Horse Whiskers

I once knew a tall thoroughbred mare named Helen. Twice a day she was fed a couple of quarts of sweet feed, which is a mix of grains held together with tar-like molasses. Horses love this stuff and most gobble down their ration as quickly as they can chew. Helen took her time. After a half-hour her bucket was licked clean – except there remained a tidy pile of corn kernels. How did Helen manage to eat her dinner but reject the corn? A horse can’t see what they’re eating. Because of how the eyes are set on their head, the end of the nose is in a blind spot. Did she wiggle the grains out of the way with her nose? The muzzle and lips are rubbery and flexible, but it’s unlikely that they’re fine-tuned enough to identify individual grains of corn. Once inside of the mouth, it’s unlikely that she could sort out the corn. A horse’s teeth and tongue are very big.

horse teeth

Summer horse enrichment. Block of ice with apples and carrots.


I think that she knew which little bit was corn by feeling them with her whiskers.



Many mammals have specialized whiskers called vibrissae. Some animals, like rats, can wiggle their whiskers and their function has been much studied. Scientists even know that each of their vibrissa has a way to stimulate a nerve ending that goes directly to a dedicated part of the brain. (For more about that anatomy, read this.) Some creatures, like equines, have stationary vibrissae. Although I’ve seen numerous FaceBook declarations that information from a horse’s whiskers go to a dedicated part of the brain, I haven’t been able to find any research to that effect. I think that people are assuming that horse whiskers are the same as that of mice, but this isn’t so –  the ability of mice to move their whiskers sets them apart from a horse’s vibrissae. Still, a horse’s whiskers are amazing! (Please contact me if you have a primary source to research on horse whiskers and the brain.)

Despite not knowing exactly how a horse’s whiskers communicate information to the brain, it’s clear that these long and stiff hairs are very important to how the animal functions. The whiskers give the horse a fine-tuned way to feel what they’re eating before they ingest it. Horse are fussy. Although few are as selective as Helen, they all sift through food that to us looks the same.


Hay has seed heads, little leafy bits and tough stalks. Watch a horse eat, and you’ll see his preference.

Pasture is rarely all one plant. I graze Tonka where there are numerous varieties of growing things, leaves of different ages, blossoms that are closed, open, and turned to seed. Watch a horse in a field and you’ll see how selective he is.



Whiskers can also be used to suss out something new. Or, to know exactly where the farrier’s back is.

Salti and farrier

We humans see all hair as being decorative, to be styled, or to be removed. When I was in my teens I thought nothing of shaving off those ungainly whiskers on my mounts’ muzzles. People who show their horses routinely shave their horses for a clean look. I no longer do that, and it’s not affecting how well we do in competitions. Here is Tonka after placing second in our first recognized dressage show last summer. He looks handsome, doesn’t he?



Now I realize that removing the vibrissae would be like taking away one of my horse’s senses, one as essential as his hearing. It’d be a lot harder for him to navigate his world without those whiskers. I’m sure that when Tonka shoveled through the snow that he knew what was there by information sent via those long hairs.

snow face


Besides, I’ve come to appreciate how cute facial hair on horses can be. This is Hayden. From a distance he’s adorable.



Up close, even more so. He not only has whiskers, he also has a mustache.

horse nose


It’s a good look on horses, but I still like my husband clean-shaven. Anyway, a man’s beard isn’t made up of true vibrassae. Sorry, guys.


  1. One of life’s great pleasures is to be nuzzled by a horse! Those whiskers are so cute…esp. mustaches like Hayden’s. I agree with you about husbands…I like mine clean-shaven too.

  2. Great blog, Jess loves the pics and was surprized by Tonka’s ice lolly, said she will try them if we ever get a hot summer!!….:)

  3. I love all the pictures! I used to volunteer at a horse stables when I lived on Long Island when I was younger, I absolutely loved it and love horses! It’s been so long since I have been around horses that I’ve forgotten about their whiskers.

    When I was small I thought cats only had whiskers on their cheeks and above the eyes, but I’ve since noticed they have whiskers on their legs too, and other places! I can pet my male cat anywhere on his body, unlike my girl. She didn’t like her stomach or paws touched, at all. Made nail clippings extremely difficult, lol.

  4. So much to learn. Thanks to you and Tonka for opening our eyes. I think cat whiskers are fixed as they seem to move only to the extent that the cheeks or forehead move, and then they are all in concert. Just an observation, not scientifically supported. And I love pictures of animals sticking out their pink tongues!

  5. I have a friend who has a quite fancy liver chestnut warm blood dressage horse, named Colonel Mustard, specifically as an homage to his substantial and inexplicably white mustache. He had no other white on him. One time we made a date to ride together, and knowing I was about to arrive and how much I admired the Colonel, (he had incredibly smooth and elastic natural movement and was just good for the soul to watch), she used a surgical marker to draw a bold round circle around the Colonel’s one eye…as a monocle. She asked me to collect him in his pasture as she fetched his tack and as I approached him, he lifted his elegant head and turned to greet me, revealing the ‘monocle’ and his wriggling white mustache as he calmly chewed a mouthful of grass. I instantly recognized what it was and lost it, laughing. While harmless, the ink remained for weeks and gave us the giggles every time we looked at him. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that we promptly drew eyebrows on her three Jack Russell’s, Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod, as well. A few carefully placed strokes of the surgical marker made one ‘scowling’, one’surprised’, and little Nod was ‘questioning’, with one cocked and one not. Honestly, it never got old.

    • Oh, just too wonderful. Ridiculous and loving. BTW, a perfect name for a horse. I could see an entire herd of Clue board game characters! If you have photos, would love to see them.

      • I’m afraid this was pre cell phones with cameras. However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drawn eyebrows on dogs since…including my friend’s white headed pit bull. Try it on Scooter. Harmless and so, so funny. Hmmm, a Clue themed herd…I like it…

  6. Loathe horses! Maybe should start a horse page? Not trying to be rude or start a fight, just my opinion.

    • Loathe is a strong word. Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. If you expect only chickens here, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. I write about a multitude of creatures – even some that I’m not particularly fond of, like snakes. And horses? I’ve been smitten ever since I can remember. BTW, I do have a web page that focuses on horses-, so those of you who can’t get enough of these animals, can find even more about them, there.

    • If you don’t like it you could just try not reading it. Not trying to be rude, just my opinion.

      Luckily most of us love it. Terry, never change.

      • I agree, keep your hands off Terry. We love whatever you blog gives an interesting mix..:)

  7. Yeah, I hated shaving muzzles. I would apologize to them for chopping off their ‘feelers’. And I ran into more than one or two who were Less Than Pleased at having their muzzles shaved. Horses have biiigggg teeth! :D

    And I’m going to disagree with you about horses being able to sort things out with their mouth! I’ve had more than one horse sort and spit out meds that hadn’t been smashed small enough. Sweet feed or no. They do this muzzle flick while doing a mwah, mwah, mwah thing with their mouths till it pops out. I knew one mare with multiple health problems over a long period that could sort and spit med bits as small as roughly two of those tiny round candy sprinkles (like on a doughnut). Of course, she never took a biting mouthful. She would scoop and swirl in the front of her mouth; I swear it looked like she was doing a wine tasting. Everything had to be powdered for her. Poor baby. A pill popper to her was on par with an attacking cougar. People suck.

  8. I almost choked on my coffee reading Linda’s comment – um, really? You’re a TRUE professional the way you responded to her unnecessary comment. Oye. I LOVE your blog, and have, for MANY years. I have an icon on my home page for only a few blogs that I read religiously – and yours is one of them. I love the practical way you approach the care of your animals, the science that you base your actions on, and the great love you show the animals (and humans!) in your care. You and your blog are the reason that I will be starting my own flock of girls, once we retire. I have a book full of your printed posts to use as my chicken bible. Maybe it’s time to moderate your comments section before you allow them to be published. I suppose that the relative anonymity of the internet makes people feel brave to throw insults. Can’t we all just get along? :) Keep blogging Terry!! :)

  9. And another thing: I find your posts about all of your animals helpful, for you never know when you might be called to care for an animal. I am horse sitting this weekend for my sister-in-law, who has a rescued Arabian. I knew that her nose was sensitive – I just didn’t know how sensitive it is. Again, your experiences with horses that you relate to us through your blogs is SO helpful, especially for a horse novice like me. Sure, there are other horse blogs, but I am telling you, yours is unique among them all. So thank you, for sharing what you’ve experienced and know!

  10. Thanks, all, for saying such nice things about my blog. Honestly, it’s surprising how little unpleasant email that I get. I like to think that it’s because I’ve crafted such a nice place here.

  11. You certainly have. I stay away from nasty places. And Karla’s right, you handled that soooo well. You can’t print my first knee jerk reaction to that woman’s comment. You rock!

  12. I’m not sure how I ended up here, in my random internet search for something I have now forgotten, but I just finished reading about horse whiskers and wanted to let you know how much it made me smile. It’s been years since I’ve been around horses and I’d forgotten… about horse whiskers and dust baths and food pickiness (reminds me of my dog who can separate her food like a champ) and all their little quirks and funny little habits. Thanks for the smile!