What are Whorls?
Whorls on a horse are little pinwheel patches of hair that grow against the surrounding hair. When we see these pinwheels on a horse’s face, we call them whorls, and if they are other parts of the body they are referred to as cowlicks. The scientific term for them is trichoglyphs, but if you call them that, no one will have any idea what you’re talking about.
The Science and Unscience of Whorls
Trying to interpret a horse’s personality and even their tendency to favor a specific side by looking at their whorl has been around for thousands of years, but it became a popular “study” in the late 70s and 80s. Of course, the definitions are relatively vague and, just like astrology, up to the person to interpret. A Polish study done in 2006 stated that horses with whorls higher up on their head were determined to be more difficult to work with. Again, whether a horse is considered difficult or not is really up to the interpretation of the trainer and handler, so I’m not certain how scientific that study can be.
There have been studies that show horses may favor going in a right or left direction by the direction of the whorl- a study with Temple Grandin in 2016 stated that the direction of the whorls (right versus left) could determine the direction the horse favors. The study stated that there WAS a correlation between whorls and the horse’s turning response (P=.04)… for those who haven’t taken a statistics class, anything below .05 is statistically significant. While the study is interesting, it isn’t significant enough for me to base my training decisions. Additionally, I don’t need a whorl analysis to see when a horse prefers one side over the other.
Humans are so determined by our nature to find meaning in absolutely everything that we will even try to find meaning in how hair grows! Yes, I know some very famous trainers believe in whorls… and some people really believe that your personality is set because of the position of another planet in relation to the earth. With little scientific evidence other than empirical statements from people who go into the study with their belief system already in place, I will not ever judge a horse by “whorl theory,” and those who claim to believe in it are often (in my opinion), merely trying to excuse why their training methods are not working.
There’s a lot of new-age ridiculousness about energy coming out of the hair in a certain direction- I won’t bore you with that. If you’re into that, feel free to look all that stuff up on your own- I will only entertain whorl theory so far. And, in my opinion, just like astrology, while it’s great entertainment, nothing tangible should be based upon it. That being said, I suppose since I don’t believe in any of it, it doesn’t really hurt the horses I work with, so I thought I’d take some pictures of Hanaeleh’s horses and their whorls and see if their personality matches up to what the whorls are supposed to mean.
Whorls in the Horses of Hanaeleh
This is Grace’s little whorl right in the middle of her head. It’s known as a “simple” whorl. It’s smack dab between her eyes, which is supposed to indicate that the horse will be relatively easy-going with a kind personality. I definitely agree that Grace is a kind horse, and I think “easy-going” can be difficult to interpret. Easy-going for an Arabian? Then, yes, Grace is easy-going. Easy-going for a Quarter horse? Uh, no. There is also nothing in whorl lore that predicts which horse will head-butt you, which is unfortunate.
Noelle’s whorl is what is called a linear whorl- the hair falls along a linear pattern. I actually couldn’t find any difference in the behavior of a horse with a linear whorl than one with a feathered whorl… everything I could read stated that horses with a similar whorl have a friendly and agreeable nature. Um… no. While Noelle is sweet, she is not what anyone would consider friendly. I will concede that she’s agreeable… except when she doesn’t want to be.
Just like Grace, Tamahome has a simple swirl as well. While Tama is relatively easy-going at the ranch, and definitely kind, he wasn’t always that way. A simple swirl is supposed to indicate a horse with a single, predictable personality. That is definitely NOT Tama- while he and I get along famously, I still prefer to take him out on trail with Gypsy because he will sometimes freak out about absolutely nothing. So while he is usually easy-going and kind, sometimes he is a bit of a nutcase.
Ruby has what’s called a feathered whorl. Again, just like Noelle, she’s supposed to have a friendly and agreeable nature. Hahahahahahahaha no. Ruby is agreeable in that she makes good decisions and has neither bucked nor reared with me on her, but she really is not personable at all. Whorl gurus would state that her whorl is high up on her head, which makes her difficult and that’s why the whorl definition doesn’t coincide with her personality. Others claim that high whorls actually mean an intelligent mind. Even the whorlologists can’t agree with what hair means.
Ollie has high whorls, and just like Ruby, it can mean either he’s difficult or intelligent or both. He has three whorls, which apparently is the kiss of death- on one site I found about whorls stated that horses with multiple whorls actually had multiple personalities! Apparently multiple whorls indicates a horse who is difficult to understand and who is complex. I honestly don’t think Ollie is complex- I think he’ll take advantage of a situation, but he’s a pretty straightforward horse.
Ulysses looks like he has a complicated whorl pattern, but the areas on the top of his forehead are actually scars from the people who abused him, not whorls. His whorl looks like it probably is a linear whorl, but it’s difficult to tell how far his scarring goes down his face, so it could really be a simple swirl with a scar in the middle. I don’t want to analyze Ulysses beyond this- he is amazing and has been through more than any horse should ever experience. Let’s just all agree that his whorl pattern means that he’s perfect the way he is.
Venus has a simple swirl pattern right in the middle of her face. It looks odd because her little star is a bit off-kilter. Again, a simple whorl means that they are supposed to be a single, predictable personality. If single, predictable personality means completely unpredictable, then I guess that is accurate. But wait- if a whorl is set to the right, the horse will be less cooperative. Uncooperative would never be a word I would associate with Venus. Uncertain, definitely, but not uncooperative.
Sierra also has a simple swirl, but her whorl is very high up on her forehead. Remember, that sworls that are high up on the head means that the horse is either difficult or intelligent, or maybe both… I can’t keep track anymore. Sierra definitely does NOT have a single personality- she has one personality when she is being groomed, and another personality when she is being worked. That is because of her past abuse, however, which is why trying to interpret whorls is completely useless- horses are not blank slates, and they bring with them their past trauma.
Gypsy has a short linear whorl very high up on her forehead. As noted, sworls high up on the forehead indicate intelligence but also a reactive horse. Gypsy can be reactive, but she’s also a wild Mustang, so I don’t really think that it’s fair to associate her responses to how her hair grows, when she was literally born into the wild.
Quixote has a simple swirl smack-dab in the middle of his forehead, right between the eyes, right where all of these whorl scientists say is the best kind and place for a whorl to be. A horse with this whorl should be easy-going, uncomplicated, and easy to train. Quixote’s personality is not indicative of his whorl at all- he is complicated and even difficult at times.
Garnet has two sworls, although it’s more difficult to see when she has her summer coat (it’s much more obvious with her winter coat). That being said, they are right next to each other, above her eyes. As with Ollie, some whorlologists believe that multiple whorls can indicate multiple personalities. With Garnet, I will acknowledge that she does seem to have different personalities on different days, but I think that stems more with her exercise level rather than how her hair grows. Horses with whorls on the right side are supposed to be more uncooperative- I would not say that Garnet is uncooperative, but rather she is a mare and has her own mind.
Lou Dillon has a simple swirl right in the middle of his face, between his eyes. Just like Tamahome and Grace, the simple swirl means that the horse a simple, predictable personality. Lou Dillon definitely does not fit this- he can be unpredictable at times, which is one of the reasons we have never tried to ride him. That being said, his nature now is most likely due to the abuse he suffered before he came to Hanaeleh. Even if there was some sort of science behind whorls, the truth is that we don’t treat horses the same, and a lot of horses unfortunately are victims of cruel and abusive training. Assuming we can determine how they will act by how their hair grows while also ignoring their past is unfair to the horse.
Raven has a linear whorl- it is a line that goes down the middle of her forehead. Horses who have linear whorls are supposed to be sweet and good natured. I will say that this is actually accurate of Raven- she is a very sweet horse. I assume that it helps that she is a Friesian and has never been trained to do much and everyone probably has treated her as if she were a princess for her entire life.
Hope has a simple swirl up high and on the right of her face. A horse with a simple swirl is supposed to be easy-going and kind, but it’s also above her eyes, and on the right, which means that she is also supposed to be reactive and uncooperative. Poor Hope- if we believe the whorlologists, she doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going! Hope is pretty cooperative, and her biggest issue is that she sometimes doesn’t want to be caught, but that really stems from neglect, not how her hair grows.
Hershey has a simple whorl in the middle of his forehead, but it’s relatively high up, meaning that he’s supposed to be easy-going and sweet, but also intelligent and reactive. I guess those adjectives can be applied to Hershey at any given moment, but not all at once. Hershey is never really easy-going, but he does have a good work ethic and is solid whenever he’s being worked. He’s sweet with a person who is an alpha, and who constantly reinforces that alpha position, but he’ll try to bite and kick everyone else. He is intelligent except when he does stupid things like whacking his head into the tie rail, and he isn’t so much reactive as he is completely unable to stand quietly when he’s separated from Gypsy.
I confess I didn’t go into this exercise believing that I would gain any great insight into the horse’s personalities, and certainly I came out if it without any. I think the biggest issue I have with the unscience of whorls is that people point to them in order to excuse their poor excuse for training as opposed to challenging themselves to change their training methods to try to better focus on the horse’s needs. As noted in many of the explanations, the whorls also do not take into account the abuse and poor training that the horses have endured; our personalities are shaped in part by our experiences, as are our horses’. While I think it’s interesting to see how hair grows on a horse’s head, I think going into a training session with a preconceived notion of how a horse will react (especially in a negative way), rather than being open to how the horse is reacting, can lead to disastrous results. As I noted above, my suggestion would be to put whorls in the category of astrology or tarot cards; fun to talk about, but completely unreliable.