The decision of the FEI General Assembly on November 23, 2020 to prohibit the trimming or removal of sensory hairs (defined by the FEI Veterinary Committee as, “hard hairs located on the horse’s muzzle and around its eyes, also known as ‘whiskers’ that are used for sensation”), for any reason other than a veterinary purpose on FEI competition horses has left many in the industry wondering if EC will follow suit.
While FEI rulings are often good indications of changes to come in provincial and national federations, Kristy Laroche, EC Manager of Welfare and Industry, says that it is also very common for national federations such as EC to be early adopters of improved welfare rules. Based on advancing science and industry changes, it is likely EC will follow suit when it comes to the whiskers ruling.
“Equestrian Canada plans to follow suit in all aspects of best welfare practices for rules and regulations in our sport,” explains Laroche. “To do so, there are a number of technical issues that first need to be worked through to ensure competitors are clear and educated on meeting compliance, and that officials and judges in the various disciplines are educated on and confident in assessing compliance.
“The Equestrian Canada Health and Welfare Committee will be meeting after the holidays to review the success of our 2020 goals and set goals for 2021. The whisker changes from the FEI will be on the agenda, as well as the next progression of the noseband tightness rules.”
An ‘aux naturel’ return to whiskers is already the norm for several countries in Europe – with France, Switzerland and Germany having all banned whisker and ear hair removal to support animal welfare acts or federation rules.
What would an adoption of the FEI’s ban on whiskers mean in the hunter divisions, where turnout and first impressions are often considered part of the judging criteria? Some of Canada’s top hunter trainers and riders agree that when it comes to the outcome of the class, whiskers make little difference, and that while a clean clip may contribute to the overall impression left on the judges, performance in the ring has always been, and should remain, the number one priority.
Jackie Tattersall believes leaving whiskers doesn’t mean that horsemanship back at the barn can’t remain at the highest standard. “We have been conditioned to put forth the best presentation possible,” she says, “which includes a well-groomed horse, clean and properly fitted tack, and clean and conservative riding attire. This presentation is the first impression the judge sees and will impact the way the judge will score, but at the end of the day a true horseman judge will pin the best quality horse. If a quality horse has furry ears or long whiskers, the judge will see through it and allow it to win over less quality.”
Erynn Ballard remarks that largely due to the winter season in Florida, much has changed when it comes to clipping since her early years in the ring. “When I was young, we would body clip once or twice a year, and now horses get body clipped as much as they need,” she says. “This could sometimes be twice a month unless the horse really hates to be clipped, in which case I don’t think it’s necessary to clip the ears and nose.
“When it comes to the overall impression it leaves, for sure, a perfectly trimmed horse has a very classy look, but I have to say that long whiskers are really starting to grow on me!”
She believes any ruling by the FEI in the interests of horse’s welfare to be a move in the right direction. “I am a horse lover and always put the horses first,” she says emphatically. “I do not believe it has any performance benefit to the horse when the question is to trim or not to trim. If EC believes as well as the FEI that it is in the horse’s best interest, for sure one hundred per cent I will follow the rules. The overall care still needs to be the best,” she adds, “and long whiskers shouldn’t mean an unfit or poorly turned-out horse.”
“If the judge can have a beard, then the horse can, too! I am judging the performance; yes, turnout is important, but performance prevails.”
Well-known and outspoken senior international judge Randy Roy puts it succinctly: “If the judge can have a beard, then the horse can, too! I am judging the performance; yes, turnout is important, but performance prevails.”
EC has two committees that act in a similar fashion to the FEI Veterinary Committee and will begin the process of implementing new rulings: the Health and Welfare Committee and the Equine Medication Control Committee. “In this instance, there are two paths,” explains Laroche. “The Health and Welfare Committee can put forward an Extraordinary Rule Amendment, or the rule can follow the normal annual Rule Change process. In either case, the proposed rule must be authorized by the Equestrian Canada National Rules Committee.
Rule change suggestions can be submitted by any EC sport licence holder by visiting the Online Rule Change Suggestion Portal (only open between Jan. 1 – May 31). All rule change suggestions are reviewed by EC sport, technical or welfare committees as appropriate and those deemed worthy are posted to the EC website for a 30-day review by licence holders. Approved rule changes become effective on Jan. 1 of the following year.
“But having a rule pass through the process is just one element of the equation,” says Laroche. “It is most important that all the supportive processes, such as education, communication and measures around assessing conformance are well in place. It is the right of every EC Sport Licence Holder to suggest amendments to the rules, subject to the current policies, procedures and schedules.”
Related Reading: “Exploring the Ethics and Legalities of Trimming Horses’ Whiskers”