Possible Impossible Opposites

Sometimes when looking at whorls and head shapes we see a combination of traits in one horse that shouldn’t be possible.

When a horse has a whorl that shows right brain traits it makes perfect sense when the head shows sensitivity and strong emotions.

When we see a horse with a left brain whorl it’s never surprising to see a convex profile and steady quiet ears.

But what about a whorl set high and to our right, showing a right brain horse, emotional, sensitive, reactive, who has very steady, dependable ears, a straight profile squared off at the muzzle, again steady and dependable, combined with all the other quiet, easy going, reliable traits?

The same with double whorls. How can a horse be spooky, and trustworthy? Dependable, and a different ride every time? It just doesn’t make sense.

That means that we must be missing something right? How is it possible for a horse to be both emotional and steady?

This is one area I am always learning is actually completely possible.

It sounds different when we describe the individual horse. These descriptions are a basic idea of a general type of response, behavior, we might expect to see. The horses wont show every single trait, or show them to the same degree. So even though we can get a general idea of what to expect from the whorls and head shape, that doesn’t perfectly describe the individual personality.

This mini mare has a whorl set high and to our right. A right brain extrovert. They feel all the emotions, sensitive and reactive, they can have complete meltdowns if handled roughly. For a rider who is sensitive to their needs and can offer the support they require they will be devoted and desperate to please.

But that in no way matches what we see from her head and body. Any short, thick, very hairy sort of horse is usually quiet, laid, back, left brain. High right whorls go with thin bones, thin haired, high strung types of horses. In general, the thicker the bone and mane, the quieter the horse. In comparison to another horse with everything else being equal.

We can see in this picture that she has very steady, easy going ears, very thick mane, forelock over the eyes, and pretty thick bone in the legs. All of that should show a relaxed, easy going horse who may cause trouble by being smarter and more stubborn than her person, but shouldn’t be extremely sensitive and reactive. This shouldn’t work. It seems to be a case where the whorl, or the body type is wrong.

But, her person knows her better. She says that actually, this fits the little mare’s temperament quite well. “The interesting thing is that she is she’s is quite sensitive and is not a fan of too much physical contact, she is very observant but prefers her space and can be reactive when it comes to humans”.

The way she expresses her sensitivity isn’t by being hot and high strung. It is through mental sensitivity. She is emotionally delicate and physically tough. The emotions and personalities of horses are so much more complex and intricate than a few simple explanations can ever cover.

Yes, whorls give us a great idea of what to expect. In a general sort of way. But they can never begin to grasp all the intricacies or personality and individual being. A combination of opposites is an easily possible piece of all that is a horse.


Fascia seems to come up a lot lately.

Or maybe it’s just me.

It is a fascinating subject. One that covers every drop of the horse. Physically and as a topic of conversation.

Fascia is the thin web like structure that underlies a horse’s skin. Literally web like. Have you ever pulled apart the thick web of a wolf spider or black widow? It has that same feel and thickness to it. Surrounding the muscle and the internal organs, it is an organ in its own right. A communication network of sensory information. No matter how much people are now talking about fascia, it doesn’t seem like something we can ever discuss enough.

It is pretty much undisputed, as far as I am aware, that crushed velvet is caused by the fascia. If you dispute it please let me know they what and why of your knowledge. The fascia gets irritated and tight drawing the hair upright as it does so and creating waves across the body.

That mark, or whorl, in the hair, goes far deeper than “Just the way a cm of hair lies” as some people like to look at whorls.

When I look at body whorls I generally associate body whorls with the muscles underneath. And they do work directly with the action of the muscle, but, could I but looking at things from the wrong perspective? We know fascia causes some whorls. Could it actually be the source of all body whorls?

Is it possible that permanent flaws? Features? traits? of fascia could be present from birth? Fascia can tighten to form a natural compression wrap to immobilize and protect an area in the case of injury. Is it possible that it could be doing that in parts of the body without injury? Places where the fascia is holding the muscling in a firmer grip, helping it to contract and hold more easily, leaving a tight whorl on the skin and hair? Or places where the fascia is naturally weak, allowing the muscle to bulge and sag, there leaving a large open whorl?

The fascia lies between the muscling and the skin. Whorls show us the state of whatever lies directly beneath it. Maybe in assuming it is showing the muscling I am skipping a very important layer altogether.

After all, it is already shown that fascia causes whorls. Those whorls, crushed velvet, can be changed and affected by forces acting on the body. Maybe whorls are permanent crushed velvet, unable to be changed by outside forces.


Can Whorls Change?

This is one of those things where the scholarly answer and what appears to actually be able to happen are completely different. Whorls are not supposed to change. That is why some breed associations use them as a means of identification and they are shown on registration papers.

But still we get people who post horses here who swear they’ve developed more whorls with age.

A lot of times whorls will look very different as coats change with the seasons. Other times we really just don’t notice all the whorls. I’ve bought horses, after carefully checking whorls, then gotten them home to realize I’ve missed some.

What we know for sure is that new whorls will form over areas where something is wrong underneath the skin, inside the horse. Crushed velvet is common. Luckily whorls forming over tumors and cancer are rare.

That doesn’t apply to these.

These changing whorls are forehead whorls. Whorls a horse is supposed to be born with already well set in place. These show temperament, an inborn trait.

There is a lot of discussion about what a horse is born with, nature, as opposed to what is developed by nurture. Apparently it doesn’t have to be an either or. New findings show that our environment can change what we have been born with. Studies of this sort in humans apply just as well to horses or any other animal.

Epigenetics is the study of how certain environmental factors can alter genetic expression. Our environment and experiences can change how our genes are expressed.

Is it possible that these horses who have developed new whorls can be developing new personality traits due to the life they are living? Not to be confused with changes in behavior which is a developed trait.

These changing whorls are very rare and the changes are small enough that it seems entirely possible. They aren’t switches from extrovert to introvert, but feathering developing or placement shifting slightly which makes it seem plausible to me. I’m willing to believe this could be possible.

Have you ever had whorls change on one of your horses?

Starvation Whorls

Those baby horses and their whorls.
They often have so much going on. Most of it disappears as they grow up. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to learn from baby whorls while they are there.
One trend that we are lucky not to see very often is a feathered whorl up the nose of a foal. They often look like the hair has been mussed by a halter or something across the nose. The messed up hair never goes away and will return even after brushing.
One correlation that has been found between foals with this marking is the dam being short of feed while bred. Poor nutrition can cause all sorts of issues. Why not a line in the hair?
This guy’s dam was starved nearly to death while carrying him. Saved and nursed back to health, the mare gave birth to a foal who developed these lines going into his first winter. They disappeared that summer and haven’t been back.
Most whorls specific to babies go away with age. Luckily this reminder of difficult times is no different.

Left Brain Extrovert

Today’s post is by guest rider Tammie Ellingson. She translated horse for me until I was able to hear them speak for myself.

What is a left brain extrovert horse like?

We have had one, Smoke. An orphan, he was brought up away from other horses. He did not learn to be a ‘horse’. This may have contributed to his disrespect for humans, but as a true left brained horse, he was always sure he was smarter than humans and required proof that people were good enough to tell him what to do.

Smoke became ours by the time he was a yearling. This, not because we wanted him, but only because our gelding had taken him under his wing and cared for Smoke. No matter what silly jokes Smoke played on Skip, Skip forgave him. Smoke was good at thinking of jokes, whether it was causing Skips knee to collapse by biting the back of it, or grabbing Skips tail. Smoke was always thinking of funny things to do.

When he was old enough to start riding, he was sent to a trainer who said he was the most difficult horse she had trained. She felt perhaps we should find a different horse. But no, we wanted Smoke. He was a fun horse for our family.

As time went by he played his tricks on anyone we rode next to. Grabbing their reins and refusing to let go, or reaching out and nipping a horses back leg if he could get close enough. Smoke had a great sense of humor. He started life with little respect for people and that lack of respect stayed with him forever.

He seemed to know who could really ride and who just thought they could ride. Woe to those who only thought they knew how to ride, he had a way of showing them they were not as smart as they thought. But if someone really did not know how, he was careful and trustworthy, although he might just go find some grass and refuse to move. For those of us who had some how been judged worthy, Smoke was a great ride. Never afraid, willing to go anywhere, able to learn pretty much anything.

Left brain extroverts are smart, funny, and great companions. I’d say, if you want a funny, smart aleck who is not afraid to let you know how he feels and is capable of giving you his all, a left brain horse is the one for you! Just make sure you get their approval first.


The Why of Whorls

We know that whorls can show us what a horse’s temperament will be like.

But why? Why do we think we can look at whorls and learn anything? It’s just hair. It’s only a cow lick. Everything has cowlicks. They don’t mean anything. Or so some people think.

Although horsemen have known for generations, centuries, for as long as people have been working with horses, that we can learn about them by looking at the whorls, it has been discounted as superstition. As science progresses it becomes easier to understand the real reasons behind whorls and their meanings.

It is often passed around that whorls form in the womb as the rest of the fetus develops and that is why they can tell us so much. Which is completely true. But everything about the horse develops in the womb. How does that make whorls any different?

In the beginning , between 10 and 18 weeks, there is skin and brain. A tiny little dot of tissue that will form into skin and brain. Where there is activity in the development of the brain, there is corresponding development on the skin. As certain areas experience higher or lower metabolic activity it leads to uneven development on one side of the hair follicle compared to the other. And so the whorl is created.

All things with fur will have whorls, swirls, cowlicks, whatever you want to call them. The Hairy Ball Theorem is a very boring theorem with a very fun name. It says just that, anything with hair will have whorls, or, that “you can’t comb a hairy ball flat without creating a cowlick” or “you can’t comb the hair on a coconut”. 

Different things lead to the developmental anomalies.

Temperament is passed on from the parents through heredity. Whorls are passed too as they go right along with temperament. Studies have found that the location of whorls is more likely to be passed on than the number or whorls. That’s general temperament, introvert or extrovert. But in my very much not scientific experience, the number of whorls will pass on at least half of the time.

Stress and malnutrition have huge effects on the foal while being carried. But they also effect the egg and sperm even before fertilization. Epigenetics, how environment affects the way genes are expressed, play a huge roll in whorls. There have been many studies done, on humans and animals, showing that the parents lives before conception have major effects on the fetus. In one study a male rat was taught to fear a smell. Then the rat was allowed to breed. When his offspring were introduced to that same smell they showed that had inherited the same fear of it.

The way our horses are handled before and during breeding can completely change the temperament and health of the foal. It can also affect what whorl the foal is born with. Foals who come from stressful situations often have more whorls or unusual whorls. The same mare in a peaceful environment will go back to producing simple whorl foals.

This is the same thing that happens with body whorls. As the muscle and bone develop any anomalies will show up in the hair over the place where development wasn’t even.

On the body these whorls generally show up as matched pairs on each side of the body. This is very important as it relates to muscle development. When the whorls don’t match, the muscles don’t match. The muscles, the bones, the tendons, the fascia. All or any of the underlying structure. I’m going to say muscles to make it easier on me.

When the muscles didn’t develop equally they will move differently. One leg will have farther reach. One side of the belly will be stiffer and not able to stretch as far. All of these things affect movement. A horse will have trouble with leads or not be able to work as well to the right as the left.

In extreme cases the body will feel out of control. When the horse feels a lack of control over themselves they will be frightened and more likely to spook. Body whorls affect how the body moves, not temperament. But, how the body moves affects how the horse acts and reacts. So body whorls do actually affect the temperament of the horse.

Many of these body whorls have found their way into folklore as a sign of good luck, or bad. Looking at the lore through a more scientific perspective we can usually see the root of the superstition. It’s fun to look at all the whorl superstitions this way. With modern medicine and horse care whorls no longer have to be good or bad luck. We can find the cause of bad luck, body misalignment causing poor teeth for example, and fix it!

While many things may have seemed mysterious once, we now know the reasons and science behind them. The old whorl superstitions have now entered the realm of fact with plenty of studies to back it up.


Talented Triples

This post on triple whorls is brought to you by very talented guest rider, Jillian McGinnis.

Hello to all! I’m here to give a little post on my experience with the triple swirl(whorl) horses!

I have had several of these horses and truly enjoy them! They tend to be friendly, but independent. They are big time thinkers, and almost human in how they process. I have found them to be very gentle, but also sensitive and potentially reactive if they’re handled a certain way.

The ones I have had have been sort of “born broke” and took immediately to riding and loved to have a purpose. I would say that they are not for intermediate or tentative riders, or even for the riders who are experienced but maybe expect a horse to do only as they’re told.

The triple whorl horses are independent thinkers and work best if they are gently guided but also patiently allowed to work and process at their pace. Which is generally a faster pace than most if handled well. I am a fan of multiple whorl horses, they suit me very well as they are usually higher spirited and more driven.

Cheek Whorls

Whorls on a horse’s cheeks are said to be a sign of debt and ruin.
Superstitions are fascinating to me. Some of them are so out of the blue it’s hard to figure out where they could have come from.
Others are so painfully easy to see, looking back with a modern knowledge of dentistry and veterinary practices.
With whorls on a horse’s cheek we have the perfect storm. The whorls are placed directly over nerves connected to the TMJ (temporomandibular joint). This is the joint where the jaw bone connects to the skull. It is an extraordinarily important spot in the horse. Issues here affect everything from chewing to soundness throughout the entire body. Especially if there is only a whorl on one side. This exacerbates everything through unevenness.
The whorl over these nerves seems to cause tightness and tension on the TMJ. This in turn can cause tightness and tension through the entire body. Try to relax while clinching your jaw if you are curious as to how this works. Then open your mouth and move your jaw around to see how much more relaxed that makes you feel.
We can help our horses relax in the same manner with some simple body work. A very useful practice if they have a cheek whorl. You can find all sorts of examples and techniques online.
This same tension can also lead to irregular chewing. In some, fortunately rare, cases there will even be teeth missing or malformed in the location under the whorls. Either of which cause the teeth to wear unevenly. Which causes pain and pain related ‘bad’ behavior if the teeth aren’t checked and problems resolved.
Now think about unrecognized pain behavior in horses before good, regular dental care came about. You have horses who act in a dangerous and unpredictable manner, seemingly without cause.
If you depend on your horse to make a living and they have a tendency to suddenly explode out of the blue, or are unable to hold condition because they aren’t able to eat properly, your living will be strongly affected. You wont be able to work. You will lose money. All leading to debt and ruin. This superstition is so fascinating to me. We can see the cause clear as day. If only they were all so easy to see, and fix.

Split Mane

Often when we ask about what we can learn from some piece of a horse’s conformation the answers we get are completely opposite.
Sometimes this is because the lore is just plain contradictory.
But most of the time it is because the descriptions of exactly what we are looking at aren’t clear or the names we associate with each clue are vague. That can lead to confusion as we think we are asking one thing and people give answers that relate to another.
No where is this more common than with a ‘split mane’.
There are two very separate types of split manes and each tells opposite things about the horse. But both get referred to by that one very simple name.
One type of split mane is supposed to show a horse who is very even from side to side. Or at least an excess of hair that can’t all fit on one side. This type is when the mane splits lengthwise down the center of the crest to fall on each side of the neck all the way down.
The other is when the mane lays all on one side of the neck part way down then switches and all lays on the other side of the neck. This type of split shows soreness, mental stress, some sort of bodily issue.
It’s easy to see why we would get opposite answers when asking what it means when a horse has a ‘split mane’.
The difference in answers doesn’t mean the mane doesn’t really tell us anything or that it isn’t true that we can learn things from the mane. It just means we need more clarity in exactly what it is we’re looking at.
A little extra about manes.
-The side the mane lays to is usually the horses softer, or hollow, side.
-The mane will sometimes switch sides of the neck at a whorl or conformational flaw.
-When the mane switches sides near the withers, you can measure the length of the mane on the other side of the neck and measure that distance down the back from where the mane ends to find the sore spot in the back.
-Fear and mental stress seem to be able to cause the mane to split too.

Eruption Bumps

Horses between the age of two and a half and four and a half are in the process of growing in their adult teeth. They have 24 baby teeth to replace in all.
We can tell about this process by looking at, or feeling, the bottom of the jaw. As the adult teeth come in the pressure formed by the adult teeth pushing against the baby teeth causes ‘eruption bumps’ to form along the jaw. The same thing is happening on the upper jaw. Mostly hidden in the nasal cavity those bumps aren’t as noticeable.
These eruption bumps can be useful in checking the health of our horses and the process of the new teeth. Hard to the touch, these bumps shouldn’t bother the horse at all.
Knowing the bumps are there and that teething is going on can help us pin point causes of head shaking or discomfort in a bit. Even without any complications the process of growing in new teeth can make a horses mouth uncomfortable.
If the bumps become inflamed or painful to the touch we know to look for problems. Sometimes caps, baby teeth, will be retained and extremely difficult for the adult teeth to push out. A vet may decide the caps need help coming out to relieve the pressure. Although retained caps and other issues along those lines can lead to pain and the resulting behavioral issues, caps should never be pulled without a veterinarians guidance. The erupting molar can be damaged by over enthusiastic extraction.
Jaw bumps are perfectly natural, most of the time. They give us a good way to tell what is going on inside the horses mouth. They also help us to know when to step in and get help for our horses if things aren’t going well.