London, November 25 : In what may have significant implications for horse racing, an Irish study has found that the hair on a horse's head can predict whether it is left- or right-hoofed.
Veterinarians Jack Murphy and Sean Arkins of the University of Limerick say that clues to which direction a horse favours may be useful for trainers in producing animals that run straighter, and perhaps win more races.
The researchers classified 219 racehorses, show-jumpers and eventers as left- or right- hoofed based on the judgement of expert riders, as well as on tests like which hoof they led with when beginning to walk, and which side they chose to go round an obstacle.
They found that 75 per cent of the 104 left-hoofed horses had anticlockwise hair whorls, and 67 per cent of the 95 right-hoofed animals had clockwise whorls.
Writing about their observations in the journal Behavioural Processes, the researchers say that their findings may offer a useful tip to trainers because a horse's handedness or 'motor laterality' translates into a tendency to drift in one direction - which can make a big difference to a horse's competitive chances.
Murphy says that the earlier the biases are spotted, the easier it is to correct them, by getting horses to work on their weaker side using 'lungeing', when the animal circles its trainer at the end of a long lead.
He, however, adds that one should not bet just on the bases of a glimpse of a hair whorl because apart from the imperfect link between hair and hoof, factors like a race's distance and going are probably much more significant to its outcome.
"Laterality is a small part of the mix, but there are so many variables," says Murphy.