Bedouins in Arabia thought so, hundreds of years ago. So did European gypsies, famed for their close bond to horses. Even some of America's "old time" horsemen of the 1940s and '50s put a fair bit of stock in horse hair whorl analysis.
But—in modern times?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Since the pioneering work of author and educator Linda Tellington-Jones in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the interest in using horse hair swirls, or horse hair whorls, to evaluate disposition has been gradually gaining adherents. Now there's even some science to back up the notion that outward characteristics such as hair swirls are linked in fundamental ways to inward characteristics such as temperament.
In this article, we'll share a little of the history of swirl analysis, relate a few anecdotes and opinions, and look at a relevant study on swirls and temperament. We'll also touch on the predictive value of such other physical characteristics as body traits and coat color, plus consider what's been found to be true in other species.
After that, you can go out to the barn, examine your own horse, and decide for yourself how much of a book you can tell by its cover.
What Is A Whorl?
A whorl or swirl is a patch of hair growing in the opposite direction of the surrounding hair, usually in a pinwheel fashion. It's commonly found on the head, and especially the face. Whorls are also known as trichoglyphs, or cowlicks when they appear elsewhere on the body.
Because every horse's whorls are distinctive, like a fingerprint, recording their location and character is one of the oldest forms of identifying horses—especially those without white markings.
But these days, that's not all they're used for. Ask Doug Carpenter, whose reputation for picking future winners is well established in the performance horse world (see "Shop A Horse Auction Like A Pro," February '07). The Sulphur, Oklahoma, horseman has bought or sold such standout individuals as Boomernic, 1992 National Reining Horse Association Futurity champion; Smart Zanolena, 1999 National Reined Cow Horse Association Futurity champion; and Chics Magic Potion, 2003 NRCHA Futurity champion. His client list includes the likes of Clinton Anderson, Bob Avila, Shawn Flarida, Benny Guitron, Dell Hendricks, and Tim McQuay.
He's clearly the real deal, and one of his criteria for evaluating prospects is hair swirl patterns.
"I started looking at them years ago out of curiosity, then narrowed it down to a system that works for me," he says, noting that his ideal combination—in terms of indicating the likelihood of a willing, trainable prospect—is one swirl centered on the forehead between the eyes, and two matching swirls on either side of the bridle path, "not extending beyond the length of the ears when they're folded back."
He adds that in some lines of horses, a single swirl centered below the level of the eyes is also a positive indication, and two swirls close together can be OK—"though not in all instances," he cautions. "It's like every other theory—not 100 percent."
By contrast, if a horse has two or more swirls that are relatively spread apart on the face, "I'm a little concerned," he says. Though swirls are an important consideration in Carpenter's evaluations, they're not necessarily a make-or-break proposition. "If I really like a horse but his swirls don't line up the way I prefer, it's not a crucial deal," he explains. "But if a horse is already questionable, and I haven't really locked in and committed to him mentally, and his swirls are all out of line, it pretty much rules that horse out." That's how one modern and highly successful horseman makes use of swirls, and though he's tailored his method for his own purposes, he's following in a well-established tradition.
Swirls 'Back Then'
The practice of using hair swirls as predictors of a horse's temperament and usability dates back centuries among gypsies and Bedouins. It was in the 1980s and '90s, however, that it became popularized through the books and clinics of Linda Tellington-Jones. In 1965, before the horsewoman had established her now-famous "equine awareness method," she analyzed the results of a questionnaire sent to horse owners; the survey netted observations on the swirl patterns and behavior characteristics of 1,500 horses.
Tellington-Jones' resulting breakdown of swirl patterns and their relationship to personality traits is detailed and specific. In general, however, she found that a single swirl in the center of the forehead indicated an uncomplicated nature; a single swirl centered below the level of the eyes indicated an intelligent, possibly mischievous nature; a single, long swirl between or extending below the eyes indicated an especially friendly, agreeable nature; and two or more swirls generally indicated a more complicated personality in some way. (For more detail on her analyses, see Getting In TTouch: Understand and Influence Your Horse's Personality, Trafalgar 1995; HorseBooksEtc.com.)
Tellington-Jones has consistently stressed that the best use of swirl analysis is in discovering how best to approach a particular horse's training.
"If a horse's swirls tell you he's the more temperamental type, then you know not to get after him for ‘attitude,' as that will just upset him more," she says. "Many of my top horses had two swirls. Nowadays we have so many more ways to deal with such horses—to teach them to think instead of react."