On July 1, the Fédération Equestre Internationale banned competitors from trimming the hairs around their horse’s eyes and muzzle, citing their removal as an equine welfare issue. These hairs, called vibrissae, are deeply embedded in the skin and help a horse sense the environment around him.
Dr. Andrew McLean of Melbourne University Equine Hospital in Australia and CEO of Equitation Science International, says that whiskers around the eyes and muzzle are unique, specialized structures that are larger than other hair follicles. Each whisker has its own blood capsule and nerves, and even the smallest whisker movement is perceptible and the information is relayed straight to the brain, reports the Chronicle of the Horse.
Whiskers help horses do everything from feel the ground while grazing to investigate objects, food, and other horses. Whiskers around the eyes help the horse feel what is nearby to avoid eye injuries.
Specific research on whiskers in other species has been done, but concrete evidence of whisker role in horses is lacking. In other species, whiskers do everything from help the animal maintain balance to assist with spatial awareness in water.
The FEI passed the rule unanimously in 2020. Horses with shaved or clipped sensory hairs are not permitted to compete unless the whiskers have been removed by a veterinarian to provide treatment. Germany banned eye and muzzle whisker removal in 1998, followed by Switzerland and France. Thus far, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which governs horse sport in the United States, has not banned the trimming of sensory hairs for national-level competition horses, though the organization does encourage riders to consult with their veterinarian.
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McLean notes that it’s imperative for organizations involved with horse sport to remain aware of how they are perceived by the public as it is the public, not necessarily the equine experts or the riders, who will determine the fate of equine sport. Called the “social license to operate,” McLean reiterates that regulating horse sport to ensure the welfare of the animal is key to positive community interactions.
Read more at Chronicle of the Horse.
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