Michael Powell of Mike Powell Horsemanship* has been studying and researching forehead swirls and body whirls for at least 10 years. There has been research done at CSU that shows the forehead swirl hair is the first hair to develop and grow on the body in the embryonic fetus and that this hair is rooted in the brain, actually brain cells, as where the rest of the hair is developed from hair follicles out of the skin. His experience with swirls comes from personal experience and his interactions with horses on a daily basis. There are by no means a veterinary diagnosis of the horse’s behavior.
So the question is, how do you read swirls, and is there a relationship between swirls and genetic behavior and tendency? There are of a lot of ways to read swirls; but, through personal experience, Michael has come up with a few basics to help you understand your horse’s personality.
As the swirl rises above the eye, you have a horse much more aware of his surroundings and his environment, then as the swirl drops down below the eye you get a much more close-minded attitude. But there’s also the symmetry of the swirl, when the swirl is nice and tightly shaped and geometric, it’s an indication of the ability to focus. A muddled swirl, a swirl splayed out all over the place is an indication of the inability to focus. Now we have to start adding up these signs to come up with general tendencies.
- Above the eye, splayed pattern: Hyper-alert, inability to focus, easily stressed. The horse is aware of everything around him, but he has a hard time staying focused to analyze and to learn. That would be like the equivalent of an ADHD person. The biggest struggle the owner is going to have with this horse is attention deficit disorder and how stressed they can become with new environments and with his constant need to look around or lack of focus. This awareness of the environment is important because the horse needs information to learn, figure out what’s being asked and solve the puzzle.
- Below the eye, splayed pattern: Not very alert, not very interested in his surroundings, stubborn. Though very stubborn, these horses typically these are the “bomb proof” horses. They make excellent trail horses! Nothing fazes them, these are also the really good kids’ horses because they’re not trying to outthink or outwit the rider. The down side is that they can take longer to train because they have a hard time focusing and they’re not taking in as much information. When this horse is working against you it’s called stubborn, thick headed, mindless, but once he starts working for you, now you have a horse you might consider brave, big hearted, reliable.
- Above the eye, tight pattern: Very focused, very active, very intelligent and likes to figure things out. This is the equivalent of the equine “rocket scientist”. This is the horse that excels at trick training, he will watch you tie him up to the stall door and figure out in a short time how to untie himself, he’ll also spends hours trying to figure out how to open a stall latch. These are the horses that know what you’re going to do before you do it. This is the kind of horse that would be a dream come true for a top notch trainer but a nightmare for a beginner trainer. These are the horses that will outsmart you! This horse will know what you’re going to do and already have his evasive maneuver in place before you even ask him to do it. These horses do not make good trail riding horses.
- Below the eye, with a tight pattern: Gets bored quickly, but once he gets it he doesn’t forget easily. This horse doesn’t take in a lot of information, but can figure things out pretty quickly. This is the type of horse that can’t stay focused for extended periods of training, he gets bored quickly and wants to move on to something else. You must be provocative in his training and mix things up to keep him thinking. Think of this horse as saying… “alright already I get it, lets do something else”.
- Multiple swirls side-by-side: Requires patience, very focused, great work ethic. Horses with multiple swirls are the bipolars or the schizophrenics of the horse world, with each swirl representing a separate personality. When the swirls are side by side the temperaments seem to be similar, kind of a Jekyll and Jekyll. The majority of Grand Prix horses will have side by side swirls very high on the forehead with extremely tight symmetry. These horses tend to have impeccable focus or work ethic if you have the patience to work with them.
- Multiple swirls on top of each other: Untrustworthy, unreliable. This is the kind of horse that when you ride by the mailbox five days in a row with no problem, but on the sixth day she freaks out as if it’s the first time she’s seen it. You’re dealing with two very opposite and contradictory personalities, and you never know who’s going to show up at the gate. These tend to be accident-prone and very untrustworthy horses. If you’re up to the challenge, this is your type of horse!
So where does all this information leave us? Remember these are traits that a horse left natural would exhibit, but then we come into his life. This is where swirl traits are a combination of nature and nurture, so you could have a horse with a great swirl and a bad trainer and end up with a bad horse and vice versa you could have a bad swirl and a great trainer and end up with a great horse. So go out to your barn and look at swirls and see if you can predict what traits the horse might have, and then ask the owner and see how close it is. Remember training trumps everything, if you find a horse that contradicts his swirl pattern…that’s the training, good or bad. There’s really no reason for swirls, the hair could easily just lay straight in that section, and yet all horses have them so they’re not a mistake of nature. They’re there for a reason and maybe only horses know for sure.
* Article Credit: Mike Powell of Mike Powell Horsemanship 720-233-6178