Beyond Legal Whiskers

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports unanimously banned horse whisker trimming, effective 1 July 2021. Horses snort and rub their noses on their knees with relief. Clipping whiskers has been a habit passed down among most riding disciplines, in 4-H clubs and breed shows, as well as international competitions. Hooray, times are changing. I’m betting most riders are cheering, too. Those out-of-date and inane competition rules should be reevaluated for the well-being of the horse. Yes, the change is slow, but that’s how change starts, and momentum comes later. The FEI gets a happy dance from me.

The rule changed, as all rules change when the majority of public opinion have changed. Just like working with horses, it’s up to us to change if we want a different ride. So, with rules and habits, it’s up to us to take a critical look at what science tells us, balanced with the things horses tell us if our egos let us listen. Then horse advocates and lovers apply some logic and see the next thing to begin changing our minds about, whether we like it or not, for these creatures we respect, as well as love.

Horses would remind us that they aren’t whiskers, they are called vibrissae, sensory hairs have their own nerve and blood supply. Horses can’t see what’s at the end of their nose or close to their face, so these hairs are critical to a horse’s spatial awareness, with such sensitivity, they function almost like another set of eyes. Muzzles contain more than 4 billion nerve endings.

Pause. Don’t just read the words, but imagine their awareness so much more acute than ours. What does that feel like? Is any part of our body that wildly electric as a horse’s muzzle?

I’m sure at some point in my horse education, I was told that I should be able to touch any part of my horse, any time I wanted. That a well-trained horse should tolerate manhandling or tickling or any other rudeness my hand might perpetrate simply because I did it. So, we arrogantly mangled ears and grabbed noses. Twitching was commonplace. We half expected our horses to be head-shy or we ignored their dead eyes, thinking we were in control. We were their leaders and we dominated to have our way.

Then at some point, leadership began to feel like bullying and lots of us changed our minds about that, kind of like the FEI and whiskers. Leadership became a code word for fear-based training. With more understanding and a little help from scientific research, we landed in the same place that classical riders have been for centuries. We saw the immense value to be gained by respecting horses rather than punishing them for their instincts and natural behaviors. Partnership became our goal, and we were more clear about what we didn’t want to do than the kind of handling we wanted to move toward.

We notice anxiety easier when clear cruelty happening. We recognize tense lips and a clamped jaw. It’s their most vulnerable area. It’s why harsh bits give us leverage over hundreds of pounds. Horses do not get hard in the mouth; the pain receptors cannot be numbed or deleted. A harsh bit will hurt every ride, but snaffles are no different in hard hands. Some of us ride bitless finding that the anxiety our horses had was not about being ridden so much as the fear of pain in their mouth. Eventually, we learn to control our hands, control our emotions, and ride softly. We become the peace our horses seek, not the danger they fear.

But the funny thing about listening to horses is that once they feel heard, they just chatter on, letting us know more of their anxiety. They let us know we can do better, and most of us try. We listen to things we don’t want to believe. If we agree whisker trimming is wrong, is that muzzle ours to touch? As much as we love that velvet-soft skin so close as they sniff us, could we acknowledge them in a way less invasive?

When you think of the size of a horse’s body, why would we focus on the last four inches of his face? What draws us to their most vulnerable place?

Sometimes horse lovers act like adolescent boys disrupting the class with spit wads, just agitating horses to get a response. We bait them with treats, so they trot to us. We hyper-stimulate them with such intensity that their lips curl, as if evoking a strong physical response is the same thing as honest connection. We know that horses crave safety, but standing and breathing aren’t dramatic enough. We want our love to be loud and obvious.

the biggest problem with clipping whiskers, harsh bits, or even mugging a horse’s face is that they give calming signals with their muzzles. It’s a primary “voice” to let us know about pain or anxiety. While we think we’re playing kissy-face, the horse could be sending a serious message.

Rather than falling back on old harsh methods or assuming every calming signal is a sign of affection, we could consider being polite by their standards. Is the horse intruding in our space or are we intruding in theirs? We may own the ground or pay the board, but they still own their space. In the past we’ve been taught to behave like petulant children, insisting the horse accept any intrusive touch and a moment later, be insulted by their proximity, loudly asking them to move away by flapping and poking, when it would create less anxiety if we demonstrated peace by stepping out of their space ourselves. Didn’t we just create the situation we are punishing the horse for? Do we tickle that vulnerable muzzle and think it’s cute when they “smile”? Is their agitation something we smile about, or do we want to understand what they are communicating and relieve their anxiety?

When horses have confidence in their own position because we provide safety, they become calmer in ways that benefit everyone. We need to understand, boring as it seems, that safety is the top priority for a horse. Like the herd matriarch, we should value the horse’s peace of mind and safety as if we were prey animals electric with sensitivity.

If we hope to bring change that horses need, we must see beyond habits and behaviors that flatter us and politely move toward behaving in ways that support the confidence and well-being of horses. We are each the International Federation for Equestrian Sports to the horses in our care.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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21 thoughts on “Beyond Legal Whiskers”

  1. Speaking for myself, and possibly for a couple of uncertain introverts among us, I always felt shame that I didn’t know how to be a good “leader”. My journey with horses has led me to understand the pervasive influence of the human ego (where both shame and arrogance reside). Domination is nothing to be proud of, no matter who is being dominated. Understanding and self-awareness will take us to the best possible place.

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  2. Such a good read this morning. Definitely thrilled about the ban!! I will be reflecting throughout the day.. not going to lie.. I am a muzzle nuzzler.. or at least have been. I’ve been working so hard not to be! My little herd of 3 has taught me the importance of respecting space.. each allows me closeness in a way different from the others. Largely, I assume, due to the position they hold in the herd hierarchy. Good reminder to quiet myself in each encounter I have with them, whether in the saddle or on the ground.

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  3. Seems like inch x inch, our awareness about horses is expanding. But I know we sure have a long way to go ! I love how drawing the blue line around the horse, and another line around the muzzle says so much– without words. That’s an inspired image !

    I don’t touch muzzles 99% of the time. BUT occasionally, when one of mine puts his nose right on my face and leaves it there, I give him a soft kiss. Honestly, he doesn’t seem to mind. But I could be wrong which is why I don’t do it in 99% of the time.

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  4. Ugh – I was just thinking about this the other day as my iphone offered me an unsolicited slide show. There is an embarrassing number of photos of Val and I, where my head is in muzzle proximity. I made a habit when we were riding lots, to document each ride with a selfie. Often with my hand on his face guiding his giganto head into the frame. SO many…

    Now I compromise by waiting for him to join me in my space. If he is willing to mosey over and stay still, I’ll snap a picture. Muzzle mugging aside – he is a bit of a hambone when there’s a camera around. ;D

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  5. You make me think. I have a very anxious paso that I wish would learn to trust me. And I wish I could read her mind. I will continue to keep trying and learning. I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes with her, but I try to be kind.
    How do you feel about manes and tails? I have never been one for clipping them either. How do you get rid of flies if you can’t shake them away with your mane and tail?

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    • Thanks, Beth.. No, I don’t do special grooming unless competing, but never the tail or forlock. (Consider a Calming Signal course at some point; it might be just the thing for your mare.)

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  6. This is so refreshing. So refreshing and such a relief. I can’t believe some of the things we do or did…some of the things I did because it was just what WE do. Thank you for this. I hope we soon realize that keeping a horse’s mouth closed is also absurd. absurd…and that thoroughbreds at the track don’t need an elastic on their tongues to keep them from lolling out of their mouths as they gasp for every molecule of oxygen.

    I hope we get past this all very soon. They have been waiting.

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  7. …and Big Lick TWH, eventers, and on and on. There’s a conference on July 31 about interspecies conversations. James Cameron of Avatar fame, is doing the keynote. It should be really interesting. I posted it on my FB page: The Equus Effect Program.

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  8. I’d like to say I’ve finally broken this bad muzzle “grabbing” habit. I will keep this essay in mind, if ever I feel a relapse coming on. Thanks so much, Anna!

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  9. Hooray! I’m old enough to remember when horses weren’t pampered and primped, and have been horrified by changes over the decades. So thankful some sanity has returned. As for the sensitivity, I do my best to educate dog owners about the massive information their dog is processing via their nose. Even as a sensitive, my awareness is a fraction of a dog’s, and I also like to stop and smell the flowers.☺

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    • Annie, I think you are on the right side of this: rather than punishing them for their awareness, we could join them. I swear, without animals I’d never have a clue what’s going on around me… but I’m learning.

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  10. This ban is a breakthrough! And truly grateful for this enlightening information on the science behind it. I will be more cognizant of all horses I handle now! Will also share this valuable lesson … thank you again

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