VIBRISSAE – Hands OFF Whiskers

 

The WORLD BITLESS ASSOCIATION (WBA) are calling for a worldwide ban on the removal of Vibrissae (horse whiskers) in line with Switzerland, Germany and France.

The WBA wrote to the British Equestrian Federation on the 25th September 2019 requesting a UK ban, we are currently working with the BEF, who is formulating a recommendation to the Board. 

The World Bitless Association will over the coming weeks engage with all FEI national federation’s and equine welfare organizations seeking support for universal change to support the global campaign.

The World Bitless Association is a registered UK-based charity. We campaign for riders to have the choice to ride bitless in all equestrian activities.
We have affiliated bitless Veterinary surgeons, behaviourists and trainers throughout the world.
We promote equestrianism based on learning theory and a compassionate understanding of the equines’ needs.
We are also promoting and calling for better welfare in equines across the world.

We believe that clipping of the horse whiskers (vibrissae) for cosmetic reasons should be banned on ethical grounds to improve horse welfare around the world. Currently, a ban is imposed in Germany, Switzerland and most recently France.

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 have caused the biggest interest in the 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 for 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 have 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.

Photo Credit: Cynthia Cooper.

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 behaviourist and the founding head of the equine behaviour program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behaviour 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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