May 26, 2010

Aiah's Whorl
Photo by Sue Weaver

Did you know you can assess the dispositions of horses and cattle (but not us goats, darn) based on how hair grows in whorls (“cowlicks”) on their foreheads? You can!

For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, horse people examined their untrained horses’ heads to figure out how they would probably act in harness or under saddle. The shape of their ears, eyes, muzzles, and profiles were taken into consideration but so were the whorls of hair on their foreheads. Lots of modern people thought that was bologna until horse behaviorist Linda Tellington-Jones evaluated more than 1200 horses and wrote a book about it.

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Mom loves that book!

In 2004, another animal behaviorist, Temple Grandin, published a study based on the whorl patterns of 1636 head of beef and dairy cattle sold through auction barns, noting whorl position (left, right, center) and height (high = above eye level, middle = at eye level, and low = below eye level).

She gave each cow a score of one through four (one meaning the cow stayed nice and calm and four, it went bananas. Cattle rating three or four were further rated on whether they displayed fight or flight behaviors. Normal whorls were defined as a single, spiral whorl between the eyes. These are her findings:

• Facial whorls were absent in 10 percent of the cattle

• 86 percent had a normal facial whorl

• 47 percent had middle-whorl placements

• Cattle with low whorls were more likely to have abnormal and off-centerline whorls

• Animals with higher reaction scores had higher facial whorls

• Females had more abnormal whorls than males; beef cattle had more abnormal whorls than Holsteins

• Reaction point scores were higher for females and animals with high whorls than for males and animals with low or middle hair whorls

That’s Aiah, Mom’s riding steer in the picture. Aiah’s whorl is in the center of his forehead, right between his eyes. He’s a smart and gentle guy. Way to go, Aiah!

Why do whorls indicate an animal’s disposition? According to Dr. Grandin, a fetus’ brain forms at the same time as its skin and hair, hence the connection. Whorls can even indicate handedness and other traits in humans. Who’d have thunk it!

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