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Horse Hair: Whorl Patterns

Many horsemen believe in the predictive value of horse hair whorls and other physical characteristics. Here's the latest in an old technique that's new again.

Can a horse hair whorl tell you anything you don't already know about your horse's temperament? Or help you predict the behavior tendencies of a prospect you're thinking of buying?

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.

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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."

Posted in Anatomy, Behavior, Horse Care, Training, Western | | 7 Comments

7 Responses to “Horse Hair: Whorl Patterns”

  1. holleyqh says:

    Reading hair swirls sounds pretty much like days of old when people practiced phrenology (reading the bumps on your head). There are still people who believe that works, too. There is also a flat world society, but I don’t belong to that group either. To think that the way hair lays on certain parts of the body is somehow connected to the neuronal transmissions in the horse’s brain and then its behavior is a big leap of faith. One I’m not willing to make based on some observations or anecdotal stories. If hair patterns predicted horse behavior, it would sure make training a whole lot easier. Instead, knowing basic horse body language and knowing the horse you are working with in particular is still the best way to decide training methods. I would love to see some good research backing up the whole idea of hair swirl behavior typing, I just don’t believe it’s out there. At least I haven’t found any.

  2. eshipman says:

    holleyqh, Have a look at the research that Temple Grandin has done with the timing of development of whorls in the hair pattern in utero, brain formation, the nervous system and temperament.(her work was in cattle, 100′s of them, it does cross over physiologically, as to when hair patterns are formed in horses as well) She is not the only one to have documented the the apparent relationship of whorl pattern to temperament. Of course “quiet horses” can have “bad whorls” and vice versa; training style is paramount. Let’s just say those whorl patterns are something to keep in mind…

  3. vitha3938 says:

    I find your analysis of hair whorls in horses interesting… but all of the commentary centers around whorls on the head/ face. What do you make of a horse that has large whorls (or areas of hair that grow in opposite directions) on the neck and/or body? My sister-in-law recently gifted me with a 12 year Missouri Foxtrotter gelding she has owned for 4 years. She has brought him down here every year for several weeks in the summer. She swears that while in Iowa his hair lays flat, but as soon as he steps off the trailer here in Missouri you can see large whorls on his neck and shoulders. He has been here now for about 8 weeks and they are still very prominent. He’s a very good minded, well gaited horse but I’ve never seen anything like it. Have you ever heard of anything like this? Thanks

  4. 613828 says:

    Regarding the comment about breeds in the article. People often tell me they can’t believe my horses are Arabians, they are so quiet. This is usually while they are standing in the middle of a portion of the herd. I think horses are very much influenced by the temperament of the people handling them. Often if you look at the other end of the lead shank, you will see why the horse is so uptight. I am a very laid back person, never get panicky in difficult situations, and my horses reflect that. I’ve bought ones who appeared high strung until they’d been with me awhile, and after being sold a couple of times, ended up with a nervous person, and they reverted to the old behavior. Wonder if any research has been done on this.
    I’m also a firm believer in you get the behavior you expect. I purchased an Arabian mare that someone had looked at for a saddle horse. After riding the mare, they came back and told the owner the horse was fine at walk and trot, but wouldn’t canter. Owner looked at the mare and realized wrong horse had put it’s head in halter, and told the buyers “Not sure how to tell you this, but this mare’s never been ridden before.” Something to think about!

  5. 818068 says:

    i have a 4 year old holsteiner wih 4 whorls on her forehead. anyone else have a horse with that many? they are close together at about eye level.

  6. Rustyrider says:

    I have always wondered about this subject and if there is anything to it. We bought a little yearling filly through the e-net (she’s two now) and she has a long cowlick running down the length of her neck right below where her mane grows. Also a swirl on her face a little low between the eyes. I don’t remember seeing a horse with the hair growing that way down the neck before. She is a very sweet little horse by the way.

  7. againe23 says:

    Hi,
    Great article. We have American Curly (also known as Bashkir Curly) horses and Curly Mustangs (BLM adopted). We are doing research to learn more about our Curlies at Texas A&M and so far are finding they has a dominate gene for curls. We can tell you they have wonderful dispositions. We are gentling and training the first BLM Curly Mustang to be in the Mustang Makeover competition this Sept. in Ft. Worth. What a treasure she is{:>
    Visit us at http://www.goldencurlsranch.com and on facebook at Curly Mustang Association.
    Angie Gaines
    ABCR Board Member At-Large
    Sec. of Curly Mustang Association

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