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.