Science vs Folklore: Do Whorl Patterns in Horses Really Mean Anything?

Horses are beautiful and mysterious creatures. Perhaps this is why humans and horses have been linked together for thousands of years. We continuously try to understand their behaviors and come up with new ways to speak their language. It's no wonder there are so many old wive's tales about horses; including whorl patterns. It has been said that the whorl pattern on your horse's forehead is the gateway to their soul. Can science confirm these tales, and can you really determine your horse's behavior based this superstition?

Mark Deesing is a farrier and horse trainer who partnered with Dr. Temple Grandin to conduct a research study on hair whorls. He first heard about hair whorls from folklore. He says, "American Indians believed they could predict the temperament of a horse by the whorl on its head. "Beduoin[sic] tribesman valued hair whorls as a means of predicting personality and performance traits in hourses[sic] 2,000 years ago. And the Chinese have looked at hair whorls in their children for thousands of years." 

Deesing started to see a pattern. "I saw that some trends existed in that the higher the whorl was on the forehead, the more high-strung and fearful the horse was, But I wasn't completely convinced because it doesn't hold true all the time." He reflected on earlier observations, "At the time, I didn't really understand the interaction between genetic influences and environment and how those forces interact to shape behavior," he said. "If he's raised gently, his true temperament will be masked by experience – but it's only masked and not changed by experience," he said. "That's another thing that we've learned from the neuroscience literature. If you expose an animal to novelty, his true temperament shows, that's because neurosystem reactivity is genetically based."

Deesing began to notice a more consistent correlation that convinced him that there might actually be something to this hair whorl theory. And so he started to change the way he worked with horses. As an avid horseman(woman) may know, horses tend to have a side preference. They may be softer and easier to handle on one side as opposed to the other. As a farrier, Deesing says, "when they resist having someone pick up their feet, I found that most of the time, the hair whorl will be on the same side the horse was difficult. This observation became very useful for my ability to approach a horse and train it. If I saw the whorl was on the left side of the horse's head and it gave me some trouble, I would switch sides and go to the other side. That tended to make my job safer because usually by the time I got through shoeing the easy side, the horse was more cooperative on the difficult side." 

In 1993, Mark Deesing met Dr. Temple Grandin and pitched his research idea to her. His first task was to find out if anyone had researched this topic before. "Well right away we struck gold in that pediatricians had looked at hair whorls in children for decades," says Deesing.  People all have hair whorls on the backs of their heads, and pediatric studies have shown that children with various developmental disabilities often have abnormal scalp hair patterns. "What they found was that the hair and the brain formed from the same fetal cell layer, So early in gestation – about 10 weeks when the brain is beginning to form – hair follicles form on the scalp at the same time. As the brain grows and forms, hair whorls are interpreted as a point of stretch over the underlying structures of the brain."

Dr. Temple Grandin suggested they use cattle in their research since it is difficult to find a large herd of horses with similar genetics and experiences. Their first project was a double-blind study observing the level of agitation cattle exhibit in a squeeze chute during routine husbandry procedures, in relation to the animal's hair whorl.
Their second study looked at the position of the hair whorls in relation to right or left "handedness" in cattle. They observed 1,670 dairy cows over a year to see which turned to the left and which to the right when entering the milking parlor. 

Deesing explains the significance of specialized functions of the brain's cerebral hemispheres from their research studies. "Once thought to be a uniquely human trait, specialized function of the cerebral hemispheres is common in both vertebrate and invertebrate species. In essence, the left side of the brain is geared toward social interaction and food finding (approach behavior); the right side is geared to detect danger (avoidance behavior). These specialized functions evolved in animals such as horses and cattle, allowing them to graze and simultaneously be on guard for danger." 

In 1994, they also reviewed data and studies on associations between hair whorl patterns and a horse's performance. They found that horses with double hair whorls were more reactive, but also were higher performers. In fact, the percentage of double whorls in racing and jumping horses was nearly double the rate found in all other samples. 

These scientific studies appeared to confirm Deesing's early observations. Dr. Grandin said this about their research: "We found there was definitely a relationship between the position of whorls and the temperament of the cattle. Those with swirls 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. "

Dr. Grandin says, "With horses, I think sometimes people read too much into it in terms of personality. How easily the animal gets scared--that's how I prefer to put it." Horses are prey animals. Biologically their behavior can be explained by the "fight or flight" response. Horses rely on this response to survive in the wild. Deesing illustrates another example: "If horses are difficult to shoe on one side, it's usually fear-related. They're afraid of having you over on that side. And if they don't turn well going left or right on a show-jumping course, it's usually because they are afraid of the novelty and want to keep their good side to the outside."

This knowledge can help horse trainers and owners make sure their animals are balanced. Knowing the weak side of a horse, which can be determined by the hair whorl, would enable him to spend more time on that side to balance. "I'm not a fan of rough training methods in general, but if you use them on a high-whorl individual, you'll probably traumatize and wreck that animal," Dr. Grandin says. "You also need to be especially careful not to frighten a horse with high whorls. That's the key in horse training, anyway--to avoid traumatizing the animal in the first place."

It would seem that ancient people's keen sense about horses and their forehead whorls can be confirmed, at least in part, by science. While some horsemen swear by this technique when choosing or training horses, others are not so sure it is anything more than an old superstition. What do you think? Have you put this theory to the test with your horses? How does it hold up? Let us know.

Deesing went on to work with Dr. Grandin on the first edition of Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, originally published in 1997 with a second edition released in 2013. The findings above about hair whorls are detailed in Chapter 7, "Behavior Genetics of the Horse (Equus caballus)," for which Deesing is the lead author. The chapter delves deeper into the science of hair whorls in horses, cattle, guide dogs and humans.

Parts of this story and quotes from Mark Deesing were originally written by Alison Bert and published in Elsevier
Quotations from Dr. Temple Grandin found in a similar article by Jennifer Forsberg Meyer and published in Horse & Rider

More information about their research studies can be found here.