The French Equestrian Federation (FFE) has banned the removal of the horse's whiskers on welfare grounds. It joins Germany and Switzerland in bringing into effect a rule that would disqualify any horse from competition if the whiskers have been removed.
On their website they state that vibrissae, the correct term for whiskers which are the long tactile hairs around the eye, nose and mouth of the horse, are sensory organs. And just like cat's whiskers, they allow the horse to gather information about the environment. Around the eyes they serve as protection and, around the blind spot of the nose, they take over from the eyes.
The FFE has just incorporated a rule on this subject in their General Competition Regulations and, from early 2019 competing on a horse that has been deprived of his/her vibrissae is no longer permitted.
The new rule aligns with their official acknowledgement that horses do not perceive their environment in the same way humans do and we need to learn more about horse ethology and behaviour, which they promoted as the key to better management and training.
"The role of the FFE is to communicate good practices" says Déborah Bardou, ethologist and animal welfare mission manager at the FFE. "It is important that riders behave appropriately with the horse. They are the advocates for animal welfare and they underwrite the image of equestrian sports."
Equine behaviourist Justine Harrison hopes other countries will follow with similar rules. "Whiskers help a horse navigate his world. They are super-sensitive, multi-functional sensory organs with densely packed nerves at their root that send sensory messages to the horse’s brain.
"These whiskers are so sensitive to vibration and changes in air current they can instantly inform the horse about his environment – for example helping him avoid injury by detecting nearby objects, differentiating between different textures, judging wind direction and identifying food. The horse has a blind spot beneath his muzzle and so his whiskers are a vital aid to his vision.
"From the horse’s point of view, removing these whiskers reduces his spatial awareness and leaves him partially handicapped. Many countries, including the UK and Australia, are very backward in many aspects of horse welfare and it’s time for us to catch up with France, Switzerland and Germany and ban the trimming of whiskers.
For more information about why horses need their whiskers click here.