Creating a realistic sculpture requires many different and simultaneous points of view, ranging from anatomy to physics to gaits to breed type, not to mention the seemingly unending design decisions that sometimes cause us to second-guess ourselves!
While these concerns are important, the issue of gender differences can sometimes get lost in the fray. So much so, in fact, that merely changing the genitalia on a sculpture can be regarded as an acceptable option, regardless of the physique of the piece. The truth is, however, gender goes far beyond simply changing the “plumbing” only because hormones create secondary sex characteristics that are just as important for an artist to consider. It’s these subtle differences that truly impart the impression of “stallion,” “mare” or “gelding” far more authentically than any "plumbing" switch could hope to achieve.
It’s also helpful to regard the horse as wildlife in this regard, rather than our common domestic animal. How so? Well, wildlife is filled with sexual differences between male and female. Just study birds, fish, and some mammals. And the equine is no different. The differences are subtle, but they add up to a whole lot taken together. This let's us attain a more objective view of this complex beast, and while the equine world does have its share of exceptions (as nature inevitably does), knowing the basic gender characteristics lets us best determine what's believable for clay.
To illustrate the power of these gender characteristics, the illustrations offered here are simply altered examples of the same “basic horse” template. Clearly, it’s those wonderful little differences that create the desired visual we all recognize. However, keep in mind these diagrams are only guides, and your own observations will illuminate the details and diversity existing in the equine world. To help you in that endeavor, this post gives the basics of what to look for and recreate, but use your own Eye to fine tune and amplify as needed.
There’s no mistaking a stallion, particularly when he’s “puffed up” when challenged or showing off for the ladies. He’s masculinity and power personified, even if he’s otherwise mellow by nature. Always remember that in life, a successful stallion must maintain his harem and defend them from both threats and competitors, so if his physique or psyche isn’t up to the task, his genetic legacy comes to an abrupt end. This is the key for sculpting a convincing stallion.
Visually, stallions usually appear compact, robust, muscular, and athletic, often giving the impression of coiled power, ready to burst forth any minute. His torso can appear shorter and higher off the ground, and he usually has a crested neck. He also often sports a “meatier” head, with a deeper jowl and powerful jaw muscles, and usually smaller ears. Many stallions also have a particular glimmer in their summer coat, or “stallion sheen.”
Psychologically, stallions definitely have presence, and no matter how generous or kind, a stallion instinctively “sizes you up.” His face is lively and alert with sparkling eyes, twitching ears, active nostrils, and he demonstrates keen interest in his surroundings. Indeed, when something piques his interest, he seems to “get bigger,” as his whole body reflects his ardor.
Also keep in mind that stallions exhibit many different personalities, ranging from a “gentleman’s gentleman” to exuberant boisterousness to dangerous aggression. Nonetheless, remember that in nature, a successful stallion has the bravado, confidence, vigor, cleverness, strength, and boldness to be genetically successful.
Mares are quite distinct and even more so as they age, and so they shouldn’t be confused with either a gelding or a stallion.
Mares usually appear lower to the ground with longer bodies, to provide ample room for pregnancy. Their necks are typically finer and their ears are often longer, too. They should also have good-sized hooves and a generous pelvis, well-sprung ribs and a deep waist for gestation. Her points of buttock shouldn’t be pinched together nor should her vulva be tipped, since these undesirable features present problems for pregnancy and birth. Her head is usually more feminine, being more rectangular in profile with softer, "drier" cranial musculature and shallower jowls. Her body musculature isn’t as robust as a stallion in its natural state, but usually is softer and “fleshier,” and sometimes lanky or more "rangey." Broodmares typically develop a distinct matronly appearance and presence, which is important to capture in sculpture, so pay attention to age and backstory of a mare when sculpting her.
As for behavior, a mare can have a rather complex personality. The social structure of Equus caballus is based on the mare band, characterized by close social bonds, nuanced politics and hierarchical interaction. To add fuel to the fire, some mares can have personality changes when they come into season, become pregnant, or with their foal due to hormones, discomfort, or protective urges.
Mares thrive with company and their group dynamics are always interesting to study. They also tend to be a bit flightier than stallions or geldings, because in nature they are the ones who first take flight either in response to a threat or to the driving cues of the stallion. Some mares also can show a need to “organize” or take control of things, much like in nature when an experienced lead mare guides the daily migrations of the herd to food, water, and shelter. It’s a good idea for an artist to become familiar with various mares to help illuminate some of their eccentric subtleties for sculpture.
Now one might wonder why the gelding is included as a “gender,” since he’s artificially created. Nevertheless, because his male hormones were removed, and usually quite early, geldings can have significant enough physical differences to warrant a separate category.
On a fundamental level, a gelding is similar to a stallion, though he appears less masculine and emotionally less “on.” In a way, he’s physically in-between a stallion and mare, and is less “busy" by nature. Not to say he’s dull-witted—far from it! He simply isn't so distracted by the reproductive or territorial intensity that hormones create. Really, there’s a reason why geldings are such fixtures in the work place!
But the primary thing to remember about geldings is that they were culled intentionally, and so usually sport some artistically enticing physical eccentricity that would have disqualified them from breeding. While the same applies to stallions and mares, it’s especially important that geldings be absolutely serviceable. Boiled down, the value of a gelding is his functionality, which makes his build, nature, and heart of special importance. In fact, one can judge the quality of any breeding program by the quality of its geldings.
Geldings run the gamut of physique from being “soft” easy-keepers to lanky fellows. There's plenty of variation to keep an artist busy! Indeed, gelding heads alone are usually fun artistic explorations, with interesting profiles and eccentricities apart from a breed standard or convention. Geldings can also have a lot of character, but generally tend to be more quiet and mellow. But don’t let them fool you! They exhibit a wide spectrum of personality, natures and impulses. Without the distraction of hormones, geldings can definitely become quirky characters! Without a doubt, life study of geldings is an important enterprise for discovering their seemingly infinite variations in body type and expression.
Gender mistakes are common in equine sculpture, caused by switching the gender of a sculpture only by changing the plumbing, overlooking the nature of secondary sex characteristics altogether. This is a big mistake made by many sculptors who aren't paying attention to equine biology.
With stallions, sculptures often go awry with extremes. For instance, having inadequate gender qualities and so appearing too feminized, or, alternately, the sculpture is rendered with an overzealous interpretation of all things “stallion," creating a kind of caricature. Also, the eyes of stallion sculptures are often created far too large and buggy, with enlarged protruding orbs, usually due to an artist trying to make the piece appear wild or fierce. And sometimes a stallion sculpture sports enough structural flaws that would have caused him to be gelded, a backstory that might be important for certain pieces.
As for mare sculptures, they often suffer from gender ambiguity. This is caused by either inadequate expression of mare secondary sex characteristics, or by a complete dismissal of them altogether. As a result, many mare sculptures resemble either soft-eyed geldings, or worse yet, placid, “pretty” stallions. We simply cannot remove existing “boy bits” and just slap on mare parts with clay then call our creation a mare! “Plumbing” alone doth not a mare make because the full spectrum of "mareness" is essential.
Mares can also be misinterpreted into resembling pretty deer, being made too dainty, having unnaturally large “doe” eyes, small dainty muzzles, tiny feet and insubstantial bone, which demonstrates excessive stylism. Mare sculptures also are typically faulted with alarmingly narrow pelvic girdles or vulvas that are tipped.
Perhaps the single most prevalent problem with mare sculptures is that many of them have backs that are far too short. Often, when comparing measurements from life to those depicted in art, the back lengths don't match often enough! The culprit behind this problem may be that too many artists (and collectors) are programmed to favor those characteristics that lie within the stallion spectrum of physique due to the sense of glamor associated with them.
Similarly, geldings rarely get the attention they so richly deserve! Sculpturally, they're rare and tend to be treated almost as afterthoughts rather than a worthy "leading role" in an imagined narrative unfortunately. Yet the irony is that geldings comprise the greatest percentage of horses most people encounter on a daily basis, and are usually the gender of choice for many riders, particularly children. And if there ever was an opportunity to play with unconventional phenotypes, portraying a quirky gelding can be an inspirational creative exploration and statement.
The physical oddities or imperfections of a gelding shouldn’t be criticized if they don’t compromise his soundness or usefulness. Geldings also shouldn’t be overlooked as subject matter, as though they weren’t as interesting as mares or stallions. Indeed, geldings are actually the more logical choice for those sculptures that depict work, or general life with people. Most of us actually had a gelding as our first lesson horse, our best friend and most loyal working partner. What better tribute to pay him than to treat him with authenticity? The gelding is the horse equivalent of the “everyday man,” and what a worthy subject for a sculptural journey!
Clearly, it’s important to pay attention to equine secondary sex characteristics in all their manifestations in order to recreate a faithful depiction of life. Truly, “realism” must include genuine biology; otherwise the piece will be unconvincing. That is to say, simply slapping on certain "parts" and calling our piece a stallion, mare, or gelding isn't enough.
Plus, “the devil is in the details,” and in no other facet of realistic equine sculpture does this concept mean more than with gender differences. Considering only the "plumbing" isn’t enough to express the factuality of life, and the nuances of gender characteristics are central for supporting the believability of our piece. Here, the “detail” of gender should be expressed throughout the body and not in simply strategic places.
The danger of confusing or homogenizing the genders is no small matter for the artist, because it diminishes the diversity of Equus while also compromising the potential of an otherwise well-executed sculpture. Let’s face it—the hallmark of the truly great piece is that which captures the full dimension of the animal, from the biology to the psychology to the individual spirit, and gender is closely tied to each of these essentials. So don't deny them...embrace those wonderful differences!
"You tell a gelding, ask a stallion, negotiate with a mare, and pray if it's a pony."