Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Anatomy and Conformation, Part II: What Is Anatomy?



Here we are again, continuing with this four–part series that explores the differences between anatomy and conformation. In Part I, we were introduced to the idea of anatomy and conformation as two separate issues. In other words, the contrivance of conformatomy doesn't exist, especially when it comes to realistic equine sculpture. 

Now let's look at the issues in more detail, starting with anatomy…


Anatomy may seem too obvious to warrant discussion, but step back and really think about it. Before venturing into this art form, how much of it did we really notice when admiring an horse? We may have admired his neck, for example, but did we have to concern ourselves with how that neck was anatomically structured? Probably not. We were able to take anatomy for granted, just like every other horseperson. For instance, envision a horse and define anatomy. Where exactly does anatomy begin and end compared to everything else we're asked to consider? Not so obvious, is it?

This is how anatomy first confuses us—by being so much, it casts an all–encompassing shadow. Anatomy seems so overwhelming and formidable in breadth and scope, we're driven to seek simplification and default to conformatomy, or just conformation altogether. The good news is that equine anatomy is simpler than it first appears once we pick it apart from conformation. 

And there's more than one reason to do so. The horseworld doesn't account for anatomy in the same way we do, and so its evaluation priorities aren't the same as ours. The horseworld simply weights different criteria very differently, so trying to translate its working paradigms into our clay usually sabotages our efforts. This is exactly why we run into trouble when we apply its ranking system to our sculptures. It goes the other way, too—it makes no sense for the horseworld to apply our criteria to real horses!

Therefore, having a solid idea of just what anatomy is and isn't really brings the animal's biology, systems, and the means to convey them into sharper, artistic focus. Consequently, interpreting and translating this beguiling animal becomes much more straightforward, and that's definitely a welcome outcome. So to define anatomy, we can say…

Anatomy is the biological blueprint for Equus, the distinctive, genetically-based, evolution-driven, natural construction of the animal. 

That's it, in a nutshell. Voilá. But that's a whole lot! In particular, note the qualification, "evolution–driven, natural construction of the animal." Anatomy is nature–based, its genes having been shaped by 65 million years+ of evolution. Steadily, the DNA of the genus and each species was pressured into the structures, niches, biology, and ethology that shaped it into the lovely beast we know today. It's unique to this animal, and so it's what veterinarians study to operate and treat, and what scientists use to identify fossils and ecological niches, and to categorize the species. And because anatomy determines equine taxonomy in the Linnaeus classification table then, it's the reason why:

1. Grevy’s Zebras, Mules, Zorses, Kulans, Marsh Tackies, and Orlov Trotters are categorized as equines.
2. The genus Equus is separated into different species such as Onagers (hemonids), Mountain Zebras (zebras), Somali Wild Asses (asses), and Quarter Horses (caballines). 
3. Clydesdales, Akhal-Tekes, Andalusians and Fallabellas are all the same species, Equus caballus
4. Anatomy doesn't involve "quality," therefore a Brumby, a cart horse, and a Mustang are Equus caballus as much as a champion Trakehner, Friesian, or Saddlebred.
5. It includes the phenotypic differences between the genders and age groups due to secondary sex characteristics and the aging process, which are features of evolutionary biology.

So imagine a future paleontologist 25,000 years from now, digging up an animal skeleton. This person can identify the creature as an equine, and even the species, type, gender and age of the animal just from that pile of bones. This scientist may also reconstruct the animal's flesh by expert inspection, and even deduce its biomechanical capabilities, ecological niche and lifestyle. Because anatomy encompasses the animal within the framework of natural selection and biological niches, it also provides this scientist with a wealth of information about this animal's ecological history.

But it's not just about bones! Anatomy, being the common denominator of Equus, is what makes an equine an equine, in every facet of his physique, psychology, and biology. So these intrinsic anatomical qualities of the genus remain the same despite selective breeding, regional variations, or hybridization; otherwise the animal ceases to be an equine, by definition. 

Here's an example to clarify the idea. Consider the domestic dog and his cousins the wolf, jackal, wild dog, coyote, and wolf–dog hybrid. Despite everything else, they all belong to the genus Canis thanks to their anatomy—they're canine because of their canine anatomy. Well, exactly the same applies to equines. Horses, ponies, Takh, hemonids, zebras, asses, and the various hybrids are all part of the genus Equus because of their anatomy.

Breaking it down the example further with the genus Canis, consider all the different types, shapes and sizes found in the species Canis familiaris, the domestic dog. Despite all that amazing variation—between the Chihuahua, Great Dane, Bichon Frise, Chinese Crested, Saluki, Old English Sheepdog, British Bulldog, and Bouvier des Flandres—they're all still Canis familiaris because of their Canis familiars anatomy. And in the very same way, all the different varieties of domestic horses and ponies still belong to the species Equus caballus, genus Equus.

Because it's the universal, common denominator that categorizes and defines what an equine actually is, anatomy is therefore the primary, nonnegotiable prerequisite for realistic equine sculpture—by definition. In order to be an example of realistic equine sculpture, we have to be sculpting equines, right? And it's only through anatomy that we can materialize the proper, viable, actual "equineness" needed to make our sculpture factual. This is why anatomy and realism go hand–in–hand, one determining and validating the other in synchronicity. Indeed, realism without anatomy simply ceases to be realism.

If our sculpted anatomy is inconsistent with Equus then, it fails to portray an equine altogether. So anatomical errors aren't just happenstance, casual mistakes, they're flaws of reality. The more anatomical errors present in a sculpture then, the less that sculpture actually depicts an equine. 

This relationship applies to the entire art form, which is why it's no circumstantial side–effect that those pieces more consistent to the anatomical blueprint appear "more realistic." Anatomy isn't a fortuitous component, an optional, extraordinary feature, but the very basis of equine realism itself. That means all other aspects that go into our clay are secondary features, a condition totally unlike judging real horses.


There's a big difference between what looks equine and what actually is equine. This is due entirely to the problem of our perception, a subject we explored in a previous blog series.

So there we are in our studio, working from the premise that to actually be equine, every aspect we sculpt must be equine as well. But each of us are on our own developmental curve that prescribes how authentically we can sculpt, interpret and translate that equineness into our clay. This spectrum can also change with each piece as different compositions, breeds, postures and other variables challenge our abilities in different ways. For this reason, each new sculpture represents "starting from square one" in more ways than one! 

Not only that, however, but this spectrum exists between each of us, too. As we learned with our pereception, everyone interprets technical accuracy differently. (It's also discussed in the current series, The Method, The Madness and The Mystery.)

It's because of these two effects that non–equine traits and other errors in realism can creep into our work. We've all made mistakes, especially during our early years, and we've probably also seen various errors in other sculptures. Bovine joints, giraffe necks, elk muzzles, dog eyes, cat ears, gnu cannons, goat hindquarters, buffalo forearms, deer shoulders, pig barrels, and gazelle pectorals are just some of the issues that populate equine realism. 

There are errors in wellbeing, too, those errors that imply a catastrophic injury. Ruptured Reciprocal Apparatuses, broken necks, broken pelvic girdles, broken backs, pathological feet, DSLD, hyperthyroidism, broken stifle joints, ruptures in the shoulder sling apparatus, pathological skulls, and broken jawbones are often examples in equine realism.

Being able to duplicate equineness with increasing degrees of sophistication then is one of the primary goals we work towards throughout our career. Even all the other factors we enjoy so much like expression, movement, composition and flow, physics, muscle quality, balance and coordination are really just extensions of this never–ending quest. 

This makes the pathway conveniently straightforward: the cure for every error in realism we could ever make is found in good ol' anatomy. Realistic equine sculpture is founded on it, our sculptures depend on it, and our skills are elevated by it. Anatomy—it's a lot more than just bones and muscles!


Biomechanics is an intimidating sounding word, isn't it? Seems cryptic and inaccessible, but no…it isn't! Biomechanics is actually quite easy, and lots of fun to learn. It's really just the kinetic expression of anatomy, the blueprint in motion (which is why it's folded into anatomy in this series). And one cannot be truly understood without the other, since they're essentially the same thing.

There are multiple facets to equine biomechanics, mostly because the equine comes in so many shapes and sizes, and is used for so many activities. But on the basic level, equine biomechanics include, but aren't limited to the:

Evolutionary history of equine locomotion; the "biologic" of equine structure.
Natural motion vs schooled motion vs motion changed by artificial means.
Location of the points of articulation.
Nature of each joint, its limitations and capabilities.
Function of regional systems along with function of the integrated systems.
Interaction of the muscles and flesh with the bones and each other.
Construction and motion of each body part in terms of bone, hide, hair, flesh or horn, down to the microscopic and chemical level. 
Effects of age, gender, breed, breeding, and body type.
Gaits, stride, and foot flight paths as well as how and why they change. 
Tension and relaxation effects on the flesh, articulations, and motion.
Effects of balance, posture, coordination, and proprioception.
Internal shifting of the viscera, and how it affects motion.
Body chemistry, and various body systems such as pulmonary, respiratory, nervous, lymphatic, etc.
Presence, effects, interplay, and reactions to physics.
Emotions, behavior, stress, stimuli, and reactions.
Changes that occur with the presence of a rider or object to pull.
Horsemanship, schooling, and specific movements related to riding discipline.
Management, conditioning, and nutrition.
Injury, disease, and other vexations to the body.
Tack and other accoutrements.
Hoof balance, foot structure and quality; barefoot vs trimmed and/or shod.
Trims, shoes, pads, and the varied aspects of farriery.
Footing and weather.
"Living Moment," the moment by moment changes to the body as equines are constantly moving.
Other changes, stimuli, or stresses that affect the systems.

Just as equine anatomy defines what it is to be equine, so equine biomechanics is equally distinct. It would have to be, wouldn't it? If equine anatomy is structured a specific way, then equine biomechanics must unfurl in a specific way, too. As such, the equine moves like an equine because he's built like an equine. 

That means equines have a series of very distinct ranges and types of motion, coordinations, balances, and reaction tendencies specific to their genus and species. That means the equine doesn't move like a lion, bear, llama, antelope, cow, or lizard only because he's not built like them. This tells us that how we design our sculpture is as much a function of technical accuracy as the anatomical features, and biomechanical errors are equal flaws in realism. For this reason then, equine biomechanics is a non–negotiable prerequisite for all realistic equine sculpture, too. 

That being said, biomechanics can be rather daunting at times only because our subject has such complex engineering, with so many interconnected regional systems and delicate balancing of opposing forces. Having difficulty in this doesn't mean we're incapable, but a testament to just how darned tricky equine biomechanics really are! Because even a standing horse is moving, which can be hard enough to sculpt, but create one moving and—wow—our equation just got a whole lot more complicated, didn't it? And aside from the physical movements themselves, there's also a dizzying array of variables such as physics and balance, flow of the mane and tail, coordination and posture, among others.

All this is probably why biomechanical errors are so common, manifesting in every conceivable way and degree. Sculpting equine motion is a real test of our abilities, and the more extreme the depiction, the more tested we are.


Coming from an evolutionary and biological standpoint then, we can maybe see now that anatomy has nothing to do with human value judgements. The equine blueprint was established long before domestication, so human notions about suitability, function, perfection, quality, and beauty aren't factors within the anatomical bubble. Only one factor is: viable function as an equine. That's all. 

So let's do a thought experiment. Let's imagine human civilization has collapsed and all domestic horses are now feral. That means herds of multichampion Quarter Horses, Lusitanos, Saddlebreds, Hanovarians, Bretons, Dartmoors, Pasos, AkhalTekes, Fallabellas, Walkers, Arabians and others are now running amok, even amongst wild equids like asses, zebras, Takh, and hemonids.

What will happen over the years? Well, they'll probably interbreed, and their descendants will change accordingly. Perhaps herds will fan out to produce new landraces. Hybrids may randomly occur. Over time, the backstory of equine anatomy will take over and the human–made distinctions will begin to fade. Breed distinctions will dissolve, and aesthetics will transform into something based on survival, and they'll take on different characteristics. In fact, many human–induced traits could be liabilities that select out individuals—maybe entire types—in short order. The evolutionary influence on anatomy will simply select out or reform them with each generation, and maybe in 500 years or so, many traces of domestication will be erased. And after all that, those components that remain—those factors of pure evolutionary equine function—comprise what we would describe as anatomy.

Strip away every human value judgment regarding what's beautiful, typey, quality, suitable, or ideal and we're left with anatomy, the one element that offers us every component we need to sculpt a factual, viable equine. As we strive to create more realism in our work, as we research, reconsider, and retry, it becomes ever more clear that our first priority isn't what we find beautiful, but what is factual. Being so, anatomy exists beyond our imposed human standards, concerned only with those building blocks that create a factual equine. 

From this perspective then, we can think of anatomy as the master template, the universal blank slate upon which we layer additional components like conformation, our aesthetics, posture, color, or other features that appeal to our sensibilities. But the point is this: without that master template present in our sculpture, none of the additional layers can compensate for this fatal omission. An equine sculpture may be the sum of its parts, but not all these parts are created equal: anatomy trumps everything elseby definition. Without it we create neither realism nor equine, but figurative art, which is fine given that's our goal—who's to say that's wrong? But if we want to create actual equine realism—and if we want to kick our skills up a notchour primary target must be anatomical fact. How could it be any other way?

In Part III then, we'll explore one of these layers onto the master template, that being conformation, and how it relates to our work. Until then…keep it real!

"The things which are most important don't always scream the loudest." ~ Bob Hawke

Recommended Resources 
WHAT KIND OF AN ANIMAL IS A HORSE?, Dr. Deb Bennet, Equus #116.
5-DAY DISSECTION: Instructed by Dr. Deb Bennett.
WIRE TO WHINNY: Instructed by Lynn Fraley.

Next time: PART III - What Is Conformation?

Related Posts with Thumbnails