Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Need For Context: Harmful Fallacies That Can Compromise Your Realistic Equine Art


As equine artists, we all love equines for their beauty, power, intelligence, generosity, and quirkiness. Luckily, life and creativity offer us countless ways to express this animal in our art, allowing us to explore this beast's experience in every conceivable way. And we'll learn much through our artistic excursions, about our subject, about art in general, and about ourselves, too. One of these is learning about context. What is context? It’s an overall perspective that fixes our priorities on advocating for this animal as our overriding creative priority. “Isn’t this what I already do as an equine artist?,” you ask. Well, perhaps…and perhaps not.

Because sometimes equine art can validate harmful conditions unintentionally. We don't mean to do this, but perhaps we get caught up in the visual we're capturing, or perhaps we don't know enough to make more informed choices, or maybe we're caving in to perceived market pressures that appear to demand a specific likeness. But put it all together, and our art may be endorsing conditions contradictory to our subject's well being. To avoid this then, we need some of that context to decide which images are consistent to our convictions and which compromise them. 

It’s not the same thing to sculpt equines and then to sculpt equines in context. It’s easy to be lulled into the idea of improving upon nature, which is usually guided by our human perspectives rather than nature’s intentions. All too quickly, we can lose sight of equine biology, evolutionary history, and psychology in pursuit of our own ideals of perfection. It's an easy slippery slope. This isn’t reserved just for artists, however; it’s equally true within the equine world. Breeding decisions based on spurious criteria to achieve “perfection” can result in congenital pathologies that then become validated by award ribbons. Riding technique isn’t immune, either, often becoming diluted by misinterpretations that cause the animal anxiety, pain, and sometimes injury. If we end up validating these situations in our clay…was that really our aim?

Artists should bear in mind that only nature can create a factual horse. Why is this important to know? Well, the act of artistic creation automatically imbues a level of stylization or error no matter how we try to avoid it. Artists also tend to idealize in various degrees, for various reasons, and often we hear the adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But when it comes to equine realism, we tend to stay on target best if our definition of “beauty” lies within a biological context rather than just an aesthetic one. Remember, there's 65 million years of evolutionary history that shaped this animal according to very specific criteria, and it seems he doesn't have so much physical fudge-factor as some facets of modern showing would have us believe.

This is why when an artist works within context, her work remains honest and respectful to the subject. In contrast, when we don't, our work can quickly slide into fallacious visuals that promote harmful practices. For example, we can see a difference between the Mona Lisa and Barbie® because recognizing idealized caricatures of our own form is relatively easy, being so familiar. To us, it’s clear that the Mona Lisa seems more like a real woman while Barbie is a contrivance of the female form, one that’s an impossible and unhealthy standard to boot. All body image issues aside, if we were to point to one as "more realistic," it would probably be the Mona Lisa, right? Yet this distinction isn’t so forthcoming in equine art. There's a blind spot of sorts with the equine form. Perhaps it’s because we burden the animal with our need to perfect our world, or maybe we're more interested in our ideas of perfection than we are with biology. And we must admit that humans have a tendency to overlook the dignity of things not human, with terrible results. We objectify to a fault in our pursuit of "perfection." Mix that with the pressures from the show ring, and it's easy to see where trouble can brew. Whatever the reason, this presents an interesting conundrum to artists: Realistic art demands faithfulness to life, but where is the line? How do we create more Mona Lisas rather than Barbies? 

This question has important implications because our visuals become a potent force in shaping a culture’s perceptions and, likewise, art has a tendency to absorb a culture’s ideals of beauty and validate them. It's a synergistic cycle. What tends to happen in this relationship is the creation of a feedback loop that produces an ever-exaggerated paradigm of “beauty.” This is clearly illustrated in the images of fashion models and super heroes through the past thirty years. The trend has now become so strong that Photoshop® is used extensively to make images even more "perfect." It also applies to what is produced in modern breeding of domestic animals. Indeed, studying the synchronicity between many halter horses and their respective breed type exaggerated and validated in art makes this point obvious. A particularly clear illustration is the relationship between the Arabian “halter” horse and Arabian horse art over the past 100 years. Simply compare the original “desertbreds” to the halter horses of today, and we see breeding decisions based on the artistic imagery rather than function. Indeed, we often hear the claim that the Arabian horse is “living art,” but sometimes it appears admirers have interpreted this concept literally! Talk about objectification.

This begs another question: As a realistic equine artist, do we have a moral responsibility to the animal? 

Before we can answer that, it’s a good idea to recognize and analyze some perceived ideals first to gain some ground. For that purpose, fifteen ideals are presented here, and almost all are derived from the show ring environment (it being the primary engine generating misleading paradigms). Knowing where ideals originate is important to know, because understanding their background allows a us to identify where things went wrong, and why...and what will our choice be now that we're armed with this knowledge? For this purpose, this discussion seeks to provide some context to these common fallacies that, though pervasive in the show ring, should give us pause in the studio. So let's go!

Big Eyes

Most conformation books state a “large eye” is desirable; however, this concept has been skewed into exaggeration. Although horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal, the eyes on some sculptures far out-proportion those of any normal horse. This could be caused by our human interpretation of infant characteristics as adorable, docile or pretty (referred to as “pedomorphosis”). People also are a visual species so making eye contact a natural component in our response behavior. 

Likewise, there’s a tendency to sculpt eyes bulging out of their sockets, usually to create the “big buggy eye” often thought appealing (especially in Arabian circles). However, this feature can indicate hypothyroidism or Anterior Segment Dysgenesis (ASD) in a real horse, so isn't necessarily a good thing to mimic. 

In reality, a “large eye” doesn’t mean larger than normal, simply not smaller than normal. The orbs of all the breeds are of similar size, and it’s the conformational differences in cranial and fleshy formation that makes certain lineages appear to have a “larger” or “smaller” eye. For example, the smaller stature and thus smaller head of the Arabian appears to have a larger eye than the bigger Clydesdale, but the fact is their eyes are really about the same size! This is why ponies appear to have even bigger eyesit's their smaller head that causes this effect.

[Note: A related issue is a forward-facing axis to an eye’s sculptural alignment. Oddly enough, some lineages of horses, especially Pasos, are developing more forward-facing eyes as people select for this humanized trait. Yet nature designed equine eyes to sit on the sides of the head to produce the necessary field of vision.]

A Long Neck

Some believe that a long neck is a benefit, with some going as far to claim a horse’s neck can never be too long. Yet it certainly can! This sentiment is born out of some fundamental misunderstandings of how a horse moves or what constitutes “good movement.” The fact is that a “short” necked horse is equally (if not more) athletic as a “long” necked horseit all depends on the horsemanship.

All horses only have seven neck vertebrae. So to add length, new neck vertebrae don’t magically appear, but each existing vertebra must elongate through progressive selection. This is how the giraffe acquired his long neckhe also has only seven neck vertebrae! What’s more, all the fleshy connections and mechanisms and all the nerve networks and impulses must elongate, but beyond what nature intended. In those animals bred with this paradigm, it’s no wonder that cervical dislocations, nerve damage, and back and neck problems have increased.

Additionally, the spine (of which the neck is a segment) is the last aspect of the equine skeleton to mature (i.e. for the growth plates to ossify), occurring around 6-7 years of age. However, in those lineages selectively bred for long necks (such as Saddlebreds, or to be very tall), this ossification of the spinal growth plates can take as long as 8 years.  

Boiled down, when the cervical chain is too long, athletic ability, suppleness (and eventually soundness) are actually compromised or impaired, not improved. Long-necked horses can also be difficult to ride and gather into bascule, having a tendency to avoid the bit (often due to back pain) and to “rubberneck,” (which shouldn’t be confused with being supple). This is probably why most horses with “nice long necks” tend to be unrideable, or remain in halter competition. There’s a good reason why a giraffe can’t do half the things a horse can do!

Biologically, a horse’s neck should be in balance with his body, and be integral to his biomechanics, balance and coordination. However, this balanced neck generally is far shorter in nature than what the ideal demands. It’s a good idea for an artist to study the neck lengths of ancestral types, or wild and feral types, to get a better understanding of what nature intended. Indeed, wild and feral horses typically achieve feats of agility, sure-footedness and coordination most show horses can only dream about! 

If a neck is a bit “too short” for our aesthetic taste, it’s not as tragic as we might think. Many people point to the short, thick necks of Mongolian ponies as a “clear illustration” of why a long neck is better. However, this is a misunderstanding of the neck biomechanics needed for riding by confusing three different structural issues. For riding, a “good” neck is defined by three separate characteristics: (1) Shape, (2) set, and (3) length. It’s the shape and set of the neck that play far more important roles in performance than length. This is why a short, arched neck with a mitbah is easier to ride than a long ewe-neck attached to a hammerhead. So a Mongolian pony’s neck isn’t “undesirable” (in Western terms) due to its length, but due to its shape and set.

[Note: Dr. Deb Bennett wrote a very clear discussion on the shape, set and length of the equine neck in her book, Principles of Conformation Analysis, Volume II.]

A Deep Dish

A prevailing misconception is that the Arabian “jibbah” creates room in the skull for more brain mass (or, alternately, to increase air intake). Predictably, the quest for the most “classic head,” with the deepest dish and the most pronounced jibbah has intensified each year. If you compare the Arabian profiles of ancestral desert bred photos to those of today, it’s clear the difference is significant. 

Under natural circumstances, many Arabians do have a dish created by the jibbahyet it usually has a more discrete design than often seen in the showring or artwork. This is because the jibbah actually evolved in a desert environment as a means to cool and add moisture to the hot, dry air to protect the sensitive inner tissues of the respiratory tract. Indeed, many desert animals have this very same construction to their head, suck as asses and donkeys. This means the jibbah is a function of the sinus, not the brain case (or breathing capacity). This is why Arabian horses used for sport tend to have “plainer” heads, whereas halter horses (in particular, the “lawn ornaments”)  tend to have “classic heads.” It does beg the question of which is the more responsible cranial structure, despite all the “buts” about beauty and type. In truth, the Arabian head should be similar to that of any other light breed, but with a slightly bulging forehead. Remember, the original use of the Arabian was that of a hardy, enduring performance marvel so to compromise that for the sake of more type seems to be a spurious decision. 

Because the reality is that an extreme profile can be a serious and painful lability for the animal. Why? For starters, it causes air swept into the sinus cavity to hit the delicate membranes at an abnormal angle, causing the tissues to inflame painfully and bleed. It also forces the roots of the upper molars to puncture the floor of the sinus cavity, resulting in various physical (such as “bleeders”) and behavioral problems (due to pain). It interferes with breathing, too, as wheezing has become more prevalently heard ring side of Arabian shows. Unfortunately, many of these animals cannot be used, and some even have to be euthanized. Often we can find their disfigured skulls as cautionary examples in many equine dentistry schools such as The Academy of Equine Dentistry in Glenns Ferry, Idaho. The walls of their meeting room are lined with "exotic-headed" Arabian skulls used as cautionary tales.

Unfortunately, however, because a “classic head” is considered so beautiful, it’s an obvious bonus to feature prominently in Arabian art. Not only does it take center stage, but it often becomes even more exaggerated as well, resulting in a depiction of Arabians with dolphin-like deformed domed foreheads and crushed nasal bones, with muzzles so small one wonders how the animal fares with the necessities of life. Which brings us to

A Fine Muzzle

A small, refined muzzle now constitutes “good breeding,” whereas a coarse, large muzzle tends to indicates "poor breeding." In particular, the Arabian ideal demands a “tea cup muzzle,” compelling breeders to produce horses with ever-smaller muzzles (some alarmingly small). As expected, this trend is mimicked in artwork (and often exaggerated), creating heads that seem to end in a point, like an ice cream cone. Yet a “tea cup muzzle” never meant a muzzle small enough to fit into a teacup, but one sensitive and delicate enough to sip from one.

Biologically, the entire evolutionary history of the equine can be defined by his head. Nature designed it in a functional way, with all the necessary means for sustenance existing in his muzzle: The intake of air, food and water. To do so effectively, he requires a muzzle of goodly size and proportion to his head and body mass. In short, there’s no such thing as a muzzle that’s “too big.” The equine head is purely functional—there's no ornamentation or accoutrements for battle, such as horns or antlers. It's a study of elegant biological economy for an animal dependent on running at high speed for some distance.

This is why an undersized muzzle can create biological complications, such as interference with the rooting of the teeth (compromising the ability to nip and chew food, or to hold the bit) and impeding the intake of oxygen by reducing the volume of the nasal passages. In large breeds, such as Sporthorses and draft horses, a small muzzle is particularly worrisome because these types require copious amounts of food to sustain their mass. When it comes to the equine design, a small muzzle most definitely isn't a bonus.

A Refined Head

Current ideals of animal beauty aren’t self-evident or timeless. More often, they are rooted in the past based on historical cultural or class prejudices, especially during the Victorian period, not necessarily what was  biologically sound for the animal. 

One such ideal is the comparatively small head. This was more a function of class system prejudice born in the Victorian 1800s rather than intelligent breeding. In the past, the common horse used by the working class had a heavy, large headand what upper class aristocrat would want to be seen with a “common horse”? As the horse switched emphasis from a utilitarian animal to that of sport and recreation (i.e. status), the desire for a smaller, “finer” head intensified. Horse paintings, which were the only means to glorify and immortalize prize animals before the advent of the camera, idealized horses with curiously small heads as an artistic expression of this underlying preference. Stubbs and Delacroix are good examples of this enforced stylization. Consequently, most common horses of today have smaller heads than those of yesteryear.

As expected, this visual has influenced the breeding shed for decades, which is why equine heads have been shrinking ever since. For example, compare historical photos of any ancestral types that established a “pure breed” and you’ll see they had larger heads. Indeed, analysis with calipers through Eadweard Muybridge’s book, Animals in Motion, gives a good illustration of the growing differences in head size between the “common” horse and the “purebred” horse during the 1800s (which also serves as a good illustration for natural back lengths, discussed shortly). Also, compare the heads of domestic horses to those of feral or wild counterparts and the distinction is even more pronounced. Susan McBane noted this trend in her book, Conformation for the Purpose, The Make, Shape and Performance of the Horse: “Domestic horses, however, nearly all have longer necks and smaller heads than their primitive ancestors because we have selectively bred for this characteristic of beauty” Indeed, we still hear this sentiment today, such as the Takh described as "coarse," or “primitive" largely in reference to his comparatively large, heavy head. 

Notwithstanding, evolution designed the equine head for things far more important than our arbitrary idea of beauty. It houses the massive batteries of teeth necessary for grinding up abrasive silica grasses, while also containing his only means for deriving sustenance of air, water, and food. His hearing and sight are housed in his head, as is his means for vocalization. Predictably then, serious complications can arise when a large body mass with high performance demands depends on a head that’s too small to accommodate these energy needs. Indeed, when the head shrinks, so do all these features needed for top performance. 

A realistic equine artist should also know that the equine head is integral to his biomechanics, in particular, his balance and coordination. It's a significant weight on the end of the neck, and so, by extension, the spine. For this reason, his head should be in balance to his body and more faithful to proportions informed by nature. To that end, artistic guidance can be found in ancestral types, or in wild and feral counterparts. 

It’s curious that other “ideal” physical distortions are present in those old paintings, as well, such as long necks, giant eyes, small muzzles, light bone, and small hooves, all in direct contradiction to the common man's working horse of that time. All are vestigial “ideals” mostly from the Victorian age in response to elitism which are still influencing breeding decisions today. Even the anatomically “correct” works of Stubbs are thus distortedhey, he could paint a totally realistic horse, but he had to sell paintings! His works, though technically inspiring, depict a Barbie-version of the horse.


There’s been a trend within some breeds, especially show horse types, of downplaying distinguishing features and adopting those of another breed as a means of "improvement." Ultimately, this results in a kind of homogenization that dampens the uniqueness of that given breed. For example, the Saddlebred influence on the breeding of Arabians or Morgans, or the “exotic” Arab-like heads on American Iberians or Quarter Horses. 

Shouldn’t each breed be celebrated for its unique features, which are often rich in history and culture to boot? Moreover, shouldn’t artists be “keepers of the grail” when short-term breeding fads threaten the physical distinctiveness of a breed? 

However, sometimes this homogenous effect can be inadvertently expressed in art as an artistic blind spot, such as a fixation on a particular phenotype that bleeds into all other phenotypes. For example, an artist enamored of round, squat pony types may infuse that “ponyness” in her depiction of other breeds creating pony-like Sporthorses, Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses or Shires. Again, this is where knowing the history and ancestral types of a breed are important in order to duplicate them with greater authenticity. Each breed is unique, and those special, distinctive qualities need to be preserved rather than presumed otherwise.

Breed Type

The concept of a “purebred” horse, with fixed, registrable bloodlines, isn’t how it’s always been. It’s actually relatively new to the species, a recent artifice born during the Victorian Era, in a cultural background notorious for class elitism and eugenics. For example, the oldest known registry is the English Jockey Club, formed 1752 as a means to ensure the horse that was registered to race would be the one actually racing. However, the idea caught on, and the Percheron Horse Association of America would follow suit in 1876. Then the idea really caught on as a marketing gimmick that played to the prevalent Victorian ideas of eugenics and Western European superiority over the rest of the world, even socioeconomic classes within Victorian society. Quite literally, having a “purebred” horse instead of an unregistered, common horse was akin to driving a Rolls Royce® instead of a used clunker.

Because previously, “purebreeds” didn’t exist. Instead, horses were classified in the context of land races. Also, they were usually bred according to their use, not their bloodline or breed type, such as for riding (including gaited), draft, stock, racing, carriage, etc. Sometimes “Farmer Bob” simply bred a distinctive type of horse for his own purposes. This meant horses were bred for a specific purpose, producing more realistic expectations from a specific phenotype. We buy certain automobiles to fit a specific need, don't we? W
e don’t buy a sports car when we need an SUV and we don’t buy a sedan when we need a utility truck. Horse breeding was approached in much the same way prior to the Victorian era because status as related to the horse had this very different dynamic. 

However, when the engine replaced the horse, his role changed entirely. He found new value in sport and recreation (i.e. status-based activities), which threw open the doors even wider for the concept of “purebreed” to flourish. With its elite closed books, glamorized mythologies (which often were fabricated) and distinctive “points of type" (a marketing gimmick), a kind of war-between-the-breeds was fueled, as each vied for market dominance. In other words, “purebreed” rhetoric and mythology became marketing ploys to the growing business of selling "purebreds."  

One byproduct was the fixed “points of type” gaining increased importance as a kind of breed advertising, pressuring it to override functional structure, or making it vulnerable to fashion or exaggeration. Closed registry books also fixed the gene pool, which not only jeopardized genetic diversity, but also forced a single phenotype once bred for a specific purpose now to be applied to multiple uses to prevail in a show-oriented market. Truly, some breeds have become so diversified or changed that many lineages are unrecognizable from the foundation stock. The end result tends to be a degeneration of the original phenotype that had gained so much fame for its functionality in the first place. In fact, the deterioration of foundation archetypes has become so troublesome in some breeds that “preservation breeding” is a buzzword.

Perhaps the most unfortunate byproduct is the creation of living “lawn ornaments,” or those specimens so deformed by the intense application of breed type that they cannot function soundly. This isn’t to say that all change is wrong. There is an inherent responsibility in any domestic breeding programit’s called “animal husbandry” for a reasonand one of the duties is to ensure the perpetuation of a gene pool into the future. It does seem, though, that the duty applied to horses has gotten off-track with many breeds.

What does all this mean for an artist? Boiled down, it’s probably a good idea not to take a registry’s rhetoric or a breed’s mythology at face value. Being familiar with a breed’s objective history before it became fixed by the concept of “pure bloodline” is a good balance for making informed decisions in the studio. 

A Short Back

Many conformation books state that a “short back” is a positive attribute. Again, that ideal has been taken to extremes in the show ring—and thus artto create a visual of an abnormally short back. For example, to accentuate the abusive “Big Lick” movement, selective breeding in some Tennessee Walker lines has created backs so short, the animals resemble hyenas. 

Likewise, the short back phenomenon finds the most extreme expression in artwork. Either through an artistic blind spot, an exaggeration of breed type, or an inferior method for measuring proportion, many sculptures depict backs so short one wonders where the saddle is supposed to fit if it were a real horse. Of particular concern are mare sculptures with short backs because, in life, this gender requires roomy torsos for pregnancy. There’s an important biological reason why mares appear more “rectangular,” or “lower to the ground” compared to stallions. 

The natural equine back is far longer than what most people realize, which quickly is revealed by a deft use of calipers. Some breeds, such as drafters and carriage types, have even longer backs, being an animal used for pulling more than for riding. The idea of an equine back that’s “too long” is a human concept, probably a byproduct of riding theory. Still, “good” motion can become just as stiff and uncoordinated if the back is too short just as if it were “too long." More importantly, though, it reduces room for the the viscera, which can compromise the animal’s health. 

Fine Bone

We’ve all heard the conformational ideal of “fine, refined bone.” Over time, this ideal has been misinterpreted to mean slender cannons and small joints, which is why many show breeds have been losing substance steadily over the decades such as Arabians, Quarter Horeses, Morgans, and Saddlebreds. Cannons also have been getting longer, especially in the foreleg, and joints have been getting smaller. As expected, many artists employ this visual, even exaggerating it, to create sculptures that appear to be careening on stilts rather than viable legs.

In reality, the ideal of “fine, refined bone” means a clean-legged, or crisp topography to the leg’s fleshy and boney structures, meaning that it’s free of faults or pathology that could impair soundness. It has nothing to do with the circumference or length of the cannon! In fact, a big-boned draft horse can have “fine, refined bone,” too.

Statistically, a horse should have a cannon bone of normal (or short) length and with at least seven to eight inches of circumference per 1,000 lb. of body mass, regardless of breed. This ratio easily can be gauged in the studio using proportional measurements. But this is why Arabians are reported to have been so sound—they simply had more bone per their total mass, being smaller in size to say, a Thoroughbred or Warmblood. It wasn't because their bone is denser either—they have normal density for their mass. Horses tend to lose bone density with size, so a Thoroughbred, Warmblood or drafter has less bone density only because of their size, not because of their breed. For this reason, ponies are notorious for their soundness only because they have ample bone and normal bone density for their mass.

Straight Legs

A common phrase in conformation books is, “The legs should be straight.” But what does this mean? It's indeed true, given the meaning hasn’t been misconstrued, yet this is precisely what tends to happen, especially in America.

It’s fair to say that Americans have largely forgotten how to breed a correct straight foreleg. Calf-knees are now the norm because they do appear “more straight” compared to a correct alignment, which appears “over at the knee” to most. In other words, “straight” leg now is interpreted literally rather than within context to equine biomechanics. Artists easily fall prey to this misinterpretation, as the plethora of calf-kneed sculptures testify.

A correct “straight” foreleg has a radius aligned to the carpals at 90˚, with the carpal layers evenly stacked and aligned onto the top of the cannon. This 90˚ should be consistent down the leg, roughly forming a straight line that bisects the entire boney leg column from the external tuberosity of the radius, through the radius, through the carpals, and through the metacarpal.

[Note: We shouldn't confuse a correct foreleg with one that’s genuinely “over at the knee.” This is the result of an injury to the check ligaments, allowing the carpus to buckle forwards. Also, a properly aligned foreleg can assume the appearance of a calf-knee under extreme stress, often seen in racing stills.]

The hind legs also have their own version of this fallacy. We’ve probably read in many conformation books and registry standards the need for straight hind legs when seen from behind, with myriad diagrams depicting hind legs with toes facing forwards when standing square as “correct.” However, like with the forelegs, the concept of a “straight" hind leg has become confused, mostly in America, into a literal meaning. In reality, this kind of “straight” actually depicts a kind of bow-leggedness! This is why horses with these “straight” legs produce an odd wobbly, outward “hock popping” motion when moving, which can lead to reoccurring lameness.

Instead, nature designed the equine hind limb to have an outward rotation, so that the toe points outwards when in stance, with the cannons still parallel to each other. This aligns the entire hind limb, from the stifle to the toe, on an outward rotation, which allows equine biomechanics to function properly and ensure sound motion. Remember, the posterior of the equine barrel is wide, and the stifles must move around its outer perimeter for forward flexion and extension. Yet a forward-facing plane interferes with this motion, which is why such horses often have inferior motion compared to those with natural alignment. Yet it’s this natural alignment that typically is confused with cow-hocks, and so becomes interpreted as a fault.

Artists should be highly skeptical of the conformational “ideals," particularly with the legs. Much has become misunderstood or skewed by fashion, since function too often is removed from form nowadays.

Hoof Size

Breeding for smaller feet within the halter agenda of certain breed circles has been the fashion for some time. Perhaps smaller feet make the body look bigger (such as with Quarter Horses) or make the legs appear more refined (such as with Arabians), though it’s difficult to find a concrete answer as the primary reason. The trend has entered into artwork, of course, often resulting in sculptures with feet so small they appear to walk en pointe in ballet shoes. 

To remain sound, it’s essential for a horse to have feet proportional to his mass. Equines are a species based on motion, and every aspect of their biology is dependent on motion in order for them to grow and function properly, and included in that equation is foot size.

Previously, identifying a foot that was “too small” was more a visual exercise, but now we have a real measurement even artists can use. The equation can be calculated on a calculator, as follows: 
  • Measure the circumference at the hairline, right below the coronary band (in inches). 
  • Multiply the horse’s weight (in pounds) by 12.56 and hit the “equals” sign. 
  • Divide this first number by hairline measurement (in inches) and hit the “equals” sign.
  • Divide this number again by the hairline measurement (in inches) and hit the “equals” sign. The answer should be between 68 and 78. If the number is higher than this range, the horse’s mass (or the sculpture’s depicted mass) is too much for the feet.
  • Or as the equation: (12.56 x W) ÷ C2 = R

The sum (R) is the ratio of the body size to foot size, described in pounds per square inch. In results, (R) should amount to no more than 78, or 78 pounds per square inch, the maximum loading for an average performance horse. Statistically, ratios higher than 78, particularly those higher than 83, tend to develop lameness issues. Scale this down, and an artist can use this ratio by estimating how many inches the sculpted coronets are and then estimating the weight of the the depicted sculpted horse if alive, and then plugging the numbers into the equation.

Hoof Shape 

The long toe-low heel (LT-LH) hoof trim has been standard practice in many sports disciplines in the belief it increases speed or gait quality by lengthening stride. Because this trim is ubiquitous and proponents are quite vocal about its purported benefits relating to performance, many artists fall into the trap of simply sculpting what they see without objective understanding. Yet the shape of the hoof is of critical importance to soundness, with very little room to fudge structure. For an in-depth discussion on the quality of the feet, please refer to my twelve part series, Steppin' Out: Hooves From An Artistic Perspective.

Likewise some artists have adopted this LT-LH structure in their sculptures in crisp detail, perpetuating this harmful shape. But the truth is a healthy foot looks radically different, with a short toe and rounded edges (again refer to my hoof series "Steppin' Out" for more information).

Quality Horsemanship

Artists sometimes need to be part psychologist to tease out how human bias can influence ideals. For example, people are inclined to have a “more is better” attitude. This tendency drives people to “improve” ideals by separating them from their causal mechanics and magnifying them through gimmicks, contraptions, or shortcuts. In particular, when this behavior is applied to something as complex, nuanced and interdependent as the underpinnings of horsemanship, those underpinnings usually are forgotten, and the gimmicks become the "correct" way of doing things. For instance, this is how the distortions of set-tails, Broken Neck Syndrome, and rollkur have replaced what would have been offered by a happy horse through proper horsemanship. 

People also have a tendency to “idol worship” and, in so doing, forget the truths that created the ideal in the first place. As a result, it's replaced by something false, often wholly artificial and forced, and sometimes abusive. In this way, aspects natural to the horse become transformed into artificial extremes that require unnatural, often forceful, practices to produce. This is how the “Big Lick” overtook the natural gait of the Walker, and how false collection now dominates the dressage arena.

Consequently, it’s a good idea to keep context in mind when choosing how to portray our subject matter. A useful rule-of-thumb is this: If a horse requires artificial contrivances, misinterpretations, or force to produce a look or motion, it’s good to question whether it’s appropriate to validate in art work. 

In Frame

Which brings us to "frame riding." The ideal of a “proper frame” that produces collection has become entrenched in modern riding based on its claim that how the head is carried contributes to, even creates, self carriage. The inevitable result is “push-pull” riding, wherein the horse is “pushed” with the rider’s leg into the fixed bit and “pulled” into the desired head position, thenvoila!we have collection. If the horse doesn’t respond, the solution is to initiate more forward motion and more pulling on his head. Indeed, we may remember a riding instructor bark to us, “Push him harder and hold himhold him!,” as horse and rider go ever-faster and more out of control around the arena (and how tired their arms and back are afterwards). What this actually does is cause physical and mental trauma to the horse, and that's definitely not self carriage.

For one, it forces the horse into a crooked spinal alignment to protect himself by bracing his poll, loins, spine and ribcage. This stiffens his entire body and even locks specific places (such as his jaw and loins), which not only causes him pain and cumulative damage, but also can be frightening by essentially trapping him. It’s no wonder why equine body working has boomed in past years! It’s also why foaming mouths, teeth grinding, wry tails and general unsoundness are so common. Nonetheless, to untrained eyes these animals appear collected, and so the unfortunate cycle continues.

The frame theory essentially was a “fast food” repackaging of the principles of collection as a means to sell it wholesale to a largely uneducated riding public fixated on winning a ribbon rather than genuine horsemanship. It's a dumbed-down regime, and so much so as to be wholly incorrect, demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of the biomechanics of collection. Predictably, the frame paradigm sprouted various more missteps as competitors resorted to ever more desperate measures to mimic cheaply what should have been done honestly. This is how rollkur has infiltrated the dressage world, for example.

The fact is head carriage is just a byproduct of collection, not the means to produce it. This means that no matter how a rider cranks the head or “reminds” the horse with bit-jerking, genuine self-carriage will never be achievedonly a cheap facsimile will be expressed. A horse in true self-carriage naturally assumes the desired head carriage on his own, as an inevitable mechanical consequence of bascule. This is because collection is a posture the horse assumes on his own, and maintains with each step, that remains even on a loose rein.

In truth, collection begins in the spine, starting with the coiling of the loins to raise the back (“or rounding the back”). This raises the base of the neck, compelling the cervical chain to arch and “telescope” to drop the head at the poll like a plumb into the desired vertical position (which only can be achieved with a passive rein, otherwise the entire process can be shut down by defensive responses by the horse). Also, this rounding of the spine reinstates the necessary anatomical gentle arch of the spinal column, allowing the horse to essentially carry the rider efficiently. This is why kissing spines don't appear in horses taught to carry their rider thusly. [Nearly all skeletal depictions of horses are wrong by illustrating a straight spine; the natural orientation is a slight arch.]

And contrary to popular belief, the poll doesn’t have to be the highest point to “be on the bit.” As long as the base of neck is raised and the cervical chain and spine are arched and the throat open, the head can be guided in any position and still be “on the bit.”

A horse in true self-carriage is unmistakable. His motion floats across the ground with strides of such ease, suppleness, energy, agility and lightness, that he appears ungoverned by gravity. Perhaps most importantly, his eyes sparklehe’s joyful! This is because collection isn’t just the proper way to ride, it’s a form of equine therapy. It’s a remedial posture necessary for a horse to carry a rider comfortably and soundly by reinstating that natural arch to his spine, which allows him to rely again on his passive dorsal rebound system. This makes motion easy, comfortable, safe and energy efficient. 

In contrast, false collection is exhausting and injurious. We’ll find such a horse plodding along on the forehand, with a lumbering, lifeless stride and the appearance of being braced or “weighted down." Or conversely, he may move with excessive "popping" up and down of the forehand as he bounces rather that demonstrates true impulsion. What’s more, his face usually looks resigned or pinched, and he may froth at the mouth or exhibit other body language that reveals inner stress (the froth is created by an agitating tongue, not by a “wet mouth”). Biomechanically, false collection shuts down the passive dorsal rebound system, thereby affecting his overall biomechanics in significant ways, which is why falsely collected horses tend to be clumsy, uncoordinated, and prone to injury.

Another symptom of false collection is “Broken Neck Syndrome (or “Double Hinged Neck” in Morgan circles). This is caused when the base of the neck isn’t lifted, but the head is “pulled” into position with the reins (or contraptions), compelling the animal to brace his poll and neck muscles defensively which causes his neck to flex not at the poll, but between the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae, with a telltale kink in the crest overlying this joint, making his neck appear “double-hinged.” The rest of the neck muscles look braced, especially the cervical serrati, as he continues to defend himself. Not only is this articulation painful, but it also closes his throat and locks his jaw. There’s a sad reason why horses held in this position often produce a gruntly wet sounds, sometimes with their tongue sticking out and a panicked look on their faces: They’re choking! A horse doesn’t naturally articulate his neck this way unless taught, and once learned it becomes difficult to reverse. 


It's commonly held that how an animal is built can “predetermine” whether he’s suitable for collection or not, paving the way for a host of untruths about which breeds or types are better, or more "suitable," at dressage or just basic riding. This is one of the reasons why non-Warmblood breeds find prejudicial treatment in the competitive dressage world, which largely has forgotten the true meaning and application of dressage, or “dressing a horse.” If this weren’t true, shouldn’t competitors instead be using “poorly conformed” horses for competition to show off their true horsemanship prowess?

An artist should understand that because collection is a biomechanical postureit’s consistent with all breeds and all conformation. All horses can do all horse movements because they share the same anatomical blueprint. That means all equines can attain self-carriage and do all the prescribed movements dressage or haute ecole requires. There's no reason why a Shetland can't piaffe or a Belgian can't passage. The truth is the idea of “suitability” is a prejudicial myth that’s more a function of marketing propaganda to sell a certain type of horse. Because it's just a matter of style, isn't it? Yessome structures lead to different kinds of motion, but that's more about style than "suitability." Prejudice based on this is a function of fashion, not fact. And how relevant is that when it comes to genuine horsemanship?  So don't be afraid to challenge convention! We can be advocates for the horse rather than pander to peoples' capricious notions.


We artists weaken our credibility when we accept the imposed ideals of perfection for our work without thinking. We need to regard this animal within the context of his biological underpinnings first, and our conceptions of beauty second. And we have a unique giftwe can circumvent these dilemmas found in the show world altogether, to portray our subject in deeper and less objectified ways. It is possible to sculpt more Mona Lisas when we better recognize the potential of Barbie-fying our work.

That said however, what each of us chooses to do with our art work is our own choice. Ultimately, however, being aware and informed offers an opportunity to make honest decisions by avoiding all the detours that could diminish our sculptures. In this way, our work gains more authority and authenticity, amplifying the depth of our portfolio.

Delving deeper into our artistic motivations by challenging the dominant ideals of perfection also allows introspective moments to renew our commitment and admiration for this noble animal. In the end, our work will represent advocacy for our subject rather than unaware mimicking of what we see in life. Plus, promoting healthy visuals can help further the efforts of those who also endeavor to breed and use the animal in ways consistent to his biology, in ways more faithful to his well-being. As such, our work can become elevated above some of the distortions and misinterpretations too often found in the horse world today—and that's a very good thing.

Recommended Resources
PRINCIPLES OF CONFORMATION ANALYSIS-VOL. I-III, Deb Bennett. 1992. Fleet Street Publishing Corp., 656 Quince Orchard Rd., Gaithersburg, MD  20878. Available from Equine Studies Institute, PO Box 411, Livingston, CA 95334. For more information:
HORSE GAITS, BALANCE AND MOVEMENT: THE NATURAL MECHANICS OF MOVEMENT COMMON TO ALL BREEDS, Susan E. Harris. 1993.  Howell Book House, Macmillian Publishing Co., 866 Third Ave., NY, NY 10022. ISBN: 0-87605-955-8
MAKING NATURAL HOOF CARE WORK FOR YOU, Pete Ramey, 2003. Star Ridge Publishing. ISBN: 0-9658007-7-6
HORSES IN ACTION: A Study of Conformation, Movement and the Causes of Spinal Stress, R.H. Smythe, M.R.C.V.S., 1963, Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Springfield, Illinois. 
CONFORMATION FOR THE PURPOSE, Susan McBane, 2000, Swan Hill Press, 101 Longden Road, Shrewsbury, SY3 9EB, England. ISBN: 1-84037-052-1
BRED FOR PERFECTION; SHORTHORN CATTLE, COLLIES AND ARABIAN HORSES SINCE 1800, Margaret E. Derry. 2003. The John Hopkins University Press, 2715 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218. ISBN: 0-8018-7344-4.
ANIMALS IN MOTION, Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Dover Publications, Inc. (1957), 31 East 2nd Stree, Mineola, NY 11501. ISBN: 0-486-20203-8.


THE INNER HORSEMAN, Equine Studies Institute, PO Box 411, Livingston, CA 95334. You must be a member to receive the newsletter. For more information:


"I must take responsibility for my work. That word may be grandiose, but there's an ethic involved in creation." ~ Cecilia Davis Cunningham

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