought. But perhaps you should, as their function matters to the horse. Those long “hairs” are technically what’s called vibrissae -sensors with their own nerve and blood supply, and corresponding region in the brain devoted just to interpreting the information that these feelers pick up. Much as cats use their whiskers as sensory organs, the horse uses them in a variety of ways: He investigates novel objects by touching them with the vibrissae to gather more information. They act as a pre-warning device when the horse’s face or muzzle is getting close to touching an object he may want to avoid. They assist him with depth perception in the blind spot under his muzzle; even if the horse can’t see what’s literally right under his nose, he can still feel it, and make decisions based on the information he receives from touching it. Newborn foals also use them to help find the dam’s teats shortly after birth.
The horse doesn’t react when the vibrissae are trimmed, because the nerves they contain aren’t attached to pain receptors. If they did hurt, we would probably be less likely to have started trimming them in the first place. Trimming of vibrissae is outlawed in Germany, where it is understood that they play the role of sensory organ, and aren’t just merely an untidy disruption on a clean profile. Horses that have them trimmed are more likely to suffer eye, ear, and facial injuries or lacerations, due to the lack of pre-warning they would receive when their head was too near an object. Picture a freshly clipped horse in a trailer, who needs those whiskers to tell him when the wall of the rocking trailer is too close to his face as he bounces down the highway on the way to a show.
I encourage my students and clients to be “junior scientists”, and to observe what happens as their horse interacts with them and his world. Before your next clipping or trimming session, spend some time observing horses with intact vibrissae. Watch, as they approach novel objects and use their whiskers to investigate its qualities. Observe how they use them as feelers to gauge the distance between their faces and muzzles and items they might need to avoid. And save those clippers for the more purely cosmetic horse grooming jobs. Lauren Fraser is an Associate Certified Horse Behavior Consultant with the IAABC, and operates Good Horsemanship in Squamish, BC, Canada.