Clipping a Horse’s Whiskers

Updated December 9, 2022
A bay horse's nose.

With show season always just around the corner, you may ask is it harmful to shave or trim a horse’s facial whiskers since they are “connected” to their brain cells?

Why Do Horses Need Whiskers?

There is much more to whiskers than meets the eye. That is, they’re not just long hairs on the face and body of horses and other animals. Whiskers, or, vibrissae, are different from regular hair in their anatomy, location, and purpose. While it is not technically harmful to clip whiskers, doing so does reduce the animal’s ability to use these specialized tools as nature intended.

It is obvious when looking at a horse or other species (such as dog or cat, rodent, or marine mammal such as a seal, walrus, or sea lion), that whiskers are longer and thicker than regular hair. Whiskers are concentrated in very specific locations like around the eye, between the nostrils and upper lip, and on the bottom jaw beneath the lower lip.

Whiskers Help with Sensory Awareness

While the whisker itself has no nerves, the follicle it grows from is extensively innervated. Signals from the whiskers have been found to travel to a very specific region of the brain for interpretation. Whiskers in animals are required for:

  • Object localization
  • Orientation of the snout
  • Detection of movement
  • Texture and shape discrimination
  • Exploration
  • Thigmotaxis (movement in response to a stimulus)
  • Locomotion
  • Maintenance of equilibrium
  • Maze learning
  • Swimming
  • Locating food pellets
  • Fighting
  • Nipple attachment and huddling in rat pups

Essentially, whiskers are tactile or touch sensors that help animals tell where they are, where danger is, and where food and water are. They help animals stay safe in their environment, especially at night (or in the water for marine mammals) when eyesight is less useful as a sense. Certainly, then it is best to leave whiskers alone so the horse can benefit from this additional sensory input, especially since they have a blind spot in the front.

Illegal Trimming of Horse’s Whiskers

In some European countries, not only is it prohibited to show a horse with trimmed whiskers, but it also violates animal protection laws. The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) passed a rule in 2021 that banned the trimming of sensory hairs around the muzzle and eyes. In the US, it is generally accepted that some competitive disciplines clip or even shave whiskers and other hair on the horse while other disciplines don’t.

Additional Resources

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.

Originally published June 14, 2017