When we are looking at horses, to buy, to choose for a particular discipline, looking at the whorls first can save a lot of heartbreak in the long run.

There are no bad whorls!

But, there might be whorls that aren’t as well suited to certain pursuits. On the other hand there are some whorls that end up being good for the role the horse ends up playing in life purely by accident.

This lovely mare is a rescue. She is almost completely blind. The believe she can see a sliver out of the right eye and that is it. This nearly blind mare is going into training. How far the training goes will depend on how she does and how she feels about things but she’s almost ready for a first ride.

There are some horses who wouldn’t be able to begin a riding career without good eye sight. This mare’s head shape should work in her favor to help everyone down this chosen path.

Her forehead whorl is slightly high and slightly to our right. That shows a horse who will display slight right brain extrovert traits. Emotional, sensitive, reactive. How strongly those traits will show depends on the shape of the head and all her other features. A right brain extrovert can be scared of everything and reactive to the point of difficulty. Especially when handled roughly. On the other hand, they can be sweet and loving and put all those nerves towards wanting to please. It’s all in the extremes and how they are handled. The ’emotional’ can mean they love to the extreme. They want to be with you, they want to be loved.

Her whorl is paired with ears set wide at the base and wider at the tips. Those add stability, willingness, and intelligence.

From the side is where we start to see so much more to her character. She has a strongly dished profile, more sensitivity and emotion to go with the whorl, but below that she has a very impressive moose nose. The moose nose counters the sensitivity and adds boldness and confidence. Not that she wont be sensitive but it will be grounded. She will feel your every emotion and be brave enough to act on your every request. If you offer her right brain side support and comfort.

I hope to hear more about this lovely mare as her training progresses. She ended up having a perfect whorl for the job, purely by accident.

 


Cow Horse

It’s been pretty busy around here. We’ve started calving. Rusty has been busy earning the title of working ranch horse. He and I have been checking cows, moving anything that needs moved and sorting pairs. He’s starting to figure out for real how this cow stuff works.

We pair clicking and treating with pressure and release, so I can cue him quickly and help make sure we are where we need to be to get the job done. But I can also let him know exactly what he’s doing right and should do again. With that he is quickly learning how to get down and cut a cow. That and his very cowy bloodlines so he does come by it naturally. Not show worthy cutting of course, but good working style.

Come join us here as we play with a yearling heifer.

It gets a little messy at times, he is still learning and the conditions aren’t the best, slick, with hills to work over, and at least one chunk of cement I clearly remember looking down at as we ran over it. Thinking that that could hurt. Most of all the rush of sitting on a horse who is working on their own back and forth with the calf is always amazing.


Targeting

When I was a small child our horses spent their winters turned out in the corn fields. Now that would scare me half to death and I would never do it. Back then we didn’t know any better and they were fine.

One of the benefits of it was that we spent a lot of time riding through the corn stubble. Even later, as I got older and they no longer wintered in the corn stalks, it was still a great place to ride.

As we rode through the corn stalks we developed a game. A version of teaching ‘touch’. We would spot ears with the corn still on. A great treat for the horses! The only problem was getting the horses to find the treat.

So we started teaching our horses touch! Kind of. We would position them so when they dropped their head they would land on the corn and taught a head down cue. It became a great game with the horses paying close attention to us because there was a reward waiting for them when they listened. We all learned to listen to each other better and what cues meant. They learned to touch, to go to the things we asked them to.

It was a great game. One we still play today.


Double Whorl Club, HorseWhorls

They have a bad reputation. Watch out for those double whorls. Nothing but trouble. Said to have double personalities, wildly swinging mood changes. Jekyll and Hyde temperament. Avoid them when you can.

And yet.

There are a select few of us who like our double whorls.

What is a double whorl?

For this purpose it is two whorls stacked on top of each other or next to each other. There are other whorl patterns with two whorls but they aren’t usually included in this. Although they are welcome to join the club!

Yes, two whorls does show a horse that has a little extra. You can even quite rightly say that they will have double personalities. Twice the whorls mean twice the horse. They have so much to give, with the right person. Intelligent and sensitive they need a rider who is confident and willing to listen to them. Who will offer support and not get made at small, or large, meltdowns. One who enjoys the idiosyncrasies and a more exciting ride than quiet uncomplicated horses will give.

When given these things a double whorl horse will give all they have to offer.

There are differences in the horses depending on whorl placement of course. A stacked double is going to be different than a side by side double.

Stacked double whorls show a horse who can be quiet and excitable, spooky but trustworthy. They draw from both the introvert and extrovert sides of their temperament. The change from introvert to extrovert and back can come as a shock, leading to the double personality claims. The wider the space between the whorls the greater the differences in the temperament. When the whorls are touching, or nearly so, the swings will be small. When they are far apart the differences greater.

High double side by side whorls show a horse who is a left brain extrovert, with some right brain extrovert mixed in. They are sensitive, extremely quick learners. Bold, calm, curious, and confident, they can concentrate intently on a job but will get bored with repetition. You have to give them a reason to be interested. They can be a super power in the right hands. Without steady confident handling they can completely run over a person.

No, these horses aren’t for everyone. People who aren’t fans can take the whorl as a warning and find horses who suit them better. People who like them get to be members of the double whorls club. A select and rarefied group. Are you a member of the double whorl club?

 


Growing up we were never told that we shouldn’t feed horses.

The lack of formal horse education was a wonderful gift to be given. Without being told all the things we should never do with horses, we didn’t know any better than to just do what worked. We fed our horses treats. Anything they would eat. We might know a little better now and not feed things like baloney sandwiches anymore.  We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to listen to their opinions and had conversations instead of making them respect us.

Not knowing that all these things were even a thing, we were able to form our own ways of communicating and working with horses. We didn’t carry all the baggage to get in the way of our relationships.

As adults, or close to, we were informed of how things were ‘supposed’ to be. But like with adults who were taught the opposite of what we were as children, we already ‘knew’ how horses should be treated and didn’t accept the new information. We kept on keeping on in our own way. The new training was considered and maybe even experimented with. But the old ways were always there, lightly buried and ready to be dug up when it was clear they worked better.

I could never understand why I would ever not give a cookie with the bit. Horses took the bit so much easier. Before I ever heard of positive reinforcement it was plain that if I scratched a horse or gave cookies when they did what I was looking for they understood that they had done good and did it again so much easier.

I was told over and over again that my horse was testing me and didn’t listen as good to me as he did to others. I needed to make him behave! It was clear to me if no one else that he may be rotten, what others considered rotten, I loved his spirit, but he gave me one hundred percent. He would think for himself and do what he decided was best. We didn’t always agree, but I soon found out that his ideas were usually the right ones. He saved us from all sorts of trouble and together we came up with tricks and ideas. Other people would get on and he would plod quietly. Not offering ideas, or giving the help that he did with me. The spark was hid. Waiting until we could get together again and do more.

Sometimes a lack of knowledge can be the greatest aid to learning. We don’t know what can’t or shouldn’t be done, so we do it anyway.

 


Teaching or Training?

Teaching and training are synonyms. Technically they mean the same thing. As with all synonyms the devil is in the details. The exact nuances implied by using different words can make a big difference.
I enjoyed these definitions of the two words.
Teach:
Teaching can be defined as engagement with learners to enable their understanding and application of knowledge, concepts and processes Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and intervening so that they learn particular things, and go beyond the given.

to guide the studies of.
Train:
Training is teaching, or developing in oneself or others, any skills and knowledge or fitness that relate to specific useful competencies. Training has specific goals of improving one’s capability, capacity, productivity and performance.
At the risk of sounding pedantic the words we use matter.
Why do we teach children but train horses? If we look at these definitions teaching is engaging. It is working with the student to help them understand. It is attending their needs. This can be seen as a conversation, working together to enable them to do their absolute best. To enhance skills and abilities to ‘go beyond the given’.
When we train we are imparting our skills upon them. We are working towards a specific goal that is predetermined. It isn’t a bad thing. When there is one specific job to be done we need to learn, or train, how to do that job. It doesn’t allow leeway though. It is a one way conversation.
Next time we are out working with our horses maybe we should pause a moment and think about whether we are training them or teaching them. Do they get some say in the matter? Are we working together to help the horse reach the absolute best of their abilities in a way that they are allowed and welcome to have a say in.
I think I might just start calling myself a horse teacher instead of horse trainer.

Greeting Neighbors

Ice crystals hung heavy in the air, circling the moon in a ring of light. The evening check on the cows was cold. We bundled up as best we could and took turns driving the fourwheeler so we could each have a chance to warm our fingers.

Driving through the herd in the dark it was a relief to not see anything going on.

Numb in the parts that were previously cold, it was time to head back to the house. Turning that direction we looked up to see lights in the distance. This isn’t unheard of. The highway is off that direction, only a couple of miles away. This was a single light and not traveling through. The ice in the air caused a beam of light to rise up high into the air above the ground source. A beacon in the distance.

Laughing at the singularity of it all we forgot to be cold for a moment. The location of the light had to be our friends and neighbors on the other side of the highway. They are calving too. For this moment we were together, socializing as we braved the dark and cold to check our cows.

Back inside where it was warm I texted to say hi, we saw you! We made plans to meet again the next night, same place, same time. They would look up for our light too. Together from a distance.


Working Cow Horse, Cookies Required!

So what does it look like to work a ranch horse who is trained using positive reinforcement? I spent the morning sorting cattle and had plenty of time to ponder the differences.

For the most part it looks just like it does to work with any other ‘normal’ ranch horse. Some of the differences are subtle. You might not notice at first that I’m wearing a treat bag. I keep it stuffed with cookies for my horse that my pet cows and goats will also like if we should have a chance to stop and visit. There are times my horses always get cookies. After getting a gate and when I get back on. There is a large amount of getting off and I appreciate that he will position himself nicely next to whatever I use as a mounting block. Because I want to insure that he keeps doing that I reward it generously.

Some of the differences are more noticeable. Even though Rusty is nearly ten he and I haven’t gotten to do as much cow work as I would have liked. He’s still really green when it comes to this stuff. That means that when we have time and he turns good with a cow I click him and reward. There were a few times this morning when we didn’t technically have time. We needed to get up there and catch up with the heifers we were sorting out. He did such a good job, sitting on his hindquarters and turning on his own, I clicked him anyway and took the time to give him a cookie. We got caught up with the heifers, they could only go so far, and because we didn’t go charging after them they had stopped or at least slowed and the work went smoother because we went slower.

Taking that time meant that after a few good turns Rusty was doing it on his own. I had been able to explain to him exactly what I wanted him to do. And he did it. A few times in and he slammed on the breaks, turned, and took off after a heifer so fast that I had to reach up from my perch nearly on top of the cantle where he was leaving me behind, grab mane and try to stay with him until I could click and reward big time.

Doing ranch work on my positive reinforcement trained horse teaches him so many things that he wouldn’t learn if we just focused on our +R training. Rusty has been learning to run full out on a loose rein, then come back to a stand still or a slow creeping walk and to do it calmly and quietly. He is learning to control and watch his feet across slippery and uneven footing. He is learning to listen to me as I give tiny exact cues to get him in just the right position to split two cows standing next to each other. He’s learning to take advantage of a chance to stand and rest, even if he had been going hard and fast just before.

Ranch horses work hard. Just like us there are times that we don’t want to work, even to get that paycheck, there are times they wouldn’t do the work. Not even for a cookie. There’s no way to do this job well using pure positive reinforcement. Pressure is used judiciously. Between the reins to cue and hold him back when he would want to charge through the middle of the bunch, and legs and seat helping move a shoulder around, telling him to GO now and do it fast, and slowly working to take the place of the reins in large part. He isn’t scared of the pressure, he isn’t bothered by it.

Ranch work adds to our other training and positive reinforcement adds to our ranch work. There’s no reason not to combine rewards with work. They each aid the other so nicely.

The benefits of using treats shows up in unexpected ways. After unsaddling Rusty where my saddle is stored so I didn’t have to carry it as far I turned him loose so I could put it away. With the whole yard to wander, he went to the hitching post where he gets tied to be saddled and brushed and waited for me there. What a good pony.

 

 


How Do We Know Whorls Work? HorseWhorls

Why would looking at whorls on a horses head or body be able to give us any information about the horse?

It seems silly doesn’t it. Why do we bother looking at whorls and think they will tell us anything? Believing a bunch of old wives tales is ridiculous.

Although the stories have been around forever, we are finding new, scientifically based, reasons for their existence all the time. Just because the science wasn’t there before to tell us why whorls work doesn’t mean they didn’t work until we found out why. All the recent studies do is confirm what we already knew.

The skin/hair layer develops in the womb very early on, while the fetus is still so tiny that everything is touching and connected. As it grows any pressure from the inner layers onto the outer layers causes changes in the way the outer layers develop. It can be physical pressure or extra blood flow. As the fetus grows those changes stay in the skin to affect the hair growth.

It makes sense that some of these changes are ones that are passed genetically, temperament and conformation are passed from parents to foal so matching whorls would be expected. In a recent study scientists were able to isolate the genomic regions associated with hair whorl traits in horses.

Genomic regions associated with hair whorl traits in horses were successfully identified, they reported. In these regions, many genes related to hair follicle growth were investigated, with evidence indicating they influenced whorl-related traits, “some of these genes also have known neurological and behavioral functions.”

That part is accepted and generally without question. The evidence shows that there is good reason to believe whorls and temperament are related.

That leaves us to figure out just how they are connected. While there have been some very nicely scientific studies done on this, most of it is hearsay and personal experience. If we find two horses of the same whorl who display a certain behavior the next thing to do is to look for a third and fourth horse with the same whorl to compare behavior. With common whorls finding many horses who match is easy. Other times there are whorls that are so rare it is hard to find enough to compare. Other times the behavior is obscure enough that it is hard to isolate and relate to one whorl or whorl pattern.

The study of whorls is only just begun. There is so much out there left to learn. It’s going to continue to be a fun and fascinating journey!

 


Accident Prone, HorseWhorls

Some whorls come with very specific ‘meanings’. The S shaped feathering is one of those.

When a horse has feathering on their forehead that twists and turns, sometimes in the shape of an S, others are just squiggly, it is said that horse will be accident prone.

While it does often hold true I think it’s important to look at what ‘accident prone’ actually means. It should be fairly obvious that the whorl doesn’t cause the horse to get hurt. Whorls are signs of what is going on inside the horse, not portents of things to come. What we need to look for is what behavioral tendencies come with the whorl that may cause the horse to behave in such a way as to get themselves injured more often than is usual.

Unfortunately I don’t know what those are. What sort of traits would cause a horse to do things resulting in injury? Feathering coming up from a whorl show left brain traits. These include being confident, curious, friendly, calm, fearless. That doesn’t mean that horses who are left brain will always display all of these traits, they are examples of the sort of behavior we can expect to see, not a list of what we will see.

Could playfulness be the cause of the accidents we often see with an S shaped whorl? Being overly confident could mean not worrying about results as they play their way through life. Curiosity could easily lead to injury. Is the S shape of the whorl a sign that one of these traits is more strongly developed than when the feathering is in a straight line?

Unfortunately there are more questions than answers when it comes to this whorl type. The important take away is that whorls show behavioral tendencies. They do not show what a horse is destined to experience in life. We need to look for underlying causes instead of superstition.