Ask Dr. Harman: Clipping whiskers, yes or no?

Q: My 5-year-old gelding, who I compete in hunters, won’t let me clip his whiskers or under his jaw even when twitched or sedated. (He rears up and strikes out when I try.) I don’t think he’s afraid of the horse clippers themselves because I can clip other parts of his body, and having the clippers turned on nearby doesn’t seem to bother him.
A: My question for you and for most other competitive riders is: “Why would you clip your horse’s whiskers?” Although they may appear superficial and nonessential, horse whiskers provide valuable information to horses. Equine eyes are positioned in such a way that objects immediately in front of or below horses’ noses are beyond their range of vision. So their horse whiskers help them “see” these objects. For example, while grazing, horses constantly rely on their whiskers to guide their muzzles toward edible food and away from other objects. The long whiskers near their eyes also warn them when there’s a risk of bumping into obstacles, such as branches poking up out of the grass.

Another possible explanation may be that your horse is experiencing pain in his mouth or jaw. Young horses experience tooth-eruption issues that can make their muzzles and jaws sensitive to the touch. Older horses, too, can experience occasionally painful tooth problems. Incorrectly used curb bits and chains can also cause nerve damage and oversensitivity. Your veterinarian can help you rule out these possible causes.
Whatever your horse’s reason for resisting trimming, ask yourself if it really is necessary. The practice of clipping horses’ whiskers may be common, but it is purely for cosmetic reasons. There is no box on the judge’s scorecard for “trimmed whiskers.” Sure, a healthy bloom to your horse’s coat, produced through good nutrition, exercise and basic grooming, can help to make a good impression in the show ring. But if you have a terrific trip, little details like your horse’s whiskers should not affect your placing.

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