Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Equine Anatomy and Biomechanics: A Primer of Equine Engineering Part I, Overview

A page from the popular "Ellenberger book," a must-have for the realistic equine sculptor.


A bit ago, we explored some basic equine anatomy and biomechanics topics. It was a simple primer to wet the appetite, so how 'bout we get something heftier to chew on? Let's go beyond the amuse-bouche and chow on the entree!

This seventeen part series will explore some more advanced topics regarding equine anatomy, those the intermediate learner would find interesting. Because of this, the writing is more technical and the concepts are more interdisciplinary, so be ready for tangents and more in-depth discussions.

As we learn more about the subject, it becomes clear just what a masterpiece of bioengineering is the equine. Truly, there's no other animal quite like him—he's unique in his combination of beauty, athleticism, agility, power, endurance, intelligence, trainability, and speed. He's perfect. Absolutely perfect. Indeed, there's no other large herbivore that can match his qualities, and to think he does it all on four single-toed hooves. Amazing! He's one of the last of his family, one which was uncountably vast in the past but today has diminished to only a handful of species. He's a treasure from ancient times, something to revere and hold in awe. This animal, this perfect archaic creature, has survived the eons to become an integral part of a new species—us! 

So let's get to the good stuff!...


Anatomy is the physical engineering of the animal and biomechanics is the kinetic expression of that engineering. These two elements are the primary components of a convincing realistic equine sculpture. Without technical accuracy in these, our sculpture will have errors in realism, or if the features are skewed enough, we won't be portraying a horse at all. This is why anatomy and biomechanics are our first priorities when creating realistic equine art.

Anatomy and biomechanics are often confused with conformationthis is an error. While they share some overlapping issues, that doesn't mean they're synonymous. Really, they're quite different. Succinctly put, anatomy and biomechanics are the result of equine evolution; they define the genus as EquusAn equine moves like an equine and not like a gnu, elephant, or cat because he's built like an equine. So despite breed, type, or conditioning, an equine is an equine due to this unique anatomical blueprint. Indeed, the anatomy and biomechanics of a Clydesdale, Morgan, Paso and Dartmoor Pony are the same; they look and move like equines because of their shared blueprint. Think of it this way—it's true for us as well. Look around: there exists a diverse spectrum of shapes, sizes, colors, builds, and races, yet we are all homo sapien. Well, the same is true for equines.

In contrast, conformation pertains to the superficial variations of the anatomical blueprint that determine a breed, type, or style of motion. In other words, it's that which is manipulated by people to suit a purpose or aesthetic. And despite selective breeding, we cannot change the intrinsic qualities that define the blueprint; otherwise the animal ceases to be an equine.

What does this mean? It means that anatomy and biomechanics are the foundation of equine realism. It also means that conformation is merely one layer we stack onto that foundation. Other layers may be expression, color or pattern, or composition and design, etc. But it also means that a sculpture can be beautifully conformed and have exceptional breed type, but still be unrealistic because of errors in technical anatomy. On the other hand, if we create a technically accurate piece with conformation faults, we've still created a realistic piece simply because this occurs in life with horses. So because anatomy and biomechanics are so intrinsic to equine realism, an artist working in the field needs to have an expansive understanding of them.

For this reason, this blog series provides a basic overview of the general principles of anatomy and biomechanics. Primarily, it will addresses basic skeletal structure, joint function, biomechanics and common problem areas typically seen in sculptures. However, inventories of muscles and other flesh are very basic, not delving into all of them or detailing their originations or insertions. Subsequently, it's highly encouraged to dive into proactive research to gain a deeper understanding of equine structure and motion.

Now when it comes to anatomical references, understand that different references often identify anatomical points by different names. Each dissection is an individual person trying to make sense of organic nature, and that often means there are differences in interpretation and naming. As such, a good mental image of the anatomical bits themselves is more important than knowing their names. Not only does this help our process better, but it also helps us to identify specific structures across different resources, too. 

Life study and field work are enthusiastically encouraged as well. “Booksmarts” is useful, but limited in its scope and depth. Booksmarts married with intent life study married with a hands-on approach tends to be the best route for revealing the nuances and truths about equine anatomy and biomechanics...and character! Don't forget about his nature and quirky personality! And above all, life study reminds us that the animal himself is the very best teacher and guide. 

As for the anatomical structures themselves, each one is broken down into six segments:
  1. A general description of the skeletal structure.
  2. A brief inventory of the major muscles of the area (not all).
  3. The biomechanics of the area.
  4. Key landmarks and topographical points.
  5. A discussion of artistic things to consider about the area.
  6. A discussion of the common artistic faults of said area. 
The last two points are unique to equine art since they evaluate the creations of human hands, not the product of equine DNA. It's a very different thing to gauge what's going on between a realistic equine sculpture and a real, living horse. The issues of artistic technique, media, creative skill, scale, the Five Ps, technical anatomy, DABPPRR, correct biomechanics, accurate color and patterning, the spectrum of realism, a living "soul," etc. all come into play. And the list goes on and on. 

That means entire subjects that are essential for judging sculptures are omitted entirely from judging real horses. For instance, those who judge real horses can take the very things for granted that are critical for equine realism: anatomy, biomechanics, and color genetics. No real horse judge will have to determine if the internal tuberosity of the left radius is present and correctly structured and oriented, for example, because it's already so on the living animal. Likewise, no real horse judge will need to decide if the mapping on pintos has in-scale mottling and ticking because it's already so on the real pintos being evaluated.

And this is just the tip of the ice berg. But this is how we get into trouble when we think we're judging realistic equine sculpture as real horses. That's because if we judge them like so, all we'd consider is conformation, breed type, accepted color or pattern, and preferred motion because that's all a real horse judge evaluates. But realistic equine sculpture entails so much more.  

This is precisely why our knowledge base must be so much deeper, more expansive, and much more interdisciplinary that just about any real horse judge. We simply have more to juggle with our creative determinations. And this is also why our learning should never stop. Science is continually learning fascinating new things about equine structure, movement, and color genetics, and to fall behind in this regard is to do our art a disservice. The moment we believe we "know enough," or "I've always done it this way," is the moment we've chosen an artistic plateau over innovation. And that's a dangerous trap. 

Conclusion to Part I

It's hoped that this series inspires proactive research and study into the technical aspects of equine structure and movement to not only heighten our understanding of such things, but to gain a new appreciation for this marvel of bioengineering we so love. There really is so much more to a horse than many people realize! And once we come to understand his technical structure, we also gain a peek into his evolutionary history, something ripe with fascinating tidbits! Then when we understand his evolutionary past, we finally have the last piece of the puzzle to see the full breadth of his body, psyche, and movement. We finally know the why.

So for this reason, this series includes an overview of his evolution as well, which we'll get to in Part V. We simply cannot fully understand his anatomy and biomechanics (or psyche) without some grasp of this. Yet it's precisely this that so many people have an incomplete understanding of, and so they miss out on the full scope this animal can teach us.

But back to Part II—next week
here we'll familiarize ourselves with some typical anatomical terminology so we understand them better for anatomical study. It's always handy to know.

So until next time...prepare your noggin for anatomical mayhem!

"Today's accomplishments are merely yesterday's impossibilities."

~ Robert H. Schullerd

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