“One white foot buy him, Two white feet try him, Three, look well about him, Four, go home without him.”
Most of us have heard this old rhyme at one time or another. Often when someone is discussing a horse they are considering purchasing, the other party will chime in with something like: “You know what they say about horses with four white feet!”
Whether or not there is much truth to this rhyme, I can’t say. In all the horses I’ve worked with, I’ve yet to come across any correlation between white feet and personality. Some will say we’ve misinterpreted the rhyme over the years, and that it actually has to do with the color of the horse’s hooves, rather than his socks. White hooves were considered poorer quality than darker hooves, hence the more “white feet” a horse had, the more cautious you needed to be.
Over time, guidelines have been developed for what a horse’s coat and facial markings (sworls, whorls, etc.) might mean about his personality and temperament. The most notable source of information on this topic is Linda Tellington-Jones in her excellent book Getting in TTouch – Understand and Influence Your Horse’s Personality.
People will also discuss a horse’s overall profile, unusual bulges, mouth shape, muzzle profile, nostrils, tail set, chin and lips, eyes and ears as a way to determine more about a horse’s personality, or to evaluate the temperament of a horse they are thinking about buying.
There will always be exceptions to the rule, but assessing a horse this way can be fun and revealing. Although you’ll come across naysayers, quite a few case studies and many hours of research reveal some accuracy behind this system.
Swirls (also sometimes known as whorls, rosettes, and cowlicks) are unique to each horse. No two hair patterns are the same. They are most often found on the head, neck, chest and flank, though some horses have them in some very creative places. Some of you may have seen your veterinarian recording them if you have recently had something like a Coggins or a passport done for your horse – they can be used to help identify your horse. People have been analyzing these patterns for centuries to delve deeper into equine behavior characteristics.
POSITION AND NUMBER OF SWIRLS
One swirl, well below eyes – These horses tend to be overly intelligent thinkers. Some riders view them as nuisances, because they can be rather creative and smart and require an extra bit of tact on your part to correctly direct this energy.
One swirl, between (or above) eyes – Fairly common, and generally less telling of a horse’s character than some of the rarer or more interesting swirls. Said to indicate an uncomplicated temperament. Horses with this swirl set more to the right tend to be slightly less co-operative.
Extended swirl – These horses tend to be very people oriented, pleasant and friendly.
Two vertical swirls or horizontal swirls – A higher percentage of these horses are rather sensitive and emotional. They can overreact at unexpected moments and are easily upset. They do not respond well to correction, and only become more resistant. These complicated horses can be very talented with the right rider.
Three vertical swirls, three swirls in a pyramid, or three in an upside down pyramid – Some of the rarer patterns. In most cases, these horses can be complex but not unreliable. However, Linda Tellington-Jones mentions in her book that 80% of stallions with this marking were unpredictable.
- In one study, Irish researchers found a correlation between a horse’s facial markings and whether the horses were right or left “handed” (motor skills better to the right or left). Horses with clockwise swirls tended to be “right handed”, while horses with counterclockwise swirls tended to be “left handed”.
- Scientific studies link abnormal hair swirls with brain development and temperament. This has been most intensively studied in cows, but also in humans and apes.
- Bedouin horsemen placed significance on their Arabians’ swirls. Swirls were said to indicate everything from prosperity, safety and good fortune to ruin, death and famine.
A) A six-year-old Tennessee Walker/Mustang mare. This horse’s single swirl is well centered, and between her eyes, but she also seems to have an extended swirl.
I wouldn’t say her temperament is uncomplicated. She would be more likely to fall under the swirl “well below eyes” category. She is intelligent and creative almost to a fault, somewhat demanding, and has also been described as precocious and gregarious with a super sense of humor. Keeping her mentally stimulated can be interesting, and if you don’t do it she will find ways to amuse herself! She is also extremely people oriented.
B) A six-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. This guy’s single swirl is also well centered, between his eyes if not a bit higher.
This horse is indeed more of an uncomplicated type. He tends to be fairly laid back, with a relatively easy going “whatever you say” personality and a fair sense of humor. He is quite people oriented.
C) A five-year-old Quarter Horse mare with two swirls.
She tends to fit the applicable characteristics. While a sweetheart, she has a rather sensitive emotional side, and reactive tendencies. Once you get through that, though, she will try her heart out for you.
When doing this type of assessment, look at all the physical characteristics mentioned earlier in the article to develop a well-rounded appraisal of your horse. Go around the barn with your friends, look at the various horses you know well and see what you find out. It can be very entertaining!