The horse’s head is something we naturally gravitate towards because, like us, each is as unique as each is an individual horse—no two are exactly alike. The equine face is also highly expressive, intriguing and charming us with an endless array of emotions, gesture, and quirky character. Many aspects of breed type entail the head as well, right down to some rather nuanced features esoteric to a genepool. For an equine sculptor then, there’s perhaps no more important feature to master than the head.
Yet it’s no easy thing to sculpt. Much of the head is subcutaneous bone and that presents some complicated planes and angles we have to get right since they reflect the skull itself. The interlacing flesh also lends a degree of subtlety to shape and form, enough to challenge even the most experienced sculptor. And being rich with personality and gesture, many of these features can change with each fleeting mood as each "living moment" represents a reflection of his inner experience. All this makes the equine head a fascinating combination of form, function, and expression that provides unlimited diversity and narrative options. Yet it also means we have to juggle multiple aspects every time we sculpt one.
Many sources discuss the how–to aspects of sculpting the equine head, or perhaps the subtleties of type and gender. Still others discuss the nuances of expression and gesture so endearing of this animal. However, one aspect that often gets ignored is the science behind the structure of the equine head, the biological hows and whys for its construction and function. Yet understanding these hows and whys is essential for making authoritative, thoughtful decisions for our clay.
And these issues are important. The equine head not only encases the brain—serving thought, learning, and personality—but serves as the only pathway by which air, water, and food nourish the body. It houses the senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and balance while serving as the conduit for vocalized communication, scent recognition, and facial expression. It functions as a counter–lever for the body facilitating coordination and agility to boot. In a nutshell then, the head is the primary pathway for the essential biological functions that allow the animal to thrive.
Yet there’s nothing about the equine head that speaks of extremes. Instead, it’s engineered by nature with ascetic precision, an efficient design fit for a large grass–eating herbivore that relies on speedy, long distance flight to escape predators. The epitome of biological economy, the equine head is consummately functional, carrying neither ornamentation to attract a mate nor weaponry for battle or display such as horns, antlers, or tusks. Being so, it has paltry little fudge–factor for aesthetic taste, something critical to remember if we’re concerned about his well–being in our work. Indeed, not everything in the show ring, with all its fads and fashions, or even art, with all its whims and extremes, reflects what’s good for the animal in this respect. Without a doubt, many halter classes have become dominated by some downright problematic trends with head structure that compromise the animal’s viability. The issue of head structure isn’t one of taste then, but one of function, a concept we’ll explore throughout this series. And understanding the hows and whys of its biology provides the understanding we need to make creative decisions that honor that function.
Specifically then, we’ll discuss the biology of the equine head in this 20–part series. This will lay the basis for some ideas we’ll also discuss that can helps us capture an individual with greater faithfulness. We’ll learn some fun factoids along the way, too, plus some important landmarks, key proportions, and alignments we can use as handy guides to build our heads more convincingly. And, finally, we’ll discover some trouble–shooting tips and common errors to avoid both in life and sculpture. But in order to have the proper context for all this, let’s first start at the beginning…let’s go back in time…
The adaptive history of the horse is well–documented thanks to the prolific number of fossils so far discovered—about half a million specimens exist in North American storage alone. Consequently, this animal is often used as an example of the processes of evolution, that series of chance events creating multiple random pressures that, with the horse, resulted in myriad structural experiments, adaptive dead ends, surprise benefits, and mind–numbing diversity. And we should understand that adaptation simply happens in response to an environmental pressure, with no foresight or agendas—evolution doesn’t have a goal, it just happens. And it can only make do with what previous generations provide as genetic material, forever modifying the basic design. Why is this important to know? Well, it illustrates just how happenstance and unlikely is the horse. If anything had been different in his long evolutionary history, the horse as we know him today wouldn’t exist. Quite a sobering realization, isn’t it? So with that in mind, let’s dive into the story of the equine head…
The beginning of the modern horse is thought to originate some 50–55 million years ago, in the Eocene. His ancestor was a little critter called Hyracotherium who lived in North American, Asian, and European tropical and sub–tropical forests, also referred to as “eohippus,” or “dawn horse.” He was only about 2 feet long (61 cm) and approximately 8–9 inches (20–23cm) at the shoulder. He had short–crowned (bunodont) teeth and a short head with a short diastema (the jaw space between the front and back teeth), with large, low–set eyes. His build was suited for a browsing forest life, nibbling on soft leaves, shoots, and sprouts while dodging, scampering, and sprinting around tree trunks and branches to escape danger, much like the popping gait of a bunny. He was very successful and existed essentially unchanged for most of the Eocene, a long 20 million years. In fact, there are many commonalities between equines and lagomorphs, as Hyracotherium could be thought of as an equine–like bunny.
Anyway, when the climate began to cool and dry, and grasslands began to expand, lineages of Hyracotherium ventured out to exploit this new habitat and abandoned the browser lifestyle. It’s these lineages that would undergo a convoluted transformation into Equus, producing fantastic variations of odd–toed hooved animals, the Perissodactyla, that emerged to roam the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Now remember, early equids were browsers, eating the abundant soft fruits, sprouts, shoots, and leaves of the forest habitat, which are better sources of nutrients than grasses. Yet in order for these emerging grazing lines to adapt to a life on the plains, a series of specific digestive adaptations had to occur which subsequently lead to radical cranial adaptations, starting about 20 million years ago, and all starting with that thing he began to eat…grass…
Conclusion To Part 1
Now that we have a basic evolutionary backstory, let’s get to details as to how that changed his physique. In the next part then we’ll start to explore some of the unique changes that enabled him to survive in his new grassland habitat. Understanding the nature of equineness beyond simply looking like one isn't something many resources touch on, and so many artists neglect this aspect of his truth. They certainly can duplicate his build, but they don't know why it's built that way and why it's important. And this is a troublesome oversight. Without an evolutionary biological perspective, we not only have an incomplete understanding of equine anatomy, but we also risk falling into certain traps that await us. And these traps catch many equine artists and compromise their work. Indeed, what we know about our subject is expressed in every tool stroke, so the more we comprehend, the more meaningful our portfolio becomes. Until next time then…we must know the influences of his past to grasp the future!
“There is some reason, obviously, that you are drawn to your material, but the way in which you explore it might come to be quite different from what you would expect.” ~Ann Beattie