Hands OFF Whiskers - Ban the clipping of sensitive Horse Vibrissae

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Equestrians are calling for a worldwide BAN on the removal of Vibrissae (Facial Whiskers) in line with Switzerland, Germany and France. The World Bitless Association (WBA) is a registered UK-based charity. 

The WBA  believe along with leading scientists and welfare organisations, that the clipping and removal of the horse's whiskers (vibrissae) for COSMETIC reasons should be banned on humane grounds to help improve horse welfare around the world.  The WBA leads with the campaign  #HandsOffWhiskers

The World Bitless Association wrote to the FEI the governing body of International Horse sports on the 10th February 2020 requesting a global ban in all FEI competition disciplines.  WBA are currently in discussion with the British Equestrian Federation who are considering a UK Ban.

The removal by clipping of the sensitive whiskers on the muzzle and around the eyes of the horse have no health benefits to the animal, indeed the contrary is true - cosmetic removal may well have a detrimental effect on the horse, removal of such a sensory structure reduces its abilities to understand its environment. 

Please sign the Hands OFF Whiskers petition to the FEI


THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE EQUINE VIBRISSAE (horse whiskers)

Vibrissae are tactile hair that can be found across mammalian species, including the domestic horse. They are characterised by being longer and thicker than the ordinary hair and can be found on different parts of the body but it is the mystacial vibrissae that has caused the biggest interest in scientific community. They have blood-filled sinus tissues and are connected to the somatosensory cortex (Prescott, Mitchinson & Grant, 2011).


Vibrissae play an important part in the processing of sensory information (Mitchinson et al., 2011) and its functions include finding food, communication through facial expressions, social interactions (Bobrov et al., 2014), pheromone distribution and environmental cues such as wind direction (Ahl, 1986).Vibrissae have also been found to compensate the lack of/ compromised vision (Sokolov & Kulikov, 1987).


Vibrissae in equines are often clipped for cosmetic reasons. Such practice however has been banned in some countries on ethical grounds. Studies in adult rats and shrews that involved removing of the facial vibrissae or lesions to the critical parts of vibrissae pathways showed significant damage in exploration (investigative behaviours), locomotion, body balance, swimming (Meyer & Meyer , 1992), location of food and more (Gustafson & Felbain- Keramidas, 1997). Research in which the vibrissae were removed shortly after birth resulted in behavioural changes that lasted throughout the affected animal’s adult life (Volgyi, Farkas, & Toldi, 1993).


The function of vibrissae has been well studied in rodents but there is no scientific data specifically on the effect of removal of facial whiskers in horses. Considering that horses are mammals just like rodents we know that they share similar tissue and nerve structures with other mammals, and the structure and function of vibrissae has been found to be similar across mammals such as rodents and primates (Brecht, Preilowski & Merzenich, 1997). The studies in rodents clearly show that the removal of vibrissae compromises their well-being by reducing/ removing the effectiveness of some behaviours and sensory processing (Symons & Tees, 1990) which is likely to be true therefore for horses. When we consider the structure and function of vibrissae and the negative effects that trimming has on other mammals, it stands clear that trimming equines’ facial whiskers for cosmetic reasons is not an ethical process.


“An area that seems highly tactile in horses is the muzzle. The whiskers (vibrissae) of the horse’s muzzle all have blood-filled sacs at their base to amplify movement. They help foals find the teat and adult horses to feel structures that surround the blind spot at the end of their nose. It is entirely appropriate that countries are banning the practice of whisker trimming. Ethically, modifying this sensory structure in pursuit of human aesthetics is very difficult to defend.”
Professor Paul McGreevy
McGreevy, P (2004) Equine Behaviour: a guide for veterinarians and equine scientists, Saunders, Edinburgh


“First off, while I don't know of research data specifically in the horse, plenty of data in other species indicates a significant portion of the brain devoted to processing information from facial vibrissae, which correlates with importance of these specialized sensory organs. Until their function, and the effects of cutting them off, are fully understood, alteration for cosmetic purposes is not consistent with humane and respectful animal care. one has to wonder how that grooming tradition got started.


Secondly, I would hypothesize that equine athletes with intact vibrissae have a competitive advantage over those that have been altered, and that even for hacking out, a horse with whiskers and other facial vibrissae would be a safer mount. "
Sue McDonnell, PhD CAAB Founding Head Equine Behavior Program, University of Pennsylvania Vet Med is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. Sue is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.


"If we genuinely care about horses, we need to go beyond our anthropocentric view of what animals should look like. Horse whiskers are there for a reason and should be left there, if we want to help horses to make as much sense as they can of the world around them.”
Prof Daniel S. Mills BVSc PhD CBiol FSB FHEA CCAB Dip ECAWBM(BM) MRCVS
European & RCVS Recognised Specialist in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine


References


Ahl A. (1986). The role of vibrissae in behavior: a status review. Veterinary research communications 10 (1), 245-268


Bobrov, E., Wolfe, J., Rao, R. P., and Brecht, M. (2014). The representation of social facial touch in rat barrel cortex. Current Biology 24(1): 109-115.


Brecht, M., Preilowski, B., & Merzenich, M. M. (1997). Functional architecture of the mystacial vibrissae. Behavioural Brain Research 84(1-2): 81-97.


Gustafson, J. W., & Felbain-Keramidas, S.L. (1977). Behavioral and neural approaches to the function of the mystacial vibrissae. Psychological Bulletin 84(3): 477-488.


Meyer, M. E. and Meyer, M. E. (1992). The effects of bilateral and unilateral vibrissotomy on behavior within aquatic and terrestrial environments. Physiology & Behavior 51(4): 877-880.


Mitchinson et al. (2011). Active vibrissal sensing in rodents andmarsupials, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 3037–3048


Prescott, T.J., Mitchinson, B., Grant, R.A. (2011). Vibrissal behavior and function. Scholarpedia 6(10):6642.


Sokolov, V. E., & Kulikov, V.F. (1987). The structure and function of the vibrissal apparatus in some rodents. Mammalia 51(1):125-138


Symons, L. A., & Tees, R. C. (1990). An examination of the intramodal and intermodal behavioral consequences of long-term vibrissae removal in rats. Developmental Psychobiology 23(8): 849-867.


Volgyi, B; Farkas, T and Toldi, J (1993). Compensation of a sensory deficit inflicted upon newborn and adult animals - A behavioral study. Neuroreport 4(6): 827-829.

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