You might have heard of the idea before; that hair whorls on horses indicate certain personalities. It’s an idea that dates back as far as equine domestication itself does. Swirlology, Whorlology or Whorl Theory all suggest that you can gain insight into the kind of horse you’re looking at based on the patterns in their hair.
Is it even worth considering?
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that suggests whorls are significant – if you speak to people who take note of whorls, they’re likely to say they do matter. But his could be tradition or bias; people who talk about whorls are just more likely to think they’re significant.
Is there a biological basis for the idea?
Yes, there is. It isn’t very clearly understood, but the embryonic tissue that ends up becoming facial skin (and therefore changes whorl patterns) is the same tissue that ends up in the brain. So it isn’t inconceivable that the two things could be correlated.
Is there scientific evidence for whorl theory?
Proper evidence eventually came about when researchers observed 1,500 cattle being moved from fields. As one observer recorded the position of their facial whorls, another recorded their behaviour and ranked levels of aggression or agitation.
They found that whorl positioning did have an effect on the behaviour of the cattle; if the whorl was above the eyes, the cow was more likely to become agitated. They also found different correlations between hair patterns and certain behaviours in guinea pigs, rats, foxes and humans.
The same pattern found in cows was found in horses; whorls that were above the eyes of the horse meant the horse was easier to agitate and harder to work with.
The researchers stressed that, although they had found significant results, they couldn’t predict detailed aspects of horse personality. Instead, high whorl positions indicated that a horse was more likely to be frightened and could therefore be more difficult to work with. They stressed the importance of using this information when training. Horses with high whorls should never be reprimanded for being difficult, because it’s often an indication that they are uncomfortable.
The positioning of a whorl does not define a horse’s personality. It is one influence amongst many, many others and can often be drowned-out. Think of it as a single voice in a symphony; although it makes a difference, it’s usually difficult to see the effect it’s having.
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