Last Updated on February 28, 2022 by Allison Price
It is possible that horses’ temperaments and hair swirl patterns or ‘whorls’ on their heads or other parts of their bodies may have a connection.
What can a horse hair curl tell you about your horse’s temperament and personality? You can also use it to predict the behavior of a potential buyer.
This was the belief of Bedouins from Arabia hundreds of years ago. European gypsies were also renowned for their close relationship to horses. Even America’s “old-time” horsemen in the 1940s and 1950s put a lot of value on horse hair whorl analysis.
But, what about modern times?
Surprisingly, yes. The interest in horse hair swirls or whorls to assess disposition has grown steadily since Linda Tellington-Jones’ pioneering work in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now science has supported the idea that hairstyles, such as hairwirling, are fundamentally linked to temperament.
We’ll discuss the history of swirl analysis and share some opinions and anecdotes. Finally, we’ll look at a study that relates to swirls and temperament.
We will also discuss the predictive value other physical characteristics such as body traits or coat color. Also, we’ll look at what has been proven to be true in other species.
You can then go to the barn and examine your horse.
What is a Whorl?
A swirl, or whorl, is a hair that grows in an opposite direction to the surrounding hair. It’s usually done in a pinwheel style. It is most common on the head and face. trichoglyphs are another name for whorls. They can also be called cowlicks or trichoglyphs when they appear on the body.
Recording the horse’s location and character, especially if they don’t have white markings, is one of oldest methods of identifying them.
These days, they are used for more than just that. Doug Carpenter is a well-known name in the world of performance horses for his ability to pick future winners.
Sulphur, Oklahoma horseman, Boomernic, 1992 National Reining Horse Association Futurity Champion; Smart Zanolena 1999 National Reined Cow Horse Association champion; and Chics magic Potion 2003 NRCHA Futurity Champion.
His clients include Shawn Flarida and Benny Guitron as well as Tim McQuay, Tim McQuay, Shawn Flarida and Bob Avila.
He is clearly the best, and hair swirl patterns are one of his criteria when evaluating potential clients.
He says that he started looking at them many years ago out curiosity. Then, he narrowed it down into a system that worked for him. His ideal combination, if he wants to indicate the likelihood that a willing, trained prospect will be available, is one swirl centered between the eyes and two matching swirls either side of his bridle path. “Not extending beyond their length when they’re folded up.”
He also stated that horses can have a single swirl at the eye level. Two swirls in close proximity to the eyes are acceptable. It’s just like any other theory, but not 100%.
He says that if horses have two or more swirls on their faces, it is a sign of concern.
Carpenter’s evaluations include swirls as an important factor, but they are not a must-have.
He explains, “If I love a horse but his swirls aren’t aligned the way I like it, it’s not crucial.” But if a horse is already questionable and I haven’t committed myself to him mentally, and his swirls don’t line up, that horse will be out.
This is how a modern, highly successful horseman uses swirls. He’s not following a well-established tradition, but he has his own unique method.
Swirls Back Then’
Hair swirls have been used to predict a horse’s temperament or usability for centuries by Bedouins and Gypsies. However, it was popularized by Linda Tellington-Jones’ books and clinics in the 1980s and 1990s.
Before the horsewoman established her famed “equine awareness” method, she analysed the results of a questionnaire that was sent to horse owners in 1965. The survey gathered observations about the behavior and swirl patterns of 1,500 horses.
Tellington Jones’ breakdown swirl patterns and relationship to personality traits is precise and detailed. She found that in general:
* A single swirl at the forehead’s center indicated a simple nature.
* A single swirl placed below the eye level indicated intelligence, or mischievousness.
* A single, long swirl that extends below the eyes indicates a friendly, cooperative nature.
* Two or more swirls indicate a more complex personality. (For more information on her analysis, see Getting in Touch: Understand and Influence Horse’s Personality Trafalgar 1995.
Tellington-Jones insists that swirl analysis can be used to determine the best approach to a horse’s training.
She says, “If the horse’s swirls indicate that he is temperamental, then it’s best to not chase him for his ‘attitude’ because that will only upset him more.” Many of my top horses had two swirls. We have many more options to help such horses–to get them to think instead if reacting.
More Swirl Studies
Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal scientist, made swirl analysis more valid in the first decade of this century.
Mark Deesing, her assistant who trains and shoes horses and horses, suggested to her that swirls were a natural interest. He observed that horses with two swirls or more on their foreheads were more responsive and more “high strung”.
Grandin and Deesing wanted to find out if the correlations were stable. Because they were able to handle large numbers of animals with minimal handling, the results weren’t affected by training, they chose to work with cattle. (Cattle have similar whorl patterns to horses’.
They observed 1,500 cattle being vaccinated in a Colorado feedlot. The one person took note of the animal’s swirl patterns and the other, who was positioned so that the facial swirls were not visible (to avoid bias), scored the animal’s temperament using an established scale.
Grandin reports that there was a clear relationship between the temperament of cattle and their position in the whorls. Grandin reports that those with swirls on their foreheads were more likely fight in the chute. We have seen enough evidence of this correlation in horses to conclude that it is a factor.
She adds that horses can be too influenced by people’s personalities. “How easy it is for the animal to get scared–that’s what I prefer to say.”
It doesn’t matter how you phrase it, it raises the question: Why should temperament and hair swirls be linked in any way? It turns out that hair swirl patterns are formed in the developing foetus while the brain is still developing.
Grandin explains that the embryonic layer contains both the nervous system and skin. This may explain the apparent relationship between body traits, and temperament. (See “Beyond Horses: Humans, Rats, & Foxes,” below.)
Grandin agrees with Tellington-Jones that horses should be trained using swirl analysis.
She says, “I don’t like rough training methods in general. But if you use them to traumatize or wreck an animal with high whorls, you’ll likely traumatize that animal.” You must also be careful not to scare horses with high whorls. This is the most important thing about horse training–to avoid traumatizing an animal.
It’s not so fast…
Although it is all fascinating, not everyone believes in “swirl theory.” Benny Guitron is a well-known broker who sells horses and trains trainers. He has shown many champions.
He says, “I don’t know much about it, so i have never used swirls to guide me in buying a horse or figuring my behavior.” I’m more interested in how a horse looks. He says that his father used to be interested in swirls. But he never let go of a good horse if it wasn’t right.
Bob Avila, the world champion trainer, is also ambiguous.
He says that he isn’t sure if he has been able prove the predictive value of swirls. I grew up hearing about how important it was to have one in the middle. However, I’ve also had good horses with bad swirls and some with good ones.
The trainer still allows that his high school experience showing cattle to the public was influenced by swirl analysis. George Smith, a horseman who had a lot of Doc Bar offspring, always picked Avila’s steers based on swirls.
Avila says that “he was really into that.”
You can also find the information you need on swirls everywhere if you ask around.
Anne Marie “Bubbles”, Hiller was a coach for riders in the West Coast’s open Western circuit in the 1970s. Today, she is a respected judge for the United States Equestrian Federation in both the Arabian and open Western divisions. She believes swirls are related to behavior.
She relates that she first noticed swirls eight to ten years ago when a friend of a trainer mentioned them. This was at Reno’s show. She said that she had noticed that horses with cowlicks were more nutty, i.e. they were very fast and difficult to clip.
“Horses with swirls on their foreheads or slightly below the forehead are the easiest to work with. It holds up. It’s hard to notice unless you point it out to people …”.
The Final Analysis
What can we make of this? Even those who believe there is a connection between physical characteristics (such hair swirls) or temperament, caution against placing undue value on it.
Phillip Sponenberg (DVM, PhD), a genetics expert at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine summarizes it well.
He says that it is possible for there to be a relationship, pointing out the similarities in the embryonic origins and brains of skin/hair and brain. It appears that it is ‘loose’ enough to allow for individual variation, which can make it difficult to predict in some cases.
“So, because of individual variation, it works’ some of time, but not always.
This is because you will find out that hair swirls are very real if you pay attention.
Beyond Swirls: Hair Colors and Body Shapes
Temperament is not only linked to hair swirls. Temple Grandin also discovered a correlation between body size, bone structure, temperament, and other physical characteristics during her research.
She says that she has observed that smaller, fine-boned, and slimmer animals (horses, cattles, dogs, wild species) tend to be more agile than the larger, heavier, and bulkier animals. Consider Arabians vs. draft horses, greyhounds and St. Bernards, antelope vs. Elephants.
“We measured this in cattle and found that the legs of those that raced out of the squeeze chute were larger than the smaller ones.
Linda Tellington Jones also sees a link between temperament and the different characteristics of a horse’s head. She says that the shape of the head, the set of the ears and the line of the jaw are all indicators of temperament. This is independent of breed differences. For example, a horse with wide ears set apart will be the most reliable and cooperative. The straighter the horse’s profile, the better.
In a very general way, coat color can be linked to temperament categories. Tellington-Jones believes that chestnut mares tend to be more sensitive than black horses, for better or worse. She says that bay horses are the most reliable. They are more calm and less troublesome in many ways.
Doug Carpenter said that he has noticed that blacks and greys are “a bit harder to train than horses other colors, but I still buy them as people want them.”
He adds that the black ones seem to be more durable if they are trained properly. They are very durable.”
What about bays? They are generally good-natured, well-trained horses.
Beyond Horses, Rats & Foxes
Although it seems absurd to think we can predict a horse’s temperament based on hair color or swirls, there is a lot of information on the relationship between physical characteristics and behavior in humans and other animals.
Temple Grandin’s study of hair swirls in cattle, for example, also found that:
- A high percentage of abnormal hair patterns is common in children and adults with developmental disabilities.
- Study with guinea-pigs has shown that selecting different hair colors can affect the animal’s temperament.
- Research with rats has shown that rats who are bred for the non-agouti (non–ticked) black coat result in smaller, more manageable rats.
- Study with foxes showed that differences in temperament were clearly related to variations in coat color. Horses are not rats, humans, or foxes. However, these correlations may explain some of the fascinating things that horsemen have observed about horses’ physical characteristics and temperament.