New research suggests there’s a surprisingly simple way of predicting whether a spooking horse will turn to the right or left: Check out his facial whorls.
The equivalent of “cowlicks” in people, whorls are swirling patterns of hair; they are commonly seen on the forehead but can appear anywhere on a horse’s coat. The location and direction of whorls in humans are linked to early fetal brain development. In fact, abnormal whorls are common in children with developmental disorders.
In a recent pilot study, Colorado State University researchers set out to determine whether the orientation of a whorl—clockwise or counterclockwise—indicates a horse’s propensity to favor his right or left side. CSU researchers categorized facial whorls on 19 riding horses based on height, location and orientation.
Facing the horses straight on, the researchers then exposed them to a frightening stimulus—the sudden opening of an umbrella. They found that horses with counterclockwise whorls were more likely to spin left when spooking, while those with clockwise whorls turned to the right.
The researchers conclude that “facial hair whorls may be used as a noninvasive method to predict turning response in horses.”
Reference: “Behavioral laterality and facial hair whorls in horses,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, September 2016
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #470, November 2016.