What’s a Whorl?


This week I want to have some fun. Balance, you know.

Your horse needs to have some play time to balance out training and so do you. So, here is something to have fun with.

Whorls. What’s a whorl?

A whorl is a patch of hair growing in the opposite direction of the surrounding hair, usually in a pinwheel fashion. It is commonly found on a horse’s face or head.

Supposedly, all horse’s whorls are distinctive, like a person’s fingerprint. Recording a horse’s whorl location and personality character is actually one of the oldest forms of identifying a horse. This was used specifically for horses without white markings on their face.

According to the Bedouins in Arabia, European gypsies, and even some of the old-time horsemen of the 1940’s and 50’s, there is a definite link between a horse’s whorl and his temperament.

They used the type, number, and placement of a horse’s whorl as a way to predict the behavior tendencies of a horse. This was used when looking for a good well-mannered, easy to train horse or when selling a young horse.

Now a days it is looked at more like a magic trick than real science. However, there is real science behind it?

The outward characteristics of a horse such as a whorl can be linked in fundamental ways to the inward characteristics of a horse such as temperament.

As it turns out, scientifically, the whorl patterns form in the development fetus at the same time the brain is forming. Wow, pretty cool.

The nervous system and the skin, which contains the whorl patterns, come from the same embryonic layer. So science can correlate the formation of the brain and a horse’s temperament with the patterns that show up on the skin.

This seems to explain the apparent relationships between body traits and temperament. So it’s not all smoke and mirrors.

Author and educator Linda Tellington-Jones did research on this theory in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. She was interested in using whorls to evaluate a horse’s disposition.

Because of her books this theory and use of the whorls became more popular in the 90’s. She got very specific in her book, “Getting in Touch: Understand and Influence your Horse’s Personality” with how each type of swirl and position of it related to a specific personality trait.

But here is a general breakdown of the swirl patterns and their relationship to the horse’s personality traits, according to Linda.

  • A single swirl in the center of the forehead, above or between the eyes, indicated an easy going, uncomplicated nature
  • A single swirl in the center below the level of the eyes indicated an intelligent, possible mischievous nature
  • A single, long swirl between or extending below the eyes indicated an especially friendly, agreeable nature
  • Two or more swirls generally indicated a more complicated personality in some way

Linda Tellington-Jones felt that the best way to use this predictive tool was in discovering how best to approach a particular horse’s training.

“If a horse’s swirls tell you he’s the more temperamental type, then you know not to get after him for ‘attitude’, as that will just upset him more”, she says. Also, “many of my top horses had two swirls. Nowadays we have so many more ways to deal with such horses – to teach them to think instead of react.”

Doug Carpenter, a performance horseman, also puts a lot of stock in this theory. He admits to picking many winners using this theory when he evaluates prospects. He says, “I started looking at them (whorl patterns) years ago out of curiosity, then narrowed it down to a system that works for me.”

He ideal combination – in terms of indicating the likelihood of a willing, trainable prospect – is one swirl centered on the forehead between the eyes, and two matching swirls on either side of the bridle path. But the two swirls on the bridle path cannot extend beyond the length of the ears when they are folded back.

He also feels that a single swirl centered below the level of the eyes is a positive indication, and the two swirls close together can be ok, but not in every case. “It’s not 100%, but it’s close”, he says. So they’re not necessarily a make-or-break proposition.

By contrast, he feels that a horse with two or more swirls that are relatively spread apart on the face is something to be concerned about. But he doesn’t use this theory as a tell-all answer. He adds other things as well in his decision when looking at prospective horses.

So, if he really likes a horse but his whorls don’t match what he wants, he may chance it. But if a horse is already questionable, the whorls don’t look good, and he hasn’t connected with the horse, then it’s a definite no.

Even the scientist Temple Grandin, PhD did studies on whorl patterns. However, she studied this theory in cows first. But she did find a direct correlation with horses as well.

  • Those with whorls high on the forehead, or two whorls, tended in general to be more reactive and higher strung. They were also more likely to fight.

Temple Grandin says, “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 the animal”. She agreed with Linda Tellington-Jones that this theory is important in the guide to training a horse.

But not everyone buys into this swirl theory.

Genetics expert Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine sums it up well.

“It’s not outside the realm of possibility that there’s a relationship here,” he says, noting again the similar embryonic origins of skin/hair and the brain. “That said, it appears to be ‘loose’ enough that while it might be broadly predictable, the fine details in individual variation overwhelm it in many cases.”

“So, due to individual variation, it ‘works’ some of the time but not all of the time.”

But what have you noticed?

Just for laughs and giggles…

Here are some more general ideas about what the whorl means. Check them out and then check out if your horse has one and let me know if they match.

  • Whorls positioned right above the eyes represent the most common whorl and tends to result in an even-tempered and well-mannered horse.
  • Whorls below the eyes usually result in a horse with a higher IQ. This could mean a horse that is a trickster who likes to plan his or her escape out of their stall. They are inquisitive and can be sneaky.
  • Whorls on the left side of the face could suggest a horse that is complicated but trustworthy.
  • Whorls on the right side of the face could suggest a horse that is obstinate and possibly a handful.
  • Whorls high on the forehead indicate intelligence and a more reactive nature
  • Long whorls, especially those that extend below the eye indicate a friendly and agreeable nature. These are very people-friendly horses.
  • Multiple whorls can indicate multiple personalities. High and tight side by side can mean a horse that is super focused and talented, but challenging and difficult in the wrong hands.
  • Two whorls on top of each other can mean extreme personality swings and unpredictable
  • Multiple whorls that form a Z pattern can indicate a horse that is dangerous and violent
  • Three or more whorls are extremely rare and suggest major unpredictability. Watch out for these!
  • The direction that the whorl turns can tell you if the horse is right or left-handed (hoofed). If the whorl goes counterclockwise the horse is left-handed. If the whorl goes clockwise the horse is right-handed.

And I can tell you from watching the whorl patterns in my horses, these definitely describe the temperaments in my horses when I first got them. However, with the proper love and training the ones who had the double whorls and were dangerous, all settled down and became loving, well-mannered horses for me.

Please Share

  • What a fascinating article!
    I wonder if it reflects the same personality traits for human “cow licks” ?? 🙂

  • Rebecca G says:

    My May 2021 colt has three whirls above his eyes. Kind of in an upside down triangle. Looks like he may be a crazy one but he has been absolutely great to work with and is quickly becoming a favorite. 😊

    • My Jazz had two swirls in opposite directions that formed a Z. He was crazy and dangerous for people who mistreated him. But he and I were best friends and we trusted each other with our lives.

  • My mare, Pixie, has two whorls above the middle of her eyes. She got me interested in whorls, and I studied Linda Tellington-Jones’ book plus observing other horses for years. Most people make a negative assumption about Pixie when they see her works. She can be temperamental and has about two days a year when her mood is such that I choose not to ride her. That said, she is also my heart horse, we have a special bond. She is brave, smart and willing when treated with kindness. She loves to jump and carried me safely over many cross country obstacles. We also did many trail rides together. She has her own opinions and I respect that. We trust each other and take care of each other. Occasionally, someone will comment about her two whorls. I just smile because I know her, and I wouldn’t have her be any other way.

  • Madeleine says:

    Choupette has one a bit on the upper part of her eyes. So she is well mannered and even tempered. Guess that is who she is now. Thanks for this interesting article. Any meanings to whorls down her throat?

  • How very interesting. Thanks for your response to my email. I have never paid much attention to my horse’s whorls until your email last weekend so I had a wee look. She has two. One between her eyes and one further down on her white strip. Funny.

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