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.


Lines of Blaschko

Have you ever heard of them? I hadn’t, but we’ve all seen them. Whether we knew what they were or not.

These lines will appear as marks in the coloring, other times as lines in the hair growth, stripes across the rib cage or neck. In most animals they are not visible, but occasionally they will show up when color, or hair growth, organizes along the lines. They will often be seen on horses with extreme rabcino markings or varnishing in Appaloosas. “Brindle” horses are often just horses with a concentration of roan, sooty, or grey along the the lines

These lines, which occur on humans as well as horses, represent the developmental growth pattern of the skin. Blaschko lines are thought to represent pathways of epidermal cell migration during the development of the fetus.

The lines themselves are invisible, but in humans many inherited and acquired diseases of skin and disorders of hyperpigmentation show along these patterns giving a visual appearance to these lines. In horses, with more colorful coat colors available, they can change the way the coat color presents. Unfortunately the color itself will not pass on genetically.

In horses the lines of blaschko can come and go throughout the horse’s life time, when they appear as lines in the hair. One theory is that lymphatic drainage can cause the lines to appear. Although the lines do not correspond to any known nervous, vascular or lymphatic structures or fascia.

They will show up after a message or an event in the horses life that was apparently stressful or in some way extreme for the horse. That would seem to be a sign that they can be related to something going on within the horse.


Foal Hair Waves

By looking at whorls we can have a clue about temperament from the time of birth.

There are limitations. One of those is the distortion of the whorl caused by the foal hair coat.

Foal coats do all sorts of interesting things. From colors no where near what the adult color will actually be, to primitive markings. Foal coats will also have curls that wont be present as the horse ages.

Very often the forehead will be wildly curly with concentric circles extending from center. These make the whorls look far more complicated than what they are.

As beautiful and convoluted as the circles are they are still only a byproduct of the baby hair coat and will disappear when the coat sheds and a more adult hair coat grows in.

When looking at foals, don’t let all the pretty extras confuse you. Look closely for the actual whorl. Or wait a year or two for a more easily exact analysis.


The Baby Bump

Horses are born with the whorls that they will have for life. That can give us a good clue about temperament from birth.
Head shape can get a little more complicated.
Foals are born with a bump over the forehead. This is the horse equivalent of the soft spot in a human babies skull. As the foal grows and matures the baby bump will go away allowing us to more clearly see what the head shape will truly be. If we pay too much attention to the bump we will get misleading ideas about what temperament will be like.
It’s important not to confuse this baby bump with a ‘jibah’, or bump in the forehead that adult horses have showing an emotional reactive horse. The dish to the profile caused by the baby bump is also not permanent or a true indication of character.
It is best to wait to look at head shape in a foal until they have matured to the point that the baby bump has grown out and the head is showing its true shape.