What’s in a Swirl?

Did you ever consider that a swirl on a horse’s body could give you clues to his personality? Or perhaps help predict where he may be stiff, resistant or have trouble bending? Callie Rae King investigates.

From Callie:

I was aware that some people paid attention to swirls and their meanings, but I had honestly never gave them a second thought. Probably because the few times I heard about swirls were from a particular horse dealer who was persuading me to buy a specific horse and pointed out he had the “swirls of a champion.” I never bothered to learn more, assuming swirls were just an old wives tail used by dealers to sell horses.

In recent months, I have had several people bring up the subject of swirls and their meaning, and this time my interest was piqued enough to persuade me to do some research. I decided to find out what the theory was behind swirls and then examine some of the horses I am currently working with to do my own little subjective study.


[Wikimedia Commons]

The Theory

First off, a swirl is a patch of hair growing in a different direction, also called whorls, cowlicks, and trichoglyphs, and are found on the horses forehead, on the flanks, and numerous other places over the body. The method of swirls to make assumptions about a horse date back to the Bedouins of Arabia. European gypsies also relied on the study of swirls as did many old time horseman. Linda Tellington Jones popularized the swirl method with her research in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

A horse’s swirls are formed before birth and never change. This is why swirls were also used as a way to identify horses on old registry papers and other places where identifications was needed. The forehead swirls are considered to be the most indicative of temperament because the forehead hair is the first to grow on the embryonic fetus, and it is thought that the development of swirls is linked directly to development of the brain. Also, the nervous system and the skin come from the same embryonic layer, further pointing towards a connection between swirls and the brain. The theory states that as energy flows through the body it is redirected or disrupted by unusual swirls, causing the reactive or explosive nature of horses with the undesirable swirl pattern.

Here are the most common swirl patterns and their supposed meanings:

Ideal swirl pattern – one swirl on the forehead between the eyes, and two identical swirls on either side of the bridlepath, not extending past the length of the ear folded back. Flank swirls are even on both sides.

Forehead Swirls

o One swirl between the eyes indicates an easy going, uncomplicated horse.


[Wikimedia Commons]

o Swirls higher on the forehead indicate greater intelligence and a more reactive nature.


[Horse Nation]

o Long swirls, especially those that extend below the eyes indicate a friendly and agreeable nature.



o Multiple swirls on the forehead can indicate multiple personalities — high and tight side by side swirls can mean a horse that is super focused and talented, but challenging and difficult in the wrong hands.


[Wikimedia Commons]

o Two swirls on top of each other can mean extreme personality swings and unpredictability.

o Multiple swirls that form a Z pattern can signal a horse that is dangerous and violent.

Swirls in other random places on the horse’s body can signal stiffness or unevenness in stride if there is a swirl on only one side of the body.

If the flank swirls are uneven, the horse will bend easiest in the direction of the swirl that is furthest back or the direction of the longest swirl. Likewise, if a horse’s forehead swirl grows clockwise, that horse will tend to be right sided, where if it grows counterclockwise the horse will be more left sided. This was actually confirmed in a study by Ireland’s University of Limerick.

Another study was performed by animal scientist Temple Grandin of Colorado State University along with her assistant, Mark Deesing. They studied cattle in the auction ring. Cattle with high swirls fought more than those with lower swirls. Additional research has been done in other species that solidifies connections between temperament and hair. For example, humans with developmental disabilities are more likely to have abnormal hair whorls, just as connections have been made between the direction of a person’s hair swirl and whether they are right handed or left handed. Studies have been performed in rats to show that breeding for rats with black hair also produced rats that were tamer and easier to handle. Some believe that a horse’s coat color plays a role in personality as well, with bays being preferred for a steady temperament, while blacks and greys are thought to be more difficult, and chestnuts more high strung.

I found all these ideas very interesting, and as it usually goes, the more I read on the subject, the more interested I became. So I went out excitedly to take pictures of the faces and swirls of my current horses.


These are pictures of my three horses, Molly, Nell, and Ace from left to right. All three have a typical single swirl. Nell’s swirl (Nell is the grey horse) is highest, and I wouldn’t call her reactive, but she is very intelligent and has always learned very quickly. The rest of the horses on my farm (there are 22 right now) all have a single swirl pattern, which makes sense because it is the most common.

These are the four double swirl horses on the farm.




The first horse pictured, a mare named CC, has two swirls on top of each other, and while this mare can vary day to day, as sometimes she is quiet, other days she is more of a handful, I wouldn’t call them extreme mood swings. The top right and bottom left really don’t fit the stereotype, but the horse on the right does have a reputation for being difficult and somewhat unpredictable. He also seems to learn slower than average.

Now this is a very unique swirl pattern, and this creature is known by everyone in the barn to be stubborn, willful, and to ram people when they least expect it.


I hope you enjoyed my swirl research. I’m not convinced yet, but I will start looking at hair patterns more closely! What kind of swirl does your horse have? Do they fit into the theory of “swirlology?”


About Callie: I own and operate a small boarding and training facility in Chester County, Pa., where I love working with young horses and so-called “problem horses.” I enjoy learning from every horse I get to work with and always finding better ways to train and to teach my students. Writing is another passion for me, and I write two blogs. The first is CRK Training Blog, where I feature riding and training tips and interview other trainers and horse industry experts. The second blog is Happy Horse Reviews, where I share my thoughts on a variety of equestrian products. Thanks for taking the time to read my article!

Callie King


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