By Liv Gude of Professional Equine Grooms, special contributor to Heels Down Magazine
Should you clip your horse’s whiskers and ears? The short answer: it’s up to you.
Horses have special tactile hairs called vibrissae – these are his whiskers. The whiskers on a horse play an important role in his sensory awareness system. These amazing sensory hairs have their own nerve and blood supply and help your horse “see” his surroundings. Vibrissae are also present in the form of horse eyebrows. (Please don’t pluck ‘em!) These whiskers allow him to gather information about his surroundings and aid in general depth perception, especially those surrounding his lips and chin.
The only real reasons to consider clipping ears and whiskers are a medical issue, where you need to apply medication or clean stitches or pick out ticks. But maybe the horse has a show career and must adhere to age-old traditions of horse show turnout. Yes, the hunters. In the show ring it’s becoming increasingly normal to leave whiskers and ears alone, unless it’s a hunter class, in which case whiskers and all ear hair is removed to remain true to that tradition. There’s nothing in the USEF rule book about clipping muzzles and ears in the hunter ring, and the only mention of braids being mandatory are if you are showing ladies side saddle. True story.
Ear hair serves a few special functions: to protect the inner ear skin from bugs, sun, and foreign objects. The outer edge of the ear also grows some hair, and in some cases, it can get pretty wild. With ears you can find a happy medium here – clip the edges of the ear by folding it like a taco and zipping your clippers down. Leave the insides. Show ring ready without the craziness.
Other disciplines often use fly bonnets which would mask any unruly ear hair anyway, so you can leave the ears natural in the show ring. Some disciplines, like dressage, now sport whiskers all the time. In Germany it has been illegal to trim whiskers since 1998! There was also a Dutch study that investigated the effects of trimming whiskers, but with no definite conclusions. There are lots of anecdotal stories floating around about the horse with clipped whiskers who keeps bonking his face, or the horse with sunburned ears. And then there are all of the stories about the horse that does just fine when clipped.
A few final thoughts: if you feel the need to go overboard on horse show grooming, ask yourself why. The judge isn’t going to place you higher for a nicely turned out horse with a clipped muzzle if you horse all of a sudden sees invisible things during your class. So find the balance between letting your horse do his horse thing, and creating a nice impression for the show ring, a clinic, or even a lesson. In all of those situations, it’s you and the horse’s way of going that make the statement, not the horse’s wacky ear hair or whisker beard.