From the most ancient times, man has studied the world around him for signs and clues. Horses have been a huge fascination since 30,000 BC when they were first drawn on the walls of caves. Ancient students of the horse may have studied things and made conclusions that we find foolish today but, as with everything that is old and becomes new again, the study of whorls always has had its believers. Here we will uncover some of the thinking behind the importance of these swirls of fur. A whorl is a patch of hair growing in the opposite direction to the rest of the hair. Whorls occur on animals with hairy coats and are often found on horses and cows. Locations where whorls are found in equines include the stomach, face, poll, neck, chest, flanks and sometimes in random, odd places on the body. Hair whorls in horses are also known as crowns, swirls, trichoglyphs or cowlicks and can be either clockwise or counter clockwise in the direction of growth. One study has found that horses can be shown to have left or right footed lateral motion depending on the direction of growth of their whorls.
Thinking horsemen are always striving to understand and maximise their horses. In many horsemen’s opinion, studying whorls can offer important clues to both horse personality and performance. Although considered a pseudo science, the study of whorls can aid in the understanding of the nature of a horse and may help owners choose the horse partner that is best suited to their goals and reject an unsuitable horse before time, money and emotion are invested. In short, whorls can lead us to a deeper understanding and acceptance of our horses.
The validity of whorl analysis took a huge step forward early in this decade with the work of animal scientist Temple Grandin PhD, of Colorado State University. She became interested in whorls when her assistant Mark Deesing, who trains and shoes horses, shared his casual observation that horses with whorls high on the forehead or two whorls tended in general to be more reactive and ‘highly strung.’
Grandin and Deesing decided to see if these correlations held up under scrutiny. They opted to work with cattle that have whorl patterns similar to horses as they needed a large number of animals without extensive handling so the results wouldn’t be influenced by training. Working at a Colorado feedlot, they observed 1,500 cattle as they were restrained one at a time in a hydraulic squeeze chute for vaccinations. One person noted the animal’s whorl patterns while the other, positioned so the facial whorls weren’t visible (to avoid bias), ranked the animal’s temperament using a standardised scale.
‘We found there was definitely a relationship between the position of whorls and the temperament of the cattle,’ reports Grandin. ‘Those with whorls high on the forehead were more likely to fight and move around in the chute. And we’ve definitely observed enough of the same sort of correlation in horses to know it’s a factor for them as well.
‘With horses, I think sometimes people read too much into it in terms of personality,’ she adds. ‘How easily the animal gets scared - that’s how I prefer to put it.’ However you put it, it begs the question: Why should hair whorls and temperament be connected in any way? As it turns out, hair whorl patterns form in the developing fetus at the same time the brain is forming.
‘The nervous system and the skin, which contains the whorl patterns, come from the same embryonic layer,’ explains Grandin. ‘This may explain the apparent relationships between body traits and temperament. It is interesting to note that humans with developmental disabilities have a high incidence of abnormal hair whorl patterns.’
My first exposure to the existence of whorls was at childhood. I grew up in Virginia with lots of Thoroughbred horses. As with many breed societies, the registering process of the babies asked for all whorls to be marked with an 'x’ to identify the horse as whorls are evident at birth and never change. I never gave them another thought. I never used them as a way to choose or not choose a horse. I noticed an odd one here and there but mostly because the hair grew strangely or the mane was difficult to braid or band. It wasn't until a fateful day in the summer of 2002 when NSBA Hall of Fame Horseman Jerry Stanford took a look at a challenging three year old filly of mine that I truly understood the potential power of understanding whorls.
Jerry Stanford is a true pioneer, educator, leader and legend in the western pleasure industry. A bit of an outlaw himself, he took in numerous rowdy teenage boys like Cleve Wells and Shane Dowdy, and made them the horsemen to lead the next generation. Jerry was from the school of trial and error, and his theories were formed from intense study of successful western pleasure horses. He studied conformation, herd behaviour, grazing and movement posture, whorls and more before choosing the horses in which to invest his time. Jerry painted me the picture of him sitting under a tree in a pasture full of yearlings. He watched, studied and compared everything before making his choice. By careful evaluation he could choose the colt or filly most likely to train up into the winning two year old (and beyond) western pleasure horse.
He felt certain babies were destined for greatness and if one was particular enough, he could find that baby and develop him. Through his excellent eye and mind, Jerry made the AQHA stallion The Invester famous. In fact one year Jerry and his wife Marty were first and third in the AQHA Congress Two Year Old Western Pleasure, and seven of the top ten winners were by The Invester.
At the time (2002) Jerry was travelling the country helping horse trainers improve their skills and programs. I met him in Jackson, Mississippi, at the Dixie Nationals and was blown away by his innovative mind and unique training style. He gave me his card and I called him to see if he would come to South Carolina from Arkansas to help me. He literally changed my life by deepening my understanding of the performance horse, changing forever the way I looked at and evaluated them.
That first sunny morning I took out my best horse Skip (Skip N Ol Paint, multi World and Reserve World APHA Champion now, but not then) for Jerry to evaluate. He loved him. He showed me how his body shape, type, muscling and posture was perfect for a western pleasure horse. He showed me how the balance and symmetry in every part of his body was perfect for his job. He explained, ‘A monkey could be World Champion with this horse, so many things are lined up right.’ Although I was taken back by my comparison to a monkey, I was thrilled he liked my favourite boy so much; or was he just really kind and nice about every horse?
I quickly found out this was not the case when I brought out my three year old filly. She had been quite a challenge and the reason remained a mystery. I had bought the pretty sorrel overo filly when she was a foal still on her mother. I had brought her home and raised her myself. She had the square frame, matching feet, low set knees and hocks Jerry spoke so highly of, and she had the ‘look’ and movement of a fancy western pleasure horse. Her ‘hole’ seemed to be in her ability to appropriately respond to pressure (physical and mental) and follow cues. Whenever she felt stressed or pressured, instead of thinking and responding, she would explode, flip over and slam herself to the ground. She could do this numerous times in a session or not for a few months. But when she blew it was fast with no readable warning signs. I had (with help) gotten her where I could walk, jog and lope with her head naturally in a pretty good spot. Most days I could subtly 'body' her onto the correct lead, but I could never force or insist on anything. Through sheer natural ability she looked almost ready to show (at home), but I knew there was no speed control, no body control and no true steering or brake if she needed to be directed or shut down.
The filly was neat enough that my dear friend D John Deas offered to keep her and work on her for me. After several months he told me, he didn't get it. ‘Crazy Charlotte,’ as he called her, just wouldn't develop. He had been kind to her, he had tried to ‘kill’ her, but nothing worked. He said, ‘Honey this is the fanciest horse either of us will every own, but she won't take the training. I don't know what else to do.’ I brought her home and rode her a couple of days a week, just sneaking around any issues and doing my best to make my ideas become her ideas. I thought the great Jerry Stanford would have my key! He would have the answer to this frustrating puzzle. He did...
Jerry was sitting in a white plastic chair right across from my cross ties when I led her in and hooked her up. I was all smiles, excited to show off my fancy filly and to hear how smart I was for choosing such a pretty thing. Jerry's eyes were six feet from her nose when he reared back in that plastic chair and asked, ‘Have you ever really looked at this horse?’ I mumbled something incoherent as he emphatically said, ‘This horse is the Devil!’
My face fell and I was stunned. I started in on how fancy she moved but he cut me off, ‘Look at that whorl on her nose. It is down so low your noseband would cover it. The only thing with a whorl like that is a mule. You will never train this horse and she will hurt you very badly one day. Get rid of her immediately for whatever you can get. I will not touch her with my hands.’
I had gone from immense pride one minute in Skip, to despair the next being told to send this filly to the killers because she was dangerous. I was reeling so hard I could not speak. He continued, ‘I bet the whorls are messed up all over her body. Whorls are formed at the same time the learning centres of the brain are formed. About 80% of horses have a nearly identical whorl pattern and learn normally. Anything that deviates from that normal whorl pattern will be more challenging at best, to deadly at worst.’
As we looked over her body, she was like a train wreck of whorls. The left side of her neck had the whorl which belongs up on the crest by the mane, down low nearly at the jugular groove with the hair whorling out in every direction over her neck from her throatlatch to her shoulder. The other side of her neck had no whorl (whorls should be balanced from right to left, so a big whorl on one side and none on the other was disastrous by itself). Her flank whorls did not line up with her flanks, they were leaning and one broke twice and restarted, the other broke three times and restarted. The rest he spared telling me. I could see she was undeniably a huge mess. I decided to disclose her behaviour, which had been a secret up to that point. Of course he was not even fazed, her whorls could have predicted she was nothing but heartache the day she was born. He just told me to never get on her again. I actually listened, and sold her at a very cheap price to a horse trader friend who was determined to prove Jerry wrong. He never did.
I became fascinated in the clues hidden in whorls and I talked to everyone I could find to learn more. I studied countless horses and their whorl patterns, comparing the patterns to their performance. Jerry's theories were right on the money every time! I even started to seek out world champions from all different areas, jumping, cutting, reining, eventing, etc. I observed those 'perfect' whorl patterns time and time again. I also studied the unpredictable, bad actors that never fulfilled their 'potential' and found commonalities with them as well. I braid and band hundreds of horses each year and have gotten to observe tremendous numbers of horses and their whorl patterns. Successful horses are as shockingly consistent as the poor performers are predictable.
‘I have personally attempted to disprove the Theory of the Whorls for over 20 years, so far I am unsuccessful.’
Not everyone is eager to learn and embrace this idea. I have experienced many violent outbursts from the owner of a horse with a challenging whorl pattern. Although this horse has already hurt them they are certain it will become their perfect dream partner with the right trainer or programme.
One evening after a Craig Johnson reining clinic, I joined Craig and several other clinic participants and spouses for dinner at a local restaurant. The conversation was dull and everyone was putting on fake and 'perfect' facades for Craig who appeared to see right through them. I decided to shake the party up a bit by bringing up whorls. I asked Craig if he believed in the 'Whorl Theory?' It made one woman explode with anger; she in fact had a horse with telling whorls. I knew at least one other person at the table did too. The table erupted in heated discussion attacking me and 'my' ideas. I didn't mind, it was certainly more interesting than the previous conversation.
Craig Johnson is one of the finest horsemen of our time and one of the smoothest speakers I know, I couldn't wait to hear what he had to say. I knew Craig came from horsemen, but I also knew he does his own thinking and follows his own path to success paved with strong foundation horsemanship, unwavering ethics and incredible talent and timing. Craig's answer was classic.
‘My daddy believed in whorls and put value in what they mean. I, however, do not. I believe with quality horse training, every horse should reach his or her potential regardless of their whorl pattern. I would never turn down a training horse because it has ‘bad’ whorls. I do however pay attention to whorls when I purchase a horse I plan to sell later. Although I do not believe in whorls, enough other people do that a horse with 'bad whorls' may not make it out of the stall when a client comes to look at him. I do not believe in buying any horse that has an issue real or imagined, that would stop a client from even taking him out of the stall to ride.
‘I have personally attempted to disprove the Theory of the Whorls for over 20 years, so far I am unsuccessful.’
The table that was humming as he spoke went silent for a moment, disbelief all over the faces of those poo-pooing 'my' idea. I said nothing else, Craig said nothing else and the subject immediately changed.
You would be in shock at the number of successful people who do believe. Most people won't talk about it or admit it, but in a group of successful horsemen, I bet at least half have knowledge of at least the basics. If you have never even considered this type of idea get Linda Tellington-Jones book, Understand and Influence Your Horse's Personality. It is a fascinating and different way to look at and consider horses. I was surprised how uncannily accurate her observations were when I took them to my own horses. It has a nice beginner's section on whorls too.
To fully understand whorls and their affect on your horse, think about how energy moves through a horse's body. Created in the hindquarter of the horse (the engine), energy is sent forward toward the nose travelling through the hindquarters, loin and back to the top of the neck, through the poll and down the front of the face to the nose.
The theory goes that whorls can have the effect of allowing, stopping or altering this energy by focussing it or muddling it depending upon the type of whorl at the given spot. Types of possible whorls are Simple, Tufted, Linear, Crested and Feathered. Energy flows exactly as the whorl appears.
If we picture energy like water it is easier to comprehend. Focussed energy can be very powerful, like water cutting through rock. Muddled or dissipated energy can become stagnant and rot everything around it. Smooth flowing energy is clean, pure, easy to predict and control; but just like a beaver dam can stop up the flow of your creek and cause the water to start cutting new routes through the surrounding land, so can a whorl affect the flow of the energy you expect to flow smoothly through your horse.
As we know some horses have a lot of energy (water) flowing through them (Arabs, TBs etc), while others have but a trickle (drafts, some older style stock breeds, etc). A high energy horse with challenging whorls can be like the white rapids that cut through rock out west. They can get 'stuck' and dig deep holes that end in huge explosions. But that low energy horse with challenging whorls can spook or explode when enough energy bogs down too. Understanding the balance of energy in the body will really help you understand why whorls (other than on the forehead) are best in pairs.
Each whorl on one side should have a matching whorl on the opposite side of the body. Because whorls stop or slow down energy, it is very important that they be balanced and equal on both sides of the body for the horse to feel (energetically) balanced or straight. If they are uneven, energy will ‘hang up’ on one side and not the other. I have seen beautiful horses with an odd whorl (usually on the neck) on one side and not the other. Low energy horses may just stay bent toward the whorl and resist turning the other way and picking up both leads. A high energy horse can be super explosive and buck or bolt because they feel one side quite energised and the other side quite dead. This lack of harmony in one’s own body can be intensely frustrating and cause the horse to act out in grumpy or violent behaviours. Many times the horse will become lame in the foot closest to the odd whorl because energy, weight and pounding pool there.
A more subtle ‘out of balance’ issue occurs in most horses as few have perfectly balanced whorls. The horse will usually bend or turn more easily in the direction of the furthest back or longer whorl since energy flows from the back of the horse forward, and the first or bigger whorl will stop the energy first. A good rider can help these horses stretch and seem perfectly even. Obviously the closer to even the better, but awareness can help you help your horse become balanced energetically.
‘Reading’ whorls will give you a blueprint to the way energy is most likely to flow through the horse. Talented riders and trainers can feel this energy when they interface (ride or do groundwork) with a horse. A rider who has developed this sense of feeling energy and directing it can overcome tremendous issues! I have seen trainers so tuned into this feeling that a ‘normal’ whorl horse is just plain boring. Giving this rider knowledge and understanding of whorls could open the door to many more horses becoming better understood, better developed and better balanced so they can reach higher goals than ever before.
There are special people who do set out to smash rules and boundaries. If you have a horse with a very 'unique' whorl or combination of whorls, you may need to seek out that same unique rider/trainer to help your horse achieve his greatest success.
This is meant to be an article to help us better understand and help our horses and ourselves reach greater heights and maximise our full potential. It is not meant to depress or define limits, it is meant to inspire and help you understand some of the 'whys' so you can work through them.