Why Horses Have Whiskers and Should You Ever Cut Them?

Written by Beulah Martin
Up close horse eye showing whiskers around the eye.

A horse’s whiskers may look long and scraggly and seem like they do not have any essential purposes. Before clipping them off, let me share some important facts to help you make an educated decision.

Why horses have whiskers? The long wiry hairs that grow out from around a horse’s soft muzzle and his eyelids are his whiskers and are formally called vibrissae. Each whisker is like a feeler or an antenna. The vibrissae hair is usually thicker and stiffer than the other hairs, and has a hair follicle which has a capsule of blood with sensory nerves. The whiskers typically serve as tactile organs that can give the horse valuable information on the horse’s surroundings.

Horses receive a large amount of information from these whiskers. They act like a 3rd eye in helping the horse explore and find out about his environment. There is much that must be understood before a decision can be made to ever shave or clip your horse’s whiskers off.

A horse's snout showing off natural whiskers.
Natural whiskers of a horses muzzle

Is it cruel to cut off your horse’s whiskers?

It is true that your horse will not feel any pain if you did shave them off, because there are no nerves in the whiskers themselves. But that is not all you must consider when deciding if you want to get rid of them.

One of the main reasons that a horse owner has been willing to clip off his horse’s hair is usually because of cosmetic looks. If a horse is being shown or if the owner has the horse up for sale they look well groomed and majestic with a clean cut look. In fact, there are some horse events that require them to be shaven, like in the hunter jumper contests.

A horse muzzle with all the whiskers trimmed off.
Trimmed muzzle

Generally though, whiskerless horses are not required by the judges. There is not a place in the scorecard for the judge to mark down whether or not the horse was clipped or shaven. Maybe in case of a close tie, the judge might have broken the tie in favor of the better groomed and turned out horse. But that would probably be very rare. At least I hope it would be. So really the horse would not be punished if left natural.

So what are some reasons that would make it cruel if you were to decide to shave your horses whiskers off?

A lot of the reasons has to do with the horses eyes. Those whiskers are like an insect’s antennae. They can feel nearby objects and help them to distinguish how close they are. Horses have a blind spot right in the front of them because of the way their eyes are set far apart on each side of the horses face. This allows him to see almost all the way around his body. He can see in every direction, except right in front of his nose and then directly behind him.

The sensors in the whiskers help them to find food, to know how close the water is and how deep it is. The whiskers can also warn them about eating anything that might not be safe.

The most developed sense that a horse has is his sense of touch. In fact, the touch of a fly can be felt wherever it lands on his body. Horses respond to the touch on their eyes and on their ears, which is where their whiskers come in handy.

An up close eye picture of a horse.

10 benefits the horse receives from his whiskers.

  • The whiskers and lips work together to gather information about what to eat and what not to.
  • Their whiskers will keep them from eating poisonous plants.
  • They need their whiskers to judge texture and distance to things.
  • Whiskers around the ears and eyes can protect them from insects.
  • There would be more chance for accidents around the horses eyes and head without the sensory tool of their whiskers.
  • Horses are actually able to detect when an electric fence is on and hot and therefore can avoid the shock because of their whiskers.
  • The whiskers helps them enjoy rubbing and grooming their friends in the pasture, it helps them communicate better.
  • The naturally long whiskers which serve as feelers, help the horse navigating at night.
  • Can detect danger in the grass, especially snakes.
  • Young foals have extra long whiskers to help it navigate. Whiskers also help the foal find his mother’s teats to know where to find his dinner.

France joins Switzerland and Germany in making it illegal to shave your horse’s whiskers.

The French Equestrian Federation just recently banned the trimming of horses whiskers. They join Germany and Switzerland in prohibiting the trimming of the vibrissae around the eyes and muzzle as well as cutting the hairs inside the ears. A competitor with a shaved horse can be disqualified from the show.

It is still legal in Britain and here in the USA.

There are still many different opinions on this debate. There are many that feel if these hairs were put on horses there must be a good reason for it and they should not be removed. They feel the horses should be kept in a natural condition.

They have many stories to prove their way of thinking. Stories of horses who had their whiskers shaved and had injuries to their heads by banging into the wall in their stalls. They felt the horse had definitely lost the ability to sense where the objects were and how to avoid them.

There are others who tell stories of always shaving & trimming their horses and not having any bad experiences because of it.

Each owner will need to have the ability to make up their own decisions as to whether they would opt to trim their horses whiskers or not.

My personal experience

I have to admit that many years ago, when we were doing lots of horse showing, we had no idea that there was a problem. It was accepted and everyone was doing it.

Now that I have studied it more and understand that there is a sacrifice to the horse if I remove his whiskers, I think I will be more hesitant to remove them.

If there was a need and it was important to clip your horse for something special like a horse event, because it is obvious that the horses head looks regal and magnificent after it has been clipped, it seems that it would not hurt for a short time.

Then you would only have to clip them once or twice a year. Maybe just shortened and trimmed. You will start seeing them growing out in a week or two.

Thoroughbreds that are on the race track are normally clipped. But they are kept in very safe and secure stalls and are made sure they are safe.

It boils down to the fact that you get to make your own decision on whether to clip or not to clip. There are probably times when each might be what is needed at that time. Thank goodness we do still have the right to make our own choices. I hope we all keep the health and happiness of the horse as the most important factor. Good Luck to you and Happy Trails

Related Questions

Why do most animals have whiskers? Most animals do not have good eyesight. They hunt for food at night time. They need the whiskers to help them sense where everything is. The Whiskers are like fingers to help them see in the dark. It is called whisk when the rats, cats, dogs and other animals brush their whiskers against things to help them find their way around.