Sunday, December 31, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 15


Here we are again, back with more artistic considerations. There's a tremendous amount to weigh when we sculpt an equine head. It's not simply a matter of duplicating what we see! Nope! In reality, there's a whole slew of things we have to juggle if we hope to recreate both an accurate and accountable version. But accountable to what? To the equine, of course! This animal is so routinely objectified, we may no longer be aware of it anymore. What's more, these objectified ideals aren't always informed by his evolutionary biology. This suggests that we cannot shape his head any which way we like because there may be ethical obligations we need to consider. We need to remember that the equine head is the product of pure function with no consideration for our fickle ideas about beauty and perfection—yet look how perfectly beautiful function turned out to be!

But in relation to that, we have to regard the head from an artistic point of view, too—in equine realism, illusion informs fact and fact informs illusion. That's to say we use facts to create a convincing illusion of a real horse, and to do so we need the knowledge to shape our clay plus the practical skill to actually do it accurately. Our sculpting tool is only as effective as the knowledge that guides it—but just the same—our knowledge is only as useful as the tool that expresses it! Knowledge and technique—they may be different ways of looking at our subject but, nevertheless, both are needed for a convincing "breathing" illusion. This is why paying special attention to improve each independently and symbiotically really helps us grow artistically. So let's continue our artistic exploration, starting with the eyes!…

Other Artistic Considerations: Part 2

The eyes are often difficult to sculpt owing to their distinctive angles and orientation on the skull plus their fleshy features and potential for expression make a complicated feature even more so. The upper lid and brows are highly expressive by being drawn up to the forehead. While the lower lid is less mobile it can, nevertheless, still deepen its curve to appear more “doe–eyed,” "big–eyed," alert, “wide–eyed,” or gentle. Together then, the lids can open large and round with happy interest or be squinty with distaste or anger, or to shade the eye from the sun or wind. In turn, the bony zygomatics can be quite pronounced or more rounded and generalized, depending on individual variation or age. The brows can also be similarly more pronounced or less so often depending on individual variation. Sometimes the nature of the brows can be breed–specific, too. For example, the "toad eyes" on Exmoor ponies or the "snake eyes" on Tekes. What's more, the muscles of the forehead can become more defined or "pooch" based on his expression and mood, sometimes becoming more chiseled with concern or excitement. Those muscles may even be meatier by nature such as on stallions or many muscular stock breeds. However, keep in mind that the nature of the eye can vary a bit among individuals or breeds, so use good reference photos and do field study. 

As for the nostrils, they can be a bit fiddly to sculpt, too, owing to their mobility and fleshy nature. Honestly, what makes them so appealing is also what makes them so tricky! For instance, their high flexibility, of being able to expand greatly or change shape, or even orientation in relation to each other, can be a delicate balance of form, size, and angle. Yet we need to get them right since they add a lovely visual line to the end of the muzzle and instill a sense of living vitality. As for the front rim, which is cartilage, it’s rounded, strongly shaped, and bulbous, especially at the top where it meets the posterior rim at the “V.” When seen from the front, also note the network of wrinkles between the paired comma cartilages, wrinkles which often crisscross in a checkerboard pattern when relaxed or deeper upright ones when the nostrils are flared. And notice the delicate wrinkles often found around the lateral, back rim. When flared, these comma cartilages are pulled together more (seen from the front), narrowing the space between them and causing more pronounced wrinkling, crinkling, pock marking, and buckling. When pulled together this way, they can even lift up, causing a subtle ridge on the top of the muzzle, above about where they curve downward. More still, the outer rim, which is fleshy, can be rather thin and fine (often on hot bloods) or thicker and fleshier (often on warm or cold bloods). When flared, the false nostril can also billow upwards, creating an elevated flute with the top of the nasal bone and lifting the “V” upwards, above the surface of the muzzle. The true nostril also doesn’t always billow as an even puffed–up triangular flute, but also can as a series of complex curves, bulges, and depressions consistent with the overlaying fleshy connections. For this reason, it’s a mistake to sculpt a flared nostril as a solid, evenly–expanded triangular flute every time. Being highly pliable, too, nostrils can also markedly change shape and size, even able to be slightly twisted or lifted up on the end of the muzzle. Indeed, when we compare the nostrils between rest, expression, mobility, and dilation, we can see pronounced changes. Being so, nostril activity can be rather subtle and delicate or outright explosive and intense. Like when a horse “snorts and blows,” we can see how the nostril’s shape changes quite distinctively, or how a mere twitch, quiver, or dilation can make a big difference. That’s because horses don’t use their nostrils just to breath, but to communicate as well, or scent the air, clear the nasal passages, shut off the airway, or express their mood. And like the eyes, whiskers adorn the nostrils, and when shaved, leave their correlating fleshy whisker bumps that add essential details for sculpture. For all these reasons then, field study is very helpful since nostrils are so textured and variable.  

The muzzle can also be a complicated area to sculpt owing to its subtle curves, flexibility, and individual or breed variation. The nostrils form its anterior dorsal aspect, shaping the profile depending on their nature while the boxy upper lip adds a distinct blunted bulb at the end of the muzzle with the lower lip usually adding a rounded rim below it, and finally ending at the chin which can be of varying shapes and sizes depending on breed, individual variation, or age. For example, foal faces may have nearly nonexistent chins, having instead a larger, pouty lower lip. What’s more, since the muzzle is so flexible, mobile, and expressive, it's very quirky and changeable with circumstance or mood. For example, it might twitch or the lower lip might bob up and down, or might even become pendulous and droopy if he’s relaxed or dozing off. On the other hand, the muzzle can become tense, stiff, and pooched (often with a “pooky” upper lip) when he’s angry, anxious, excited, pugnacious, or stressed, and often with a pinched chin that can pooch and distort in nearly any direction. His muzzle might even be tweaky with mobile lips if he’s feeling goofy and silly. Muzzles also vary with breed such as the neat, dainty, "dry" muzzle of the Arabian compared to the boxier, blunter, meatier muzzle of the Quarter Horse to the larger, less defined fleshy muzzle of the Clydesdale. Muzzles also vary with each individual, lending plenty of options for our clay. Yet the one thing we should notice is its texture from its fleshy, elastic, warm–velvety–soft nature to the wrinkled, crinkled, folded, bumpy, buckled, pock marked, and whisker bump fleshy surface. The chin can even become crinkled and pock marked as it's tensed and pinched. Indeed, muzzles are irresistibly tempting to touch so we need to capture that in our clay to really set off our sculpture. Indeed, a common misstep is to sculpt the muzzle with little consideration for its texture, fleshiness, and variability.

As for the mouth, we should pay special attention to the structural relationships between the lips. The anterior portion of the top lip is blunt with a boxy, nearly prehensile portion, sometimes with a depression in the middle. It’s also often narrower in front than at the corners of the mouth where it’s often wider, in contrast to the lower lip which tends to be broader and squared at the front, rounded and bulbous, becoming narrower at the corners of the mouth, almost like being an inverse of the upper lip. However, this contrast is less pronounced or nonexistent in many horses, forming lips of more or less equal protrusion, so it all depends on the individual. Even so, the lower lip can lay below the end of the upper lip, or even protrude beyond it in a pout, something often found with foals, relaxed horses, or horses with particularly fleshy muzzles. As for those mouth corners, notice how the upper lip curves around and can slightly overlap the corner of the lower lip just a snidge at times? Also note that when the mouth is opened, the lower and upper lips aren’t abrupt sheets of flesh inside the mouth (like our mouths), but are folded inwards, particularly at the corners, creating inward flaps. Being so stretchy, the lips are also often wrinkled to varying degrees depending on the individual. Also notice the texture between the upper lip rim and the nostrils, on the sides of the head. That area can have all sorts of fun things to sculpt! Adding to it all, his lips are also very expressive, indicating his mood and emotional state, able to be loosened, slack, twitched, tensed, pinched, pooched, twisted, undulating, or stretched. The lips also serve as his “hand” to explore and investigate, often seen when he “mouths” objects, or when he grasps and gathers food into his mouth with great precision.

When considering his head, we also have to account for age since as the years go by, his head changes, too. For example, foal heads are distinctly different because they lack the cranial and muscular development of an adult. Remember, these are the heads of infants and equines definitely have neotenous characteristics. That means foal heads aren’t smaller or bonier versions of adult heads, but distinctly different due to these infant characteristics. As a result, their structures are rounder, softer, more generalized and less pronounced. And because they lack the distinct bony development of an adult, teardrop bones, nasal bones, zygomatics, and orbital development are less pronounced, appearing flatter, rounder, less distinct, more delicate, and softer. Think of less distinct angles and protrusions, and generalized “filled in” cranial structure. Indeed, few features on a foal head are abrupt, pronounced or harsh. The actual shape of the cranium is markedly different from an adult as well, often with foreheads that are softly broad, domed, and sometimes bulging, and are more rectangular from the side, with immature, underdeveloped mandibles (jaws and bars) and undeveloped jaw musculature. Remember they’re still drinking their mother’s milk and don’t need to do all that chewing just yet. From the front then, foal heads are more softly diamond–shaped than an adult’s more rectangular shape owing to the foals underdeveloped mandible and lower maxilla. And remember that foals don’t have adult teeth, but “milk teeth,” a detail necessary for a foal sculpture with an open mouth. On certain breeds, too, the convex or concave nature of the head axis will be present even at infancy, sometimes markedly so. Their cranial muscles also tend to be more generalized and less obvious, though there are always exceptions, most notably with Arabian or Teke foals who can have relatively “dry” heads even at a young age. Nonetheless, foal eyes tend to be proportionally larger, and located more towards the muzzle than in the adult, or rather, foal heads tend to be shorter between the eye and the nostril. The brows are also softer and less distinct. Similarly, when compared to the rest of the head, the ears are often proportionally bigger as well. Muzzles tend to be smaller, more dainty, and neater in comparison, too, owing to the immature milk teeth, with much less pronounced upper lips, and with delicate, little nostrils. Their lower lips also tend to be bigger, bulbous, and pouty in relation to their tiny pinched chins (sometimes chins can even be almost nonexistent). Foal muzzles often aren’t developed enough to produce those “inverted lips,” too. 

On the other hand, a senior citizen also has a distinct head. Specifically, all those big, deep–rooted teeth have been worn down to nubs, actually changing the shape of his head, so what was once a more wedge–shaped head has become somewhat more rectangular because there no longer exist those long tooth roots. What’s more, his incisors lengthen and angle outwards much more, becoming “long in the tooth,” changing the look of his muzzle as well. Collagen also begins to break down, causing his lower lip and chin to droop and his muzzle to appear softer and slacker, often becoming droopy. His lower lip will often hang loose as a result, a charming effect. Muscles can slacken, too, sometimes causing the musculature of his entire head to soften and become more generalized with bony aspects becoming more pronounced. For instance, the zygomatics often become more pronounced as does the Salt Cellar. However, sometimes his head will become “drier” as fat is lost, so it really depends on the individual and circumstance. Nonetheless, the post–orbital fat behind the eyes also usually atrophies, causing the eyes to sink in a bit (some people confuse this with a “pig eye”). In turn, this can cause his brows to become more pronounced as the eye sinks into the socket. His head overall, therefore, often appears more frail and weathered. He may also develop cataracts though they rarely cause complete blindness. However, they do cause an opaqueness in the eye, a detail for painters. White hairs will also proliferate around his temples, eyes, teardrop bone, and nostrils. In life, keeping weight on a senior citizen can be a real challenge for various reasons, but mostly because of his spent teeth. Those that do keep a good weight still basically have the changed head characteristics though perhaps not so extreme. However, those who don't often appear more bony and gaunt as the aging effects become amplified because, sadly, he’s essentially starving to death. We see this with seniors who aren’t properly managed with tooth care or feed, or with feral or wild horses left to their own devices. Nonetheless, all these changing features combine to give the senior citizen a distinct look, one important to capture for the authenticity of our sculpture.

Head structure can also vary with gender as secondary sex characteristics are present in the horse. For instance, a stallion's head appears “meatier” with a deeper jowl and more powerful jaw and temporal muscles plus usually smaller ears. On the other hand, a mare’s head is usually more feminine, being more rectangular in profile with softer, “drier” cranial musculature and shallower, less–muscled jowls and temporal area. Their ears are typically longer than that of a stallion, too. As for geldings, they’re a mixed bag since they usually sport a physical eccentricity that disqualified them from breeding. That means their heads represent a lack of testosterone that would soften a stallion’s head, and sometimes with some idiosyncrasy that helped to cull them from breeding.

Above all we should remember that each horse’s head is different just like our own so pay attention to field study and reference photos—a set of calipers and a protractor are useful tools here. A firm grasp of cranial anatomy is critical here as well to use as a template so we can spot the breed–based or individualistic variations. Now this isn’t to say that the structures are different—they’re all anatomically the same since they’re equines—but the uniqueness of each head can have some differences in how the cranial features and musculature manifest. So if we recreate the head the same way on every piece, we risk a formulaic trap. Instead, it's better to express each of our sculpted heads with fresh Eyes to avoid habitual interpretation that would diminish our ability to capture individuality.  


But it doesn't end there! Nope—we have another fundamental issue to consider: scale. Whatever size we're sculpting, scale is a fundamental component to our efforts—it's part and parcel to the very basis of our job in equine realism. Indeed, its influence is so strong that even one portion that's too big or too small will destroy our illusion instantly—it takes just one slip. For this reason, we need to attend to scale throughout every facet of our process and techniques from our visualization tricks to our sculpting techniques and even our actual tools. Truly, using a tool that's inherently out of scale will skew our work just as surely as anything else. Likewise, we need to religiously use our scaling techniques, scaled tools, and a good set of calipers regularly to stay on track because the very act of sculpting can cause scale to skew very quickly.

In addition, we can think of Proportion as a part of scale even though it's also its own topic. That's because Proportion must intrinsically be in scale to the size of the overall piece. Likewise, Placement is connected to scale as well, in that it entails how we shrink or expand the distance between each feature. In similar fashion, even Texture and Expression are connected to scale since we have to gauge how they reduce or increase in size dependent on the scale of our piece. For example, creating eye lids out of scale to the eye area will produced an unrealistic, sometimes caricatured look, especially if expression is pronounced.

In a very real sense then, we can deduce the observational skills and artistic abilities of an artist based almost entirely on their reproduction of proper scale throughout their piece. It's alarmingly easy to get off track, and often quickly and right under our noses. Being so, scale also demonstrates an artist's diligence and commitment since it requires constant vigilance.

As for errors, a common one is to sculpt eyes that are too big, sometimes to the point of "Jackie O sunglasses." In similar fashion, many times the orbs are too bulgy out of their sockets, creating a bubble–like effect. In response then, the brows and lids can be unnaturally enlarged or extreme to compensate, or the grooves between them are too broad, producing an overall eye area that's obviously out of scale. At times, nostrils can be far too big or too small, particularly when flared. Furthermore, chins are often too big, and mouths too short or too long. At times we'll also see the zygomatic arches sculpted too small or too big, typically with the "button" of the mandible out of alignment with them as a result. Similarly, we'll often find tear drop bones that are too big or too small which can throw off the look of the head immediately. Commonly, too, we'll find veining, moles, chestnuts, and other details like wrinkles, far out of scale, typically being too big. Texture can also be out of scale as we might see with inappropriately enlarged rippling, pock marks, or squiggles.

The Seven Fundamentals

Related to all this are seven basic qualities that lay the technical foundation for what we do in equine realism. These seven components are integral to everything we do, and if we get any one of them wrong, our work just won't be accurate. Each one is an artistic consideration regarding cranial anatomy (and by extension, anatomy in general), and so each helps us to get things right. These Seven Fundamentals are:
  1. Anatomy (to include Biomechanics)
  2. The Five Ps: Proportion, Placement, Planes, Precision, and Presence
  3. Alignments
  4. Scale
  5. Texture
  6. Detail
  7. Expression
When it comes to these Seven Fundamentals then, sculpted heads can exhibit some typical anatomical (and biomechanical) inaccuracies, especially given just how complicated this feature is to sculpt. Most often anatomical planes are incorrect or landmarks are misplaced or even nonexistent, distorting the head away from reality. Sometimes the head is unnaturally too wide, often on the top half of the head with the bottom half being much more narrow, creating a strange pinched, duck–like effect to the face. This error can often be associated with trying to capture certain points of breed type such as with Arabians or Quarter Horses. More rarely we'll see the opposite though it does happen often on a more subtle level. Often times we'll find the mouth opening at the chin rather than the entire jaw dropping from the joint behind the eye. Or even sometimes if the mouth is opened properly behind the eye, the line of the jaw doesn't match the lay of the bottom incisors, creating a broken jaw. Asymmetries are common as well between both sides of the face. Or the median line down the skull is crooked, bent, or misplaced, causing all the features to be skewed in relation to each other and also away from proper alignment to this disecting line. Ears are also often misplaced being either placed too close to the eye, too far away from it on the neck, or too high on the crown, "perched" on top rather than seated into the skull. 

When it comes to the Five Ps, Proportional errors are also common. For instance, we often see heads that are either too big or too small for the body (most commonly too big). Biomechanically, the head is at the end of the spine—a counterbalancing weight at the end of a long "noodle." Therefore, a head not in proper proportion to the rest of the body can be a functional liability, and if the sculpted disparity is large enoughwhich can easily happenit may even be unrealistic. This error is often a product of an artistic blindspot exacerbated by a flawed proportional measurement system, or neglecting to use calipers regularly. Jaw bars that are too thick can happen, too, or they can be set too close or too far apart from each other, creating a head that's too narrow or two wide altogether, or too wide on the bottom aspect, distorting the rest of the head. Often a forgotten feature of the head, the jaw bars definitely have a delicate balance to each other and to the rest of the head, and getting them right helps to form the proper scaffolding for a correct head. As for ears, we'll find some that are too small, but more often those that are too big in relation to the depicted species, gender, age, or breed type. For these reasons, it's smart to record our proportional measurements such as the head length and the "thirds" sections with our proportional calipers. That way we can quickly and accurately recheck our work as we go with a fixed measurement. Errors in Placement and Planes are common as well since it's easy to skew them, too, if we aren't checking them regularly. Precision is also an oftenforgotten aspect of sculpting the head which always needs careful attention. The anatomical aspects, surfaces, topography, textures, features, and expressions all depend on the precision of our hands and tools—the better the Precision, the better the result. Absolutely, a sloppy, careless, cursory, or imprecise hand will cause our illusion to collapse just as quickly as an anatomical flaw. For example, eye lids that are clumsily, imprecisely, or messily sculpted with "pills," tears, distortions, unevenness, and other oversights simply won't be convincing despite the accuracy of everything else, will they? A lack of Precision doesn't only cause anatomical errors in this way, but also artistic distractions that compromise the overall impact of our piece. Because of this Precision is often a defining factor of masterful work. 

Alignments pertain to the relative relationships facial features have with each other like the EENA and we've already discussed others in Part 14. Nonetheless, some common errors with Alignment are features that are misplaced or distorted. Again, asymmetries are a typical error here. For example, misshapen joints that don't have their topography properly lined up between the two sides or aligned properly on the tops of the bony shafts. And as for Scale, we've already discussed that here.

Now as for Texture, this refers to the nature of the surface topography of the hide insofar as little bumps, squiggles, wrinkles, ripples, pock marks, striations, and other little fleshy details that typify the hide, hair, and skin. Equines don't have a hyperpolished, smooth surface but are rich with all sorts of fleshy little things happening on his body surface, and this is where field study comes in handy by reestablishing what's so often stripped away during dissection. But this issue is often a feature of artistic style as long as we recognize this as a function of style rather than reality, it has some context. That said, errors can be found here as well, most often with being sculpted too harshly so that they lack the delicate fleshiness that so often typifies them. Or we find them to be regimented and so fail to convey the look of organic nature. Sometimes they don't blend into surrounding areas, making the effect look contrived. For instance, wrinkles that have an abrupt ending with the surround flesh rather than blending gradually into it. Scale is a common problem with Texture, too, often being far too big. We have to always remember that fleshy details are characteristically squishy, subtle, varied, and organic so our interpretations should reflect those qualities to maximize the effect.

Now for Detail, that pertains to all the additional minute fleshy tidbits like veins, moles, eyelashes, inner ear ridges, and other little touches that add believability to our piece. Detail is sometimes flawed by not being anatomically accurate, not reflecting the fleshy or bony nature it intends to mimic, being out of scale, or crudely sculpted. For example, veins that aren't bilaterally symmetrical, aren't patterned organically or realistically, are too big, or are carved–grooves rather than protruding squiggles. Another flaw are moles that are popped on rather than blended into the surface. Or moles with a cave in, like a collapsed souffle. Eyelashes are often out of Scale, not being the delicate wisps of hair they are in life. Detail also suffers from similar flaws as Texture does. 

And, lastly, we have Expression which entails gesture, emotion, "soul," and narrative as we discussed already in Part 13. It can be flawed by not matching the narrative of the piece, being expressed too strongly (like with overly extreme moving eye lids), or being inconsistent to both anatomy, coordination, or natural equine behavior. On the other hand, sometimes it's absent altogether, giving the sculpture a vacant, vapid look.

Altogether then, every aspect of our efforts, from the overarching idea to the most minute detail, should mesh together harmoniously so that no one element is a distraction. That's because if our eye is "stopped" in a way we didn't intend, the desired impact of our composition will be weakened. Truly, one wrong note can cause the entire piece to clank rather than sing.

Conclusion To Part 15

Artistically portraying the equine is pretty tough—we have a lot to juggle and our knowledge base needs to be uncommonly interdisciplinary, objective, and expansive. This is one of the reasons why honing keen observational skills is so important. Simply put, the better observers we are, the better our work becomes since we’ll simply perceive more to infuse more into our media. To help with this, simplifying the equine head into simple concepts at first to later refine is a proven technique for getting things right. In other words, start with the big ideas then move onto the little ones. For this, understanding some simple relationships between form and structure can guide us through the initial stages of the creative process, gifting us with greater confidence in our efforts.

Yet we also need to blow past rhetoric and convention to instead regard the subject from a more objective point of view. Yet, on the other hand, we cannot careen so much into technicality that we end up creating soulless, clinical representational art that fails to capture the spirit or narrative of this animal. So much about compelling realism is to also convey the inner experience of our subject. To this end, giving thought to these and other artistic considerations can guide us to a more authentic portrayal of this animal that also expresses his complex nature.

Deeper still, there's a lot of "energy" in the initial moments of building a sculpture, isn't there? Those first few stages where we block in the big ideas really seem to capture the personality and flow of the piece beautifully. So much "elemental spirit"! Now if we can keep that energy contained within our composition to the very finishing touches, we've accomplished a great piece of equine art. And one of the best ways we can preserve this defining "feel" of each piece is to have a firm grasp of the fundamental structure of our subject and how it all fits and works together. Pair this with fluency in EquiSpeak and we've got ourselves an invaluable tool box! Connecting all this together is our ability to abstract our subject's structure to snatch the "elemental life," the "essence of anima" to infuse into our clay. Again, we can do this best by working from the big ideas first then progressing to the little ideas. If we get distracted by minutiae too early, that energy is going to drain out and we'll be left with a piece of depleted "spirit," of a "flatness" that can only happen with overworking and undisciplined focus. So understand the hierarchy of sculptural creation when it comes to equine realism: Big ideas first! Always try to simplify structure into basic shapes first and focus on Proportion, Planes, and Placement. Only after that's been done can we best progress to refining and defining. Keep those Alignments consistent, and always keep Scale in mind with every tool stroke. Once all of this is done, that's when we can start to focus on Texture, Detail, and other fiddly bits, and all without sacrificing the emotional narrative we intend. We can do it when we have an effective approach and process! Anyway then, until next time…careen headfirst into discovery and exploration!

“I obliged myself to explore where I might otherwise not have. And that’s what ‘mind-flexing’ is all about – making those brain-muscles work so that you feel empowered to pursue your own vision.” ~ Tony Smibert


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 14


Welcome back to this series examining the equine head from both an evolutionary, anatomical, and artistic perspective. Being a visual species, we naturally gravitate towards the heads of other creatures, and that makes getting the equine head right critically important for the appeal of our work. And as artists working in realism we also need an interdisciplinary understanding to create both accurately and meaningfully. 

So far we’ve delved into the evolution and anatomy of the equine head, so now let’s start exploring its artistic aspects. That’s because it’s not enough to simply know about the structure of the equine head—we also have to translate that into our media, too. And there’s a big difference between knowing and doing, and in few other art forms do we have to know and do so much. To that end then, let’s jump in!…


When it comes to the skull and flesh, each individual has variation to the blueprint, just like us. That means each of our sculpted heads should be different in cranial qualities and how the fleshy features manifest. Nonetheless, most of the equine skull is subcutaneous bone and palatable under the skin so the head owes most of its shape and size to the skull itself, providing plenty of landmarks to guide us as a result. This means the more life study we do, especially when we actually feel the horse’s head to “program" the structures into our hands, the more clarity we gain. So on the skull, the most ready landmarks to orient our sculpting are:
  • The tip and ridge of the masseteric ridge (teardrop bone).
  • The bony structures surrounding the eyes, especially the zygomatic arches.
  • The Salt Cellar.
  • The nasal bone (and its median groove).
  • The forehead (sometimes the temporal line, or the external frontal crest, can be felt on the forehead as well).
  • The poll.
  • The bars.
  • The caudal rim of the rami plus the mandible “button” underneath the zygomatics.
  • In the space between the jaw bars, at a point just in front of the jowls, we can feel the underside of the Basihyoid bone of the Hyoid Apparatus.
As for the teeth and gums, the front twelve incisors are easy to see if we lift the lips. The tushes are also easily seen from the side if inspecting a stallion or gelding. If we’re quick (and the horse is accommodating), we can even study the tooth surfaces of the incisors, too. The molars and possible Wolf’s Teeth are more difficult to see, so if we can observe a dental exam that uses a mouth speculum, it’s educational. Being so, we might even be able to catch a glimpse of the Palantal Drape, tongue, and the ridged hard palate.

The external aspects of the nostrils are easily palpated and observed. The front and back rims of the nostrils are evident as is the upper fold of the posterior rim over the anterior cartilage at the top "V" where the two rims meet. The tail of the comma cartilage can be palpated and sometimes seen as a subtle bump. The false nostril is abundantly clear when the horse flares his nostrils or snorts, too. The features on the muzzle can also be easily seen and felt from the lips to the chin to the whiskers (or just the whisker bumps if the whiskers have been shaved). The lips are easily seen and felt, and the corner of the mouth makes an important landmark. Likewise, his eye area can be gently felt from the eyelashes to the eyelids to the whisker bumps. The outer aspects of the ear flute, bulb, and its details are easily seen and palpated as well, even the twist and fold of the inner rim near the "V" where the two rims meet at the bottom.

Facial musculature can either appear as generalized, in moderate detail, or in crisp detail, or "dry," depending on the breed, individual, management, climate, level of exertion, or circumstance. "Dryness" can also be expressed in different locations of the head with other areas being more generalized—it all depends on the individual and circumstances. Yet because the skull is mostly palatable under the skin, nearly every fleshy facial feature is a landmark, depending on how crisply it’s expressed. Yet six fleshy features are stand-outs as useful, more consistent orienting landmarks:
  • Quadratus labii inferioris
  • Depressor labii inferioris
  • Levator labii sup. alæque nasi
  • Zygoamticus major
  • Buccinator
  • Masseter
These bony and fleshy landmarks help to guide our proportions, planing, and placements so we get things right. The equine head is very precisely constructed, so it's important to orient things properly for it to look right. Just one feature that's off can skew our entire head into error. This means it's important to continually check our work as we sculpt since things can go sideways rather quickly without constant vigilance. In particular, sculpting expression tends to cause us to lose sight of the head's technical structure so we need to pay special attention when we do so.

Key Proportions, Abstractions, and Alignments

Knowing how to measure the general dimensions and alignments of the equine head is necessary for an accurate result so here are some handy relationships we can apply. However, these are only basic, generalized guides, so think of them as templates from which to make comparisons to create variations. Indeed, different individuals, genders, ages, breeds, and species vary, adding diversity to our possibilities. But we all need a baseline, right? Condition and management play their role, too. For example, nutrition can influence the bony cranial development of youngsters. Always use good reference photos for this reason, and learn to see the anatomical structures underneath the skin. And make ready use of protractors, rulers, and proportional calipers—they’re our best friends when sculpting the head. 

In fact, breaking down the horse’s head into simple shapes can help us quite a bit. So with all that in mind, here are some useful general associations:
  • The length of the head in front of the eyes is elongated—the horse’s head is stretched forwards in front of the eye. Because of this, the typical equine head is usually divided into thirds: (1) from the base of the ear “V” to the front canthus of the eye then (2) from that point to mid-head then (3) from that point to the end of the muzzle. However, different breeds and individuals can vary. 
  • The depth of the skull from forehead to the bottom of the ramus is about 1/2 the length of the head, generally speaking. Some individuals or breeds may be more or less, and old horses are often less, especially through the bars, since their teeth have reached their terminal end.
  • The last molar lays almost right below the eye, about near the middle off the teardrop bone, while the first premolar lays about midway under the Buccinators.
  • The back of the jaw draws up to the zygomatic arches, aligning with its “button” underneath the zygomatics. 
  • The ear canal is aligned with the zygomatic arches and the orbit.
  • The "V" at the bottom of the ear usually protects parallel to the median to pass in front of the front canthi. However, different breeds or individuals can vary depending on brow width.
  • The alignment of the ear–eye–nostril (EENA) often forms a straight line. Notice that the teardrop bone and the mouth generally parallel the EENA, too. However, the EENA can vary between individuals, breeds, or species. 
  • The internal axis of the skull is what tends to dictate head shape. Specifically, the equine head can be categorized into three basic types: (1) the arched or sub–convex head, (2) the concave head, and (3) the straight head, with plenty of variations in between. What this means is that the axis of the head can be variable dependent on the individual, family, or breed, with a central axis being bent down, bent upwards, or straight, respectively speaking, beginning generally around the tip of the masseteric ridge. For example, many Iberian, Kladrubers, Lippizzans, or Draft breeds have an arched or sub–convex head in which the entire nasal portion of the skull drops downwards from the EENA, producing a distinctive “ram–head” appearance. In contrast, Arabians and some pony breeds may have a dished head in which the nasal portion is lifted slightly upwards from the EENA (though sometimes Arabians have a straight EENA but with a dished nasal bone and jibbah). In contrast, Morgans, Saddlebreds, stock breeds, and Thoroughbreds tend to have straight heads that more closely follow the straight line of the EENA. This means the shape of the head usually isn’t created by the shape of the nasal bone, but created deep inside the skull with its internal axis. This is why sculptures that merely change the nasal bone without attending to the head axis may look odd. For example, they can appear too “dolphin-like” if a dish was created by gouging down the nasal bone with the added dome of the forehead. Sometimes we also see the jaw bars suffering reduction as well, making the head appear fluted, “seahorse-like,” or pinched in the middle (and when the nostrils are flared, we have an odd trumpet–like shaped head). On the other hand, a head can be made to be too thick if made to be more convex by simply adding a curve to the existing nasal bone.  
  • From the front, we can form a "T" between the anterior canthi and the median line of the head. The same can be said for the tips of the teardrop bones, the nostrils (when symmetrically resting or flared), and the corners of the mouth (when symmetrically held). This helps us to maintain symmetry between the two sides of the face.
  • The anterior and posterior canthi of the eye are angled at an approximate 42˚– 44˚ angle to the EENA. However, different individuals or breeds may vary. 
  • The angle of the lower angle with the "button" of the zygomatic somewhat echoes this 42˚– 44˚ angle.
  • The orientation of the eye has two general planes. The first angles inwards at the bottom and outwards at the top. The second angles ever so slightly forwards towards the front canthus.
  • Seen from the top of the head, looking down on it, the eyes are angled about 33˚ to the median line of the head. However, some breeds or individuals have more of an angle or less of an angle.
  • When seen from the top or front, the basic shape of the head is like a kite with a taila diamond for the forehead and the tail for the nasal bone.
  • When seen from the front (nose on), the top rim of the eye protrudes a snidge farther out whereas the bottom rim of the eye dips a snidge farther in, causing the plane of the eye to angle inwards at the bottom.   
  • When seen from the front, the brows are usually the widest portion of the cranium, with the bulge of the eyes themselves usually the widest part of the head itself. However, in horses with narrower heads, their brows can be about as wide as the ear bulbs. Also the eyes of senior citizens can be more sunken due to reduction of the fat pad behind the orb. On the other hand, on some muscular stock breeds such as the Quarter Horse, the robust jaw muscles over the ramus may be the widest part of the head.
  • The chin usually ends somewhat near the back of the nostrils, or to varying degrees in front of it if he's relaxed or dozing.
  • The top branch of the “Y” vein flows from the front canthus of the eye to the front of the teardrop bone while the second branch flows towards the nostrils.
  • When seen from the front, the skull forms an elongated and inverted isosceles trapezoid due to the narrower mandible and broad brows.  
  • The muscles of the mouth and cheek form nested “Ws.” However, the Buccinators can be more like a solid wad of flesh or a slightly different configuration, too, depending on the individual so pay attention to this area and look for variations.
  • The nostril forms a “6” on the right side and a backwards “6” on the left side. 
  • The front rim of the Alar cartilage of the nostril forms a “C” when relaxed and more of an “L” when dilated. 
  • When seen from the front, the “V” at the top of the nostril, where the rims meet, is oriented more towards the median than the lower aspect of the back rim, which protrudes more outward. This puts the nostril on an inward slant towards the top, predominantly along the back rim. In contrast, the comma cartilages tend to orient more upright, often with an elegant inward curve in the middle. 
  • The top aspect of the zygomatic arches is like a "U" oriented towards the poll while the lower aspect is like a "Y" oriented towards the ears.
  • The zygomatics can exhibit some variety in how prominent and "cut" they are, so pay attention when looking for variation.
  • The bulbs of the ears and the brows of the eyes are about as broad as the wings of the Atlas bone.
  • The ears are set on the crown of the head, on the sides, seated into their bulla right behind the line of the rami, not perched on top.
  • The ears are positioned behind the jaw alignment and behind the zygomatic arches on either side of the crown, in front of the occipital crest and seated into the skull. The bulb being rounded and obvious, aligns with the EENA, and is rigid and firm. This alignment of the ear on the skull doesn’t really vary like the EENA because the seat of the ear is more an anatomical feature than a conformation one. 
  • From the front, the "V" at the bottom of the ear tends to sit on a plane parallel to t he median that runs in front or just inside the front canthi, depending on breed or individual variation.
  • The back of the jaw should flow up to the back to its “button” underneath the zygomatics; the "button" of the zygomatics sits right in front of the back line of the ramus.
  • From beneath, the jaw bars form an elongated triangle, widest at the rami to meet each other at the chin. They’re rounded, not sharply rimmed, and have an underline that represents the individual characteristics of the particular horse.
  • From the top, the nasal bone should be centered on the median line, and often has a subtle hourglass shape with rounded sides.
  • The upper lip can be thought of as a little box that twitches, pooks, tweaks, stretches, and wiggles, being actively mobile.
Other Artistic Considerations: Part 1

Now we come to more specific concepts dealing with artistic interpretation, these things being unique to our practice of art. That's to say, as realistic equine artists, we have to wrestle with things that can only happen in clay, those missteps we generate ourselves because of our blindspots and knowledge gaps. But we're going to split Artistic Considerations into different parts since the topic is such a big one. This way we can more fully discuss the issues without generating a blog post that goes on forever! So let's go!…

For starters, it’s important to understand that the concept of a “pure breed,” with fixed registrable bloodlines or closed stud books with fixed “points of type,” didn’t exist prior to the Victorian age. Specifically, this trend started with the Thoroughbred, the oldest known registry being the English Jockey Club formed in 1752 as a means to guarantee parentage to make racing fair. Then following in 1876 was the Percheron Horse Association of America. Indeed, the era of the “purebred” arose within this cultural background typified by class elitism and eugenics. The concept developed a prejudiced side, too, being steeped in Western European ideals of superiority in relation to other cultures, or even within its own class system. Quite literally, having a “purebred” horse instead of a common horse was akin to driving a Rolls Royce compared to a junker. And it was simply accepted that elite Western ideals of perfection were far superior to that of other cultures, and so all horses were evaluated with that prejudiced perception despite the unique gene pool, distinct function, rich history, or cultural backdrop that may have formed other breeds.

Also, previously, horses were classified in context to their job or as land races. That’s to say, horses were usually bred according to their use rather than their “pure” bloodline or points of type. Therefore, horses were usually classified as riding (including gaited), draft, stock, racing, carriage, etc. types. Or sometimes “Farmer Bob” simply bred a distinctive type for his own use. So because horses were bred for a specific purpose, there existed more realistic expectations of a phenotype. We buy certain automobiles to fit a specific need, don’t we? We don’t buy a sports car to use it like an SUV, and we don’t buy a sedan to use it as a utility truck. Well, horse breeding was approached in much the same way since the horse was predominantly a utilitarian animal.

When the engine replaced the horse, however, his role changed entirely. He found new value in sport, showing, and recreation. This threw open the door even wider for the concept of “pure breed” to flourish with its elite closed stud books, glamorized mythologies (many which often were fabricated), and distinctive “points of type,” a kind of brand identify for a breed as it vied for market dominance. In this way, the “purebred” became big business and as fixed “points of type” gained importance as a kind of breed advertising, such pressures began to override functional structure, making the equine blueprint vulnerable to exaggeration or faddish skews. 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 to now be applied to multiple uses in order to prevail in a market that profited best from versatility. Truly, some breeds have become so changed that many lineages are unrecognizable from their foundation stock. In fact, the deterioration of foundation archetypes has become so troublesome in some breeds that “preservation breeding” has become a buzzword. But perhaps the most unfortunate by–product of this dynamic is the creation of “lawn ornaments,” those specimens so deformed by the intense selection for "points of type" that they're nonviable, as sometimes seen with the Arabian and Quarter Horse, for example. And one of the most common areas of nonviable traits entails in the head since it’s often strongly associated with breed identity. The result are heads that feature deformities and exaggerations of type that render the animal unable to function normally. Indeed, the rise of wheezing in the Arabian, for example, is a sad byproduct of the capricious selection for an ever–deeper dish, or "extreme head." On the other hand, fads can cause a breed's characteristic head to change in type altogether such as we see with the Saddlebred influence on Morgans, or the Arabian influence on American Iberians or Quarter Horses.

Yet this isn’t to say that all change is wrong. There’s an inherent responsibility in any domestic breeding program—it’s called “animal husbandry” for a reason. And one of the duties is to ensure the perpetuation of a gene pool into the future, and sometimes that requires a modification to phenotype to remain relevant in the market. What does all this mean for an artist? Well, put it all together and it means it’s smart not to take breed rhetoric or mythology at face value. Being familiar with a breed’s objective history and archetypes, especially before modern or faddish pressures, is a good balance for making informed decisions. We should also be skeptical of what wins in today’s halter arenas only because these classes are highly vulnerable to questionable priorities. Being so, it's smart to take what breeders, trainers, and judges claim with a grain of salt. Very often some are too "immersed" to be objective about biology, anatomy, biomechanics, and genetics. 

Above all, we need to remember the evolutionary biology of the equine head. It's a study of economy—every bit is there in a specific way for a biological reason. Being so, it has very little fudge–factor for our aesthetics or misinterpretations. With so little room for error then, cranial structure cannot be fudged—we need to be clear about its construction to get it right. That's because so much about the equine head is literal with so much being subcutaneous flesh and bone. So if we make a mistake somewhere, that will likely develop into a systemic problem that will skew everything else. Yet, at the same time, it's easy to get confused since so much is interlaced together, alternately becoming deep and superficial layers. It's also made up of all the fleshy components of the body: bone, cartilage, fat, tissue, muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, and hide, all of which are specialized for the head itself, giving us an array of effects we have to mimic properly in a relative tight space. Plus, facial muscles come in multiple forms. For example, some are flat or strap–like while others have fleshy muscle bellies like the Buccinators while still others are in-between like the Masseter. And on a thin-skinned, “dry” face, much of the fleshy delineation is often readily seen, making precision even more important. So when recreating fascial musculature in clay, we need to pay attention to these qualities when considering the shape and thickness of particular bits to avoid creating a head that’s too bulky, puffy, bulbous, or meaty, or alternately too skinny or angular. What's more, we have to pay close attention to detail and texture since the tiny aspects and surface topography of the hide on the face is so varied, "morphable," and variable between individuals or breeds. The ears, muzzle, and nostril exhibit a high degree of motility and sensitivity, too, and the brows and lower lid are fleshy and expressive, especially so with the upper lid and brow. All of these features have peculiar placements and angles indicative of an equine, too, which we also have to get right. And we also have to consider expression! All this conspires then to make sculpting the equine head especially tricky. Indeed, it's a part of the body most often flubbed up in sculpture for good reason. So it's a good idea to do lots of research, artistic exercises, checks and balances with proportional tools, life study, and of actually touching the heads of many horses to program their features into our hands. 

Nevertheless, we do have those handy general visualization guides to help us. For example, when we understand that the ear, eye, and nostril are important fleshy landmarks that are skeletally oriented, that gives us better use of an EENA template. Another to remember is that the head is mostly subcutaneous bone on the dorsal and ventral aspect, and mostly subcutaneous, fleshy muscle along the sides. For this reason, we need to sculpt the bony parts convincingly as bone and the fleshy bits as flesh; otherwise our head won’t be as believable as it could be. For instance, the hourglass–shaped nasal bone should appear hard while the cheek’s Buccinators should appear fleshy. In contrast, the ears, nostrils, and lower nasal portion are made of cartilage and should appear appropriately "bendy." For example, ear flute itself is relatively thin, making the ear malleable and able to be bent and distorted easily. 

As for the ear, it's built as a delicately fluted “scoop." The inner rim is rounded and more deeply curvaceous whereas the outside rim is flatter and less curved. Of special note is the “V” where the two rims meet at the bottom since it has some interesting features. In particular, the bottom of the curvaceous inner rim, near the "V," has a curious fold, twist, and crease which change as the ear rotates, a detail often missed by artists. Instead, many artists simply make this area a normal straight rim by mistake. The ears have wrinkles, too, which are typically located where the pinea meets the skull when rotation folds the skin. For example, when pricked–forwards, wrinkles can be found between the pinea and the head along the median line whereas if they’re laid back, wrinkles can be found along the back of the bulb. The pinea also often has visible veins, notably along the back of the flute and around the ear bulb, which really lend a sense of thin skin and fine hair for sculptures depicting hot bloods or even to imply athletic effort. Sculpting clipped ears can also better showcase a sculpture of a halter horse, and so note the soft, delicate ridges inside the ears. On the other hand, fuzzy, unclipped ears can be a wonderful touch for drafters, ponies, feral horses, or for those horses shown in a natural state. Note that the ear hair is oriented inwards or forwards and not so much outwards, towards the rims. Also minor faults such as Lop Ears can add a bit of character to a piece meant to be eccentric. Likewise, ears with nicks, cuts, missing tips, etc. can imply an interesting backstory which can be effective for sculptures of feral horses, ranch horses, wild horses, or roughstock. In fact, certain breeds have specifically notched ears for identification such as the Icelandic Horse. Ear tags might also be a curious option, accurate for certain populations tagged for research. And because ears are a consummate tool for adding life to a sculpture, their expressive qualities go far to impart genuine equine character and narrative. For example, his ears can be pricked and drawn together more when tense or intently focused on something, or drooping in a floppy “V” and slid a bit further down the sides of his crown when he’s sleepy, relaxed, or dozing off. They can be floppy and wobbly in response to motion, too, such as we see on some gaited horses (especially gaited mules), or when he’s shaking himself.

Ear size and shape can also be a function of breed, gender, and age. For example, smaller, curvy ears are typical of an Arabian as is the pronounced curl of the Marwari. On the other hand, larger, longer ears are typical of a mare, and proportionally larger ears are common with foals. What’s more, some breeds actually require the ears to be a certain length such as the Shetland with ears that shouldn’t exceed 5” long (13cm). Also, the ears may also seem to be placed closer together on the crown on some breeds such as the ASB, Kathwari, Marwari and Akhal–Teke. This is usually caused by the narrower structure of the crown of such breeds as compared to the Arabian or Quarter Horse who have wider crowns. Nonetheless, pay special attention to any varying attributes of the ear since individual nuance plays a role.

As for relative head width, it's also a function of individual variation, breed, and even gender and age. For instance, Arabians tend to be quite broad across the brows whereas Iberians can be quite narrow. Likewise, foals can appear broad across the brows thanks largely to the contrast with their undeveloped, narrow lower faces whereas old horses can appear more narrow due to the atrophy of collagen and flesh. Stallion heads can appear broader due to their cranial muscular development whereas mares can seem more slender. Paying attention to head width is important since it plays such a big part in both the appeal and believable breed type of our sculptures. On top of everything, the equine profile can also exhibit a spectrum of undulating characteristics distinctive to each horse—each of our noses are different and so are those of horses! So we need to pay special attention to the horse’s profile to capture breed type and individuality. Again, all this presses the issue of studying heads from multiple angles and using references from multiple views. Honestly, the more angles and dimensions familiar to us, the better we are at "3D printing" it out in our clay and so the better we become at identifying errors to troubleshoot them.

Conclusion to Part 14

That may be a lot to chew on, but we're not done yet! In Part 15, we'll continue with these artistic ideas and guides. Approaching the equine head from both an anatomical and artistic point of view can be helpful since each is symbiotic when it comes to equine realism. Truly, it's not enough to know about anatomy, we also have to translate what we know accurately and skillfully into clay. So while these two different skill sets need to be developed on their own terms, we also need to marry them together through our interpretative techniques. And that takes its own special care.

On that note, it's smart to interpret the equine head from multiple points of view. For example, from conformation and breed type to functionality and viability to expression and soul to overall beauty and appeal. All these concepts are interdependent and interdisciplinary because the head is a holistic system. Therefore, understanding how each feature is structured and functions separately as well as within the overall system really helps to clarify matters. To that end, we'll explore more artistic considerations in Part 15. So until next time…learn to See the equine head from many points of view to get the whole picture!

“I obliged myself to explore where I might otherwise not have. And that’s what ‘mind-flexing’ is all about – making those brain-muscles work so that you feel empowered to pursue your own vision.” ~ Tony Smibert


Monday, December 11, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 13


Hello again and welcome back to this 20–part series discussing the equine head. Designed for realistic equine artists, this series interprets this complex structure from evolutionary, anatomical, and artistic perspectives since we must weigh all of them as we sculpt. We’ve plowed through a lot to get here, but now with all that understanding, we can apply it to function and gesture. So in this Part 13, we'll discuss the biomechanics of the equine head along with the kaleidoscope of his fascial expressions. And despite everything, neither is as straightforward as they seem! A lot happens in a relatively small, tight space, and things can build on each other, and happen in a blink of an eye, so we'll miss it if we aren't paying close attention. For the totality of our sculpture, however, we also need to pay attention how all this affects the rest of his body, but that's for another series. In the meantime then, let’s dive right in!…


The equine skull is a marvel of bioengineering. It’s light enough not to hinder a large herbivore dependent on long distance speed, yet expansive and sturdy enough for all it must accomplish. Being so, the equine head is defined by pure biological function—yet look how beautiful function is! Indeed, there are few animals as beautiful as the horse, yet his beauty is a direct result of utility alone—a curious biological fact that can inform our creative decisions.

The movement of the head itself is actually affected by the articulations of the neck. However, the joint between the back of the head and the first cervical vertebra is relevant for our discussions here. The first neck bone is the Atlas bone, and attaches the head to the neck with an obvious and prominent “wing” on either side. Being the broadest of the neck vertebræ, when viewed from above, the span of the Atlas (from wing–to–wing) is roughly as broad as the brows. At this joint, the only possible motions are predominantly an up–and–down “yes” movement (extension and flexion) and a bit of “side slippage” when the head is tucked. Therefore, a horse cannot laterally turn (moderately or sharply) or corkscrew his head directly behind the ears. A handy rule of thumb then is that the back of the skull, along with the line of the brows and ears bulbs, should be relatively parallel and “seat into” the back of the Atlas wings when viewed from above. Again, however, when the head is tucked and the horse has achieved self–carriage, a bit of side slippage is possible, referred to as “head twirling” in horsemanship lingo. This is how we can see the back corner of the horse’s eye when we ask him to bend properly. 

Mechanically, there exists a joint between the maxilla and the mandible for the opening of the mouth. This joint is located behind the zygomatic arches of the eye and in front of the cavity of the ear. The coronoid process of the mandible pops up through the maxilla’s temporal fossa at this junction. Its function can be easily seen when a horse chews as this joint area undulates, making the cavity behind the eye (the “Salt Cellar”) pop in–and–out in synch with the opening and closing of the jaw. This means the entire lower jaw drops at this one hinge joint when the mouth is opened. Being so, this joint is capable of up–and–down motion and also of rotary motion such as we see when the animal is chewing or yawning. There’s negligible fore and aft motion. 

The Hyoid Apparatus articulates within the skull at cartilaginous attachments of the Stylohyoids to the Petrosal bones in a ballandsocket joint. The Stylohyoids also articulate with the Keratohyoids at their cartilaginous joint in a hinge–like fashion as do the Kertatohyoids with the Basihyoid. There’s more play in this latter joint, although it, too, has primarily a hinge–like motion. Together, this rigging forms the basis of the “glug–glug” motion we see when he's swallowing—observe him drinking water for a clear demonstration. Likewise, understanding the delicate Hyoids is important not just because they're vulnerable to injury by people, but they can indicate the quality of horsemanship he’s experiencing—even his emotional state. For example, the head and neck posture of false collection can “close his throat,” essentially locking his Hyoid Apparatus. This makes it difficult for him to swallow or breathe which is why horses ridden in false collection will often drool or exhibit raspy or “gruntly” breathing. Therefore, an artist who understands how the jaw and swallowing mechanism work will be better able to identify irresponsible riding to avoid portraying it in their art. 

Anyway when he eats then, his lips nimbly pull choice bits to his incisors which he nips off and then he uses his tongue to push against the ridged hard palate to convey the bolus back to the grinders for pulverization, soaking it in saliva for softening. The Buccinators also squeeze the sides of the cheeks to help push it inwards for backwards movement. The molars then grind up the bolus in a circular motion, often on a favorite, “handed” side (we can often tell which side a horse is “handed” by the direction he chews his food). Also when he chews or swallows, the flesh between his jaw bars undulates, bulges, and hollows in the "glug glug" motion and coronoid process "pops" in and out within the Salt Cellar. The bolus is then pushed back through the Palantal Drape slits and into the pharynx as the epiglottis closes, and then into the esophagus with the help of the Hyoids and muscular squeezing of the throat. We may even see the penate striations of the Masseter appear and disappear as they're activated. When he drinks, he forms a slight “O” with his lips and sucks up water as through a straw, taking in gulps about 1/2 pint (.24l) per swallow. The tongue acts like suction pump to draw water in and the digiastric sling works the Hyoids to directly “glug” water back into the pharynx and down into the esophagus. 

Psychologically, a horse can hold a lot of bracing tension his jaw joint, just like people, due to stress, anxiety, habit, or poor riding. We may even hear a horse grind his teeth when stressed, sometimes heard in the show ring. For horsemanship then, the jaw joint is crucial for achieving collection; if this joint is locked due to psychological stress, poor horsemanship, bad posture, tack contraptions, or malocclusion of the teeth, it’ll be very difficult for him to round his spine in self–carriage and “drop his head at the poll.” Locking the jaw can also be a defensive strategy against irresponsible riding that tugs on the bit, puts constant undue pressure on the bit, or clamps his mouth shut, sometimes seen with Figure–8 or dropped nosebands. Locking the jaw can also force the tongue to the roof of the mouth, making it difficult the horse to swallow saliva, which is why horses with locked jaws often drool profusely. More still, a lot of bracing tension can be held in the tongue and the walls of the pharynx due to tension, stress, discomfort, tack contraptions, and poor horsemanship. For all these reasons, learning to "twirl the head," or induce the jaw, tongue, and pharynx to relax and loosen is imperative for achieving collection. Head twirling can be seen when the joint between the back of the skull and the Atlas can attain that minor bit of "side slippage" to slightly spin the head so we can see the back of his eye as we curve and turn in that direction. In these ways, the jaw, throat and Hyoids are all directly involved in achieving selfcarriage.

Similarly, despite convention, a frothy or foamy mouth doesn’t constitute a “soft mouth,” but quite the opposite: psychological anxiety and tension, even to the point of abuse. Horse saliva is the consistency of egg white, and what do we do to turn egg white into froth? We whip it, don’t we? And that’s what’s happening inside the horses mouth—he’s whipping his saliva into a froth with his tongue as an emotional expression of stress and anxiety. In contrast, a horse that’s calm and properly collected may have slightly wet lips or a slight pooling of saliva at the corners of the mouth, demonstrating he’s psychologically “100% OK” and so has a “quiet mouth.”

The lips are very fleshy, able to be distorted, stretched, bulged, and squished into many different configurations. Highly sensitive and mobile, he uses his lips to explore, often seen when he “mouths” new objects. It can even be likened to his "hand" since he uses his mouth to manipulate objects. He also uses his lips to grasp and gather food into his mouth to grind with his teeth and to suck in water. His lips are very expressive, too, indicating his mood able to be stretched, "pooched," distorted, snarled, or be held loose and floppy or pinched and tight, with a spectrum of possibilities in between. They may also slightly twitch, or the lower lip might bob up and down, or might even become droopy if he’s feeling relaxed, lazy, or dozing off. The muzzle can also express pleasure such as twitching or tweaking such as with a scratched itch, snarling when annoyed, becoming “pooky” when excited, drooping pendulously when relaxed, or becoming tense when angry, excited, or stressed plus a host of other distortions. Similarly, his chin can relax, pinch, tense up, distort, buckle, squeeze, or shift, lending even more expression. Indeed, closely studying how a horse uses his lips and muzzle to communicate can reveal lots of possibilities for sculpture.

His ears are set on the crown of the head, on the sides, with the ear canal located just behind the joint of the jaw. Sound is focused by the delicately fluted pinæ into the eardrum via the ear canal which is quite narrow and turns inwards to join the middle and inner ear which converts sound into impulses the brain can decipher. The inner ear also helps to maintain balance. Only its cartilaginous attachment to the skull’s ear canal and the ear muscles themselves lash the ear onto the head; otherwise the ear floats on the top of the head. But this allows the ear to have a rather fluid range of motion in its rotation and to be slightly drawn up or down, often depending on mood. As such, the ears move independently and without requiring motion of the head or neck, capable of 180˚ motion. Also serving as communication between horses as well, they indicate his emotional state, and so are often busy, typically indicating his focus of attention. Also note that his ear subtly changes shape during rotation, even to the point of flattening when pinned back.

Also, if we're observing closely, we can see his ears wiggle and twitch when he swallows! The Parotidoauricularis muscle, which is flat and straplike muscle about 1" wide (2.5cm), connects to the base of the ear and to the parotid gland, a wad of lymph nodes and saliva nodules. It's located on the external wall of the pharynx, right below the skin just behind the angle of the ramus in the space between the ramus and the wing of the Atlas bone. Embedded in and supporting the pharyngeal wall at this point is the Stylohyoid so every time the Stylohyoid moves, it pulls on the Parotidoauricularis muscle, making the ears twitch, like Dumbo flapping his ears. However, the horse has to be very relaxed for this effect to happen, but it's certainly charming and curious when it does! When moving, the ears can also wiggle or flop in synch with the gait when the horse is relaxed. In particular, this typically happens with gaited horses, and especially with gaited mules.

The nasal bone is long and thin, especially at the tip above the nasal cavity, and so is delicate and easily broken if the animal bangs his head. The horse will naturally protect this area as a result, which is why mechanical hackamores and bosals work by applying hindering pressure to this vulnerable area (which means they aren't as "kind" as they purport to be). As for the nasal passages, they're responsible for channeling air into the throat on its way to the lungs. On the way, they warm and moisten the air and filter out particles. The comma cartilages and nostrils themselves are quite flexible, capable of many shapes and sizes, able to be expanded (flared) to pass more air, or pinched to block air flow or to snort and blow. Where the two rims meet at the top, the fold is more or less fixed, but the rest of the nostril can be independently moved and shaped by the facial muscles connected to it. At rest, the fold between the two rims can be a deep channel while the meeting of the rims on the bottom of the nostril forms a slight depression. However, when the nostril is dilated, the fold can be stretched and flattened a bit while the bottom depression can nearly disappear as the flesh stretches. In response to flaring, the curve of the comma cartilages is expanded and the two halves are drawn closer together, sometimes even lifting up a bit. This causes deeper wrinkles between them and a different profile to the muzzle. In turn, the posterior nostril rim is likewise flared, and can be in many different ways from more outward to more backward. Conversely, when the nostril is pinched, the comma cartilages collapse and fold a little bit, but most of the distortion happens in the lower rim, which is fleshy. This allows the nostril to be pinched in any number of ways, and gives it those peculiar shapes and folds when it is. That said, the nostril motion is also synchronized with motions of the muzzle, specifically the upper lip. For example, if the upper lip is “pooky” it tends to pull the bottom of the nostril slightly forward. Furthermore, the nostrils and lips can be moved independently on both sides, and being so flexible, are capable of many motions such as from side to side or up and down to create any number of interesting expressions, effects, and gestures.

The eyelids help to protect the eye and sweep debris from the cornea. They also play an active role in expressionhorses have eyebrows! The upper eyelid does most of the motion and the lower eyelid remains relatively stationary though it can deepen more, "rounding" the eye, or help with squinting. The horse can also retract his orb back into the socket if he’s triggered by pain (or disease such as a tetanus convulsion), stress, or fear, sometimes causing the third eyelid to partially cover the cornea. This reaction is induced by the retractor muscle connecting the back of the globe to the inner surface of the orbit. As for the pupil, it will open up more or reduce depending on light situations. Equine eyes have a wide range of motion, too, helping to add expression to his face and amplify vision. Sclera often indicates the position of the pupil and iris in the most obvious way. The eyes can move together forward or backward (sclera to the back of the iris or the front of the iris, respectively), upwards or downwards (sclera under the iris or above the iris, respectively), both can rotate around to some degree (like a “cat clock”), often seen when he’s turned his head to look behind him, or alternately up and down (sclera under the iris in one eye and above the iris in the other), usually seen when he shakes his head. Stallions often also roll their eyes when they're posturing and aggressive. The orb can spin clockwise or counterclockwise in the socket, too, tending to keep the pupil as relatively level with the ground as possible (there's a limit to this ability so do lots of research and use good reference photos).


The equine is consummately expressive through his face so field study, research, and reference photos are handy tools for deciphering his facial body language. This is because every facial muscle is capable of motion, lending myriad options for expression and manifestation of flesh and structure. Fascia also plays its part in motion and expression, providing more nuance and texture. As such, every bit of his head is used to communicate, and with so many possible combinations, he offers a sizable "dialogue" to make our sculptures "speak." Indeed, the various movements, stretches, pulls, twitches, pooches, crinkles, snarls, squints, stiffening, relaxations, asymmetrical movement, pock marking, and numerous other quirks of texture and motion add complexity and a spectrum of gesture from nuanced to intense, with a bevy in between. Field study is imperative here, however. We won't learn the letters, words, and sentences, and all the colloquialisms, inflections, insinuations, and subtleties without spending a goodly amount of time observing "EquiSpeak" action. We have to live it to become fluent. It's not something we can learn with reference photos alone (though they can be helpful supplements). Indeed, horses are talking every minute with their bodies and fascial expressions (and vocalizations and chemical signals), so if we learn to decipher them, we'll find a rich discussion going on all around us! Truly, if we ever hope to convey emotion and narrative in our work, we must learn the equine language as deeply as possible. For this, we need to pay attention first with our eyes since equine language happens with body language first, vocalizations second, and chemical signals somewhere all over the place. 

Unfortunately, however, many of us who aren't fortunate enough to be able to spend a lot of time observing equines in a natural setting with other equines. For this reason, they often can't "read" equines very well and so misconstrue the conditional situation of both the animal and their sculpture. And this is problematic. If we aren't fluent, we may not recognize certain signals for what they are and so may inadvertently end up imbuing something in our sculpture we didn't intend. The more fluent we are then, the better our choices and the stronger our compositions. (I'll be writing an article for Equine Collectibles touching on this subject in the future, so stay tuned!)

Before we start, however, we need to understand some core concepts of EquiSpeak because they form the discriminating foundation inherent in the language, allowing us to better decipher the signals, as follows:

  • Complexity: Horses don’t speak with a superficial, perfunctory understanding of things, but with a complex lexicon that’s dependent on the situation and behavioral context. Horses also have their own personal spin on the language with individualistic lingo and mannerisms, essentially having their own “accents” and way of speaking, which can be a fun addition to grasp.
  • Combination: Most of these cues can be combined to create complexity, simultaneous meanings, amplification, eccentricities, and nuances to what the horse is trying to communicate. However, some cues are almost exclusive to certain emotions such as pinned ears while others can be used to convey a bevy of emotions such as a pooky upper lip. We only learn the kaleidoscope of options in field study so it's important to spend a lot of time with horses in a natural setting with other horses.
  • Context: Each signal can have several different meanings depending on the context to the situation, the rest of the body, vocalizations, and chemical signals. The slightest alteration can change the whole meaning in the blink of an eye! Also, different signals will be layered, mixed together, or interchanged in a constant flood of communication. For these reasons, each moment should be regarded as a new "sentence" since so much can happen so quickly. 
  • Speed: Along those lines, these cues can occur from a slow build to here and gone in a fleeting moment; expression can change slowly or quickly. And the different speeds at which cues are communicated can layer on each other, too, so horses can be saying "long sentences" with "interjections" peppered throughout. That is to say horses can "talk in tangents" and then come back to the driving idea. So we have to remain constantly "open" to what they're saying longterm and shortterm.
  • Repetition: Horses can repeat what they say depending on the circumstance. Like if they want to amplify their point, they'll repeat it. In this way, many horses give us plenty of notice, however, still others won't, giving us only one mention of what they're trying to convey. It all depends on the idiosyncrasies of the individual personality.
  • Degree: Any of these cues exist on a spectrum of intensity depending on how pronounced the horse wants to communicate the meaning or emotion. So we have to be highly sensitive so we don’t miss a single tiny cue since they can be expressed very subtly.
  • Neutral state: Horses can flow from one expression right into another, however, sometimes they can revert back to a blank slate and then go into a new expression. It all depends on the individual idiosyncrasies. So this is something we should be aware of during field study to avoid misinterpreting something.
  • Tension: This component isn’t often discussed, but if we’re paying close attention, his face (and body) can be held with different levels of relaxations or tensions to convey his changing states of mind. Tension can be expressed independently with a single feature, in groups of features, or holistically (including his body, posture, or gait), depending on what he wants to say. Learning to see this tension takes a bit of experience, but once learned it becomes obvious.
  • Holistic: Expression manifests in the spine, too. For this reason, emotion isn’t just seen in his facial expressions but also in the posture of his spine and therefore the posture of his entire body. This literally means that what appears on his face is reflected by his whole body which has its own signals. This means that to catch the true gist of the facial expression, we often have to pay attention to the body as well to gain more complete context. So pay close attention to “everything he says” since this adds layers of meaning. (That said, the entirely of his body language is beyond the scope of this series, so we’ll save that for another time.)
  • Truth: Horses generally don’t lie—they’re almost always honest, especially with their emotions. Now they may be clever and try to fool us, but equines truly wear their emotions on their proverbial sleeves, usually giving themselves away if we’re versed enough to see the slip. There are three exceptions, however. The first is the expression of pain. That is to say, some horses tend to hide their pain—actually stop showing these signals—around “their” people for reasons unknown. Currently, it’s hypothesized that—as a prey animal—they don’t want to appear vulnerable. Another hypothesis considers if they may be so pleased to see us that this kind of body language overrides the pain expressions. Nonetheless, we have to be particularly sensitive then, and stay alert and conscientious. Being so, setting up cameras in the stall can be useful for determining the true nature of his condition if under medical care since he’ll let his guard down when we’re gone. Secondly, some horses can be brutally trained to mask their pain signals such as “stewarding” with the Big Lick TWH. So while these horses may be extremely distressed, they’ll appear normal, “not that bad,” or their revealing signals will be misinterpreted by the uninitiated. However, for those who are versed in EquiSpeak, the horse’s trauma is clearly communicated with all the other little cues that cannot be trained into submission. And, finally, there’s a third potential “lie”—pranking us. Horses have a sense of humor and have been known to play tricks on their herdmates and us and, in so doing, try to fib about their intentions before they spring the joke.
  • Breath: Not often mentioned, equines communicate a lot with their breathing, so we should always pay attention to this when trying to read them. 
  • Vocalizations: The horse has a host of sounds for communication, using his nostrils and vocal cords. Snorts and blows are good examples as are nickering, whinnying, roaring, and bellowing. And just like the rest of his physical cues, these can be altered in meaning. For example, a whinny can be made quite softly to be followed by a loud snort or, on the other hand, a nicker may be loud with a soft squeal afterwards. Indeed, a horse’s vocal array is as complicated as his physical indications of his mood, then combine them together and we have a plethora of emotional options.
  • Chemical signals: Unfortunately we lack the ability to pick up on a horse’s chemical signals since we don’t have the physical organs to do so. So we can only imagine what sort of things are being conveyed with this means of communication. There are some times when it seems these situations are really obvious like with a mare in season or with the flehmen response, but other times, we can only infer.

But before we start, it should be noted that we’ll be dealing exclusively with the expressions found with the face because, for one, the expressions here are many and varied, and for another, they’re a good start for developing a better sense for how expression manifests throughout the rest of his body. Indeed, horses express with their entire physique—from nose to tail—so we need to be mindful of the cascade of these additional cues in the context of the situation. Yet in order to do so, we first need to develop an astute awareness of even the slightest tweak, and a good place to start is how the horse expresses with his face since expressions here can be so subtle and fleeting. It should also be mentioned that this discussion only touches on a few components of EquiSpeak. In fact, there’s much more to it in terms of the number of expressions, their amplification, and also how they’re combined for additional meanings. So for a more developed inventory, research and ample field study are a must. We have to spend a lot of time with the real thing in a herd environment to really build up our repertoire. In the spirit of getting started then, that’s where we’ll focus…so let’s learn a bit about how horses talk!

Yet to make best use of all this, we first need to remain sensitive and open to what a horse is saying. This animal tries to communicate with us all the time, so if we aren’t aware or we misunderstand, we aren’t only missing important information, but we may be causing the animal anxiety. We also lose the opportunity to reflect and so choose to recreate such expression in our sculptures. On the other hand, we may inadvertently depict expressions that portray distress if we can’t translate EquiSpeak, something we’d probably want to avoid. The more adept we are at interpreting their language then, the more authentic and consistent our portrayal.

Learning Some Simple Phrases

Let’s explore a basic inventory of some of the “phrases” equines use to talk to each other to get started with our own exploration. And it’s just a start, remember—other expressions and variations occur, so pay attention in field study. On that note then, let’s start with the eyes—as a visual animal, we typically look to them first for emotional cues, don’t we? And so do horses. And luckily for us, the horse is quite expressive with his eyes thanks to his mobile lids and orbital musculature, and so…

So all that said, here's a short inventory of some of the "phrases" equines use to talk to each other to get us started with our exploration. And it's just a start, rememberother expressions and variations occur, so pay attention in field study. On that note then, let's start with the eyes—as a visual animal, we typically look to them first for emotional cues, don't we? And luckily for us, the horse is quite expressive with his eyes thanks to his mobile lids and orbital musculature, as such…

Open, round eye:
I am feeling calm, relaxed, and great!
I am in my happy place
I am interested in what's happening around me
I am friendly and happy
I am engaged with my surroundings

"Bright" round eye:
I am curious and interested
I am playful and quirky
I am excited and energized
I am friendly and happy
I am joyful and estactic

Blank, vacant eye:

I am about to completely freak out in a bad way
I've gone "elsewhere" because I'm stressed, afraid, or anxious
I am "not here"
My stress is building and I'll eventually lose it soon

"Doeeyed" or "softeyed":
I am calm, gentle, and friendly
I am loving and affectionate
I am trustworthy, reliable, and honest
I am interested and engaged in what's going on around me

Halfclosed eyes:
I am sleepy
I am dozing off
I am very relaxed, chill
The light is very bright
My eye hurts—help
I am about to lose my mind—get ready
If the lids are also tense, he may be in pain

Squinty eyes:
The sun is bright
The breeze is bugging me
I am a annoyed
Stop pestering me!
Knock it off!
I am in pain
I am in distress

Closed eyes:
I am asleep

I am dozing off

Tension above the eyes so that the orbital crest is seen:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very upset

A little whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am interested or curious
I am looking around, engaged in my surroundings
I am looking at that
Yeah, what are you looking at?

A moderate whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am a bit nervous
I am excited, fired up, and energized
I am playful
I am interested and curious
I am looking at you!

A lot of whites of the eyes in front of the iris:
I am very nervous—be careful
I am afraid
I am startled
I am really wound up
I am totally spazzing out

Eyewhites behind the iris:
I am interested in what’s in front of me
What’s that?
Eye rolling (often done by stallions):
I am aggressive and powerful
I am feeling playful

"Frowning" upper eyelid:
I am so angry!
Watch out!
It's over for you!
You’ve got it coming now!

"Peaked" or "tented" upper eyelid:
I am worried
I am anxious and nervous
I am unsure
I am interested
I am curious
I am a bit excited and energized
I am in pain

"Tense" eyelids:
I am very nervous, anxious, and upset
I am frightened
I am about to explode and spook
I am in pain

Sunken eyes (when not caused by old age or starvation):
I am very afraid
I am in terror
I am very sick
I am having a convulsion
I am in great pain
I am in great distress!
Help me!

Winky or squinty eyes:
The sun is bright
Something is tickling my eye
Darn dust!
That fly is bugging me
I am feeling quirky
I am in a funky mood

"Hard" eye or "stink eye":

Get out of my way
I am so over you
Move over
You are annoying me
Do not bother me anymore
This is tedious

"Laser eye" (when a horse looks us or another horse directly in the eye in a highly focused manner more so than the "stink eye"):

Move over there
Get out of my way
We are going this way
Pay attention to what I am saying to you

Slow blinking (aside from normally swishing the orb clean):
I am showing you affection
I like you
We are friends

Deliberate blinking (aside from normal orb cleaning):

I am thinking this over
I am considering what you just said
I am mulling this over

His mobile ears don't just collect sound, they clearly communicate his inner experience, too, with their positions, movements, and tensions. That's to say the horse has two windows to his soul! Not just his eyes, but also his ears! He virtually cannot say anything without using his ears, they're that central to the equine language.

Ears forward "neutral":
I am looking ahead 
“What is that?," something has my attention
I am interested and curious
I am on alert
Don’t kick me

Ears forward "tight" (sometimes being drawn closer together and higher on the crown):
I am alert and excited
I am fired up!
I am anxious about something in front of me
I am ready to spook in just a second
I am wary of something up ahead

Ears forward "loose":
I am alert and relaxed
I am paying attention to what's ahead, but calm
I am having a good time

Ears forward in a loose "V" (or floppy when walking):
I'm very relaxed and "100% OK"
I am confident and calm
I'm calm because I know what I'm supposed to do and I'm confident in my person
I am content or sleepy
I am in deep concentration
I am waiting for your next request

Inverted ears (when the ears are softly held backward and a little downward, often seen with nursing mares):

I am not paying attention to much because I am in my own headspace
I am zoned out
I am very serene and peaceful
I am enjoying this sense of unity, affection, and friendship

One ear cocked back passively:
I am paying attention to something behind or to the side of me
I am paying attention to my person on my back
I am paying attention to things in both directions
I am thinking and pondering
I am taking stock in what's going on around me

One ear twitching back and forth:

I am curious
I am engaging with my surroundings
I am paying attention in part, but also curious about all this other stuff, too

Ears twitching quickly back and forth:
I am anxious, worried, or nervous
I want to get away!
I am about to panic and spook!
Help me!
I am very excited and full of beans!
What's going on, everybody?! Let's spaz!
There are so many things happening around me!
Boy, it's windy! Time to cavort!

Both ears cocked back passively:
I am paying attention to something behind me
I am listening to my person on my back
I am relaxed and maybe a little sleepy
I am curious, but wary…I'll touch it with my nose but my ears "have my six."
A polite way of standing next to or behind other horses 
I recognize your seniority, please don't kick me (when standing next to or behind another horse)
I’m the boss, but you can relax, I won't come after you (when standing next to or behind another horse)

Scoping ears (when they're held straight forwards but only for moments at a time):

I am on the look–out for danger or situations of concern
I am scouting out the situation 

Scoping ears with a high head (often seen with stallions challenging each other, or in sport, often with a jumping horse as he approaches a jump):

I am big and bad!
Don't mess with me!
I am powerful and dangerous!
I am really on the war path
I am very concerned about what's going on up there
What's in front of me is of intense interest to me 
That up there is something to be very concerned about

Scoping ears followed by pinned back ears (often seen with cutting horses when they're about to start cutting a cow):

I am on the attack!
Watch out! Here I come!
You've got it coming now!

Ears pinned back passively:
I am very nervous and frightened
I am not sure what to make of all this
Please don't hurt me!
Help me!

Ears held stiffly backwards:
I am in pain
I am anxious, nervous, and tense
I am in distress
I am very upset

Ears pinned back aggressively:
Oh no you didn't!
Go away!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
I am angry
I am scared and very upset
Nope nope nope!
Don’t hurt me!
You are toast!…I am going to attack (when they're particularly flat)

Tension at the poll and around the ears:

I am anxious, tense, and upset
I am in pain, in discomfort
I am not "100% OK"
I am moody, not feeling good
I am about to spook
I want to get out of here

Shaking his ears:

I am releasing tension and anxiety
I am trying or starting to relax
I am letting this disagreement or disagreeable situation go
I am moving on emotionally
I am over all this

Twitching and twirling ears:

I am playful
I am laughing
This is amusing and enjoyable
I am having a really good time with you

As for nostrils, they're very expressive as well due to their mobility, fleshiness, and ability to express quirkiness, relaxation, and tension. They can also communicate through breathing, snorts, and blows. Learning how to read nostrils takes a bit of practice since they're also involved with breathing and so will change shape and nature depending on the breathing circumstance, but keep at it. 

"Neutral" nostrils:
I am relaxed and calm
I am mellow
La dee dah…doot dee doo


I am curious about this
What is this?

"Tense" nostrils:
I am angry
I am anxious and nervous
I am in pain
I am frightened
I am excited and full of beans
I am feeling aggressive and pushy

Twitchy nostrils:
I am a little bit perturbed
Flys are bugging me
I am relaxed and a bit lazy
Maybe I'm falling asleep…

Flared nostrils: 
I smell something curious (especially when quivering)
Something has my attention
What is that?
I am getting full of beans

Flared wide nostrils:
I am on alert
What is that?!
Hello! (for the first time, a part of greeting)
You have something for me, don't you?
I am curious
I am afraid
I am worried
I am full of beans! I am so excited!
I may start cavorting! boing! boing! boing!

Pinched or puckered nostrils:
I am feeling quirky and funky 
I don't really want to do that
I am angry
I am annoyed and irritated
Watch out!
Don't even think about it!
You'll want to rethink that
Leave me alone!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
I am aloof and disinterested
I am intolerant of what's happening

Strained, slightly dilated nostrils with elongated lips and flattened profile:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very upset
I am very anxious and tense

Fast, "pinched," or broken breathing:

I am stressed, anxious, fearful, tense, excited, or angry

Snorts and blows, of varying degrees:

I am excited
I am anxious
I am curious
I am alert
I am wary

Relaxed and regular breathing:

I am calm, mellow, "100% OK" and chill. 

Deep, regular breathing:

I am sleepy, actually asleep, deeply relaxed
I have a serious mellow

Three huffs with an extended outbreath at the end, often at a distance but still visible:

I am greeting you in a friendly way
Glad to meet you!
Glad to see you again!

Widened nostrils with soft breathing:

I am inviting you to come closer

Short intakes of breath, taking quick whiffs:

I am interested in this or you
I acknowledge you

Inward sniff or soft snort:

I am nurturing you
I am encouraging you
I am soothing you

Long, soft blowingout of breath, sometimes in groups of three:

I am helping you relax
I am here for you
You can trust me, be calm
Let's chill together

"Letting out the butterflies” with a drawn out sigh:
I am releasing a build up of stress and anxiety (domestic horses do this as a way of releasing inner tension)

Shuddering breath (when he sucks in two short half–breaths and then exhales a long breath out, or inhalation and exhalation that's "chattered"):

I am releasing stress and tension
I am trying to relax after a stressful experience
I was so tense and anxious, but now I'm trying to calm down (like our breathing after a good cry)


I am kinda done with this

I am resigned to this

Big sigh:

I agree with you
Yes, I understand what you mean

Short, bold snort:
That is of concern to me
I am worried about that over there
I am troubled by something over there
I have become alert and wary

I am sleepy
I am mellow
I am letting out stress
I am trying to relax
I am bored
I am lazy

Let’s relax

The muzzle, chin, and mouth also "talk" when it comes to equine communication, relaying volumes about his emotional state both in terms of body language and noises. Nuzzles, nips, and bites are also a part of equine speech, and like the rest of his body signals, its meaning changes depending on how, where, and when they're delivered and in context to the rest of his body language, vocalizations, and chemical signals.

"Neutral" muzzle:
I am relaxed, chill, and mellow
Everything is okay

Slack, droopy, relaxed muzzle:
I am relaxed
I am friendly
I am calm
I am half asleep
I am drugged

Tense "tight" muzzle:
I am excited and full of beans
I am really concentrating
I am irritated with you
I am so annoyed
I don't like this!
I am getting put out
You’ve been warned
I am upset
I am in discomfort
I am aloof and disinterested
I am intolerant of what's happening

Snarling muzzle:

I'm warning you!
Knock it off!
Bug off!
I am getting seriously pissed off
I'm building up to wiping you out

Twitchy muzzle:
I am feeling quirky and funky
I am full of beans
Let's play!
What's this?!
Oh, that feels good!

"Grimace" muzzle:
I am in pain
I am afraid
I am incensed
You've got it coming!
Charge! Attack!

Pooky upper lip:

I am wound up and excited
I am a bit tense
I am full of beans!
Ooooo, that feels so good! (like with an itchy spot)

Pooched muzzle:
I am excited and energized
I am full of beans
I am anxious and nervous
I am upset
Oh, that feels really good! (like with an itchy spot)

Foaming mouth:

I am not "100% OK"
I am very tense and nervous
I am anxious
I am in distress

Drooling mouth:
I am in distress because I cannot swallow
I am being ridden in a way that closes off my throat
I may have tooth problems

Dry corners, or slight drool at the corners of the mouth:
My mouth is calm and relaxed because I am, too

I am “100% OK” with this


Oh, that feels good! (if being scratched and rubbed)

Tongue sucking or lolling (nervous tics):

I am not "100% OK"
I am anxious and nervous
I have inner tension
I am in discomfort
I am bored

Tongue sticking out to be rubbed:

This feels goodweird, I know.
Be my friend.
Hi there, I'm friendly

"Neutral" chin:
I am calm and mellow
Everything is chill
I am happy and content

Slack, droopy chin:
I am very relaxed, even sleepy
I am feeling lazy
I am very mellow and chill
I am really super relaxed (especially if his chin is "bobbing" or twitching

Tense chin:
I am anxious, nervous and upset
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am angry
I am annoyed
I am very put out

Pooched chin:
I am excited, wound up, and energized
I am full of myself
I am bean filled
I am anxious, nervous, and upset
That feels so good!

Tense muzzle with pronounced, stiff chin:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am upset
I am resistant
I am full of beans, full of myself
I am about to spaz
I am full of nervous tension, I am anxious

Lip licking, chewing and sometimes swallowing (and a audible sigh):
I am releasing tension and anxiety
I am understanding something, the stress of concentration is over
I am starting to relax after I was really stressed
I am relieved
I am thinking this over, pondering it
I am digesting what you are saying to me
I am starting to accept the idea
I agree with you
I just "digested a thought"
I submit to you
Please don’t hurt me
I am not a threat
I am being friendly and affectionate
I am hungry…again
Oh, that feels good! More please! (if giving him scratches and rubs)

"Baby talk" (Most often seen in foals and weanlings which normally stops around 2 to 3 years):
I am just a little guy…don't hurt me!
I submit to you!
I am harmless!
I am not a threat!

Jawing in female donkeys (similar to baby talk):

I am in season

I am bonding with you
I love you
I am affectionate
I am relaxed and loving 
I acknowledge you in a friendly way
I want your attention

Pair grooming:
I am your friend
Let's be buddies!
Let's chill together
Let's bond!
I like you!

I am analyzing smells better…hold on
That smells weird
That's a new smell!
What smell is this?
I am in pain (There's a point between the nostrils that is a pressure point for the limbic system. It runs from that point to a corresponding point under the upper lip at the gum line. Massaging this point releases endorphins so by doing the freshmen, the horse is self

Light nip:
Tag…you’re it!
I am teasing you
I feel playful and mischievous
It's a love bite!
Don't bug me…go away
Back off!
Remember who's boss

I'm establishing or maintaining the pecking order
Move it! I am in charge!
Yes, I am the boss of you!
Go away!
Back off!
Get out of my way!
Say your prayers!
I am very afraid
I am very angry

Biting the air or at an object:
I am very anxious, upset, and nervous
I am in distress
I am in pain
I am afraid
Please don’t hurt me!
I will defend myself!

The tension seen in the jaw muscles also communicates a horse's inner landscape, so look for the pennate striations of the Masseter muscles, as such

Strained Masseter:
I am in pain
I am in distress
I am very nervous and anxious
I am not okay
I am upset
I have a lot of nervous energy
I am wound up and excited
I have a lot of inner tension

Teeth grinding:

I am anxious
I am tense
I am stressed out

I am strung out and unhappy
I don't like this
I am in pain

Tension in the jaw joint:

I am in pain
I am stressed and anxious
I am tense and upset
I am not "100% OK"
I may have dental problems

Head position is also a part of the equine language. This is in part to how the equine sees his world, but also a function of expressive posture conveyed through his spine, often through his neck and head position. Just like how our head position influences our body language, the same is true for the equine, offering us lots more options for our expressive palette, as follows…

Lowered "neutral" head:
I am chill and relaxed
I am sleepy or asleep
I am content, mellow, and happy
I am totally okay

Very lowered head:
I am depressed and sad
I give in
I am defeated and broken
I am distressed 
I am in psychological pain

Reactive head, adverse to touch:

I do not trust you
I do not like this
Leave me alone!
I am anxious and tense
Something hurts

Head "chattering" (often accompanied by a pooky upper lip and lip licking):

Ooooooh that feels soooo darn goooood!

Raised head:
I am attentive to what I am looking at
I am alert
What is that?
Who is over there?
I hear, smell, or see something!
I am curious about and interested in my surroundings
I am feeling a little bit energized and engaged
This is very interesting!
I may spook or bolt
I am not paying attention to you anymore
(If he raises his head when ridden in synch with a footfall, he may be in pain)

Arching the neck, even subtly:

I am taking this discussion to the next level

Arched neck and tucked head:
Do you have something for me?
What have you got there?
I hear the treat bag!
I am curious and keenly interested
I am feeling playful and happy

Head extended with an outstretched neck:
I want to touch it without getting close
Do I dare touch it?
What is it?!
I am very curious but wary
I am not sure about this
I am going to bite you (if the ears are pinned back)

Swinging head with pinned ears or squeals:
Get away from me!
Back off!
I am warning you!
Go away!
Not now!
You're asking for it!

"Snaking" (typically seen with stallions when they herd their mares and foals):
Get going!
Move along!
I am boss!
Don't defy me!
Bust a move!
(If he's doing this to people, that's a big red flag of acute danger. This is a signal of aggression.)

Head tossing or "twirling fling" (often seen when waiting for food):

I am impatient
Hurry up!
I am excited for something
Stop dragging your feet!
It's comingyay!
I am feeling pugnacious
I am feeling playful
I am energized and fired up
Let's spaz!
I am strong and powerfuldon't mess with me (when done by stallions while posturing)

Head shaking, bobbing, tossing, or nodding:

Something is bugging me on or in my head
I am impatient
I am laughing 
I am feeling quirky
That is amusing
I am feeling playful

Head pull, using the neck to pull you in closer to him:

I love you
Let me "hug" you (equines hug with their necks)
More please! Don't stop! (if getting rubs)

Head bump:

I am feeling playful
I am feeling dominant
Move over

Head rub:

I am comfortable with you
You are my friend
I have an itchy spot on my face and you make a good rubbing post

Laying head on another horse's back:

You are my friend
I am relaxed and chillin'
I like being with you
I am about to play mount you

Head bowing (often when two stallions approach each other):

I am strong so beware
Mind yourself, I'm here
I am full of myself
I am feeling playful
I am showing dominance

Turned head:
Indicates what direction the horse is interested in due to a sound, sight, or smell that triggered the response. Equines don't really do the "head tilt" thing that we or dogs often do though they will tilt their heads to look at something differently or listen at a new angle.

Vocalizations, breathing, and other noises pepper equine speech with even more meaning, so we not only need to pay attention to them, but also notice how their physics manifest on the body so we can capture that "living moment" in our clay. For example, a whinny will activate the abdominals and cause them to "chatter" in motion while a snort will also cause his nostrils and false nostrils to curiously distort. 

Snorts and blows:
I am excited and energetic
I am feeling playful and quirky
I am interested and curious, and a little excited about it, too
I am a bit wary
I am alarmed
I am nervous and anxious
I am standing my ground (often when also stamping his foot)
Measured blows usually indicate interest, playfulness, curiosity, or power play (as with stallions)

Soft nicker:
Hello, my sweet baby
Greetings, dear friend
Hello, friendly biped
I am friendly
I want your attention
Where are you going?

Loud nicker:
HI, baby!
HI, friend!
HI, biped!
What are you doing over there?
Anyone there?
Hey, I'm over here!
Where is everybody?
Where are you going?
There you are!
You have something for me?

Soft whinnie:
I am politely saying "Hi!"
I am noncommittally inquiring where others are or indicating my presence
I am a bit shy and unconfident 
I am a little bit unsure of things
I am feeling a little quizzical 

Loud whinnie, or "trumpeting":

I am here!
Where are you?!
Where is everybody?! Anyone there?!
Don't go!
I am excited and wound up!
Hey everybody, let's spaz!
I am nervous and anxious
What is that over there?! I am very worried!

Roar, scream, or bellowing:
I am big, powerful, and dangerous (especially when stamping a foot)
Watch out!
Don't mess with me!
I am the biggest, baddest boss
I am in charge!
Don't even try!
Back off!
You talkin' to me?!

Grunts and squeals:
I am playful, feeling naughty and mischievous
I am afraid
Don't hurt me!
I am going to give you a piece of my mind while I get you!
I am standing my ground (while stamping a foot)
Back off!
Get out of my way!
Can also indicate fear, anger, or playfulness if also running or cavorting 


I am about to blow snot through my nose
I am in discomfort
I am bored
This is tedious 
I am done with this

Science has also identified a grimace scale on the equine's face as an indicator of pain. It's imperative that we recognize these signals to be informed for our work. The details have already been discussed above, but as a convenient roster, here they are again, but as a group:
  • Tension above the eyes so that the orbital crest is seen
  • Halfclosed eyes with tense eye lids
  • Ears held stiffly backwards
  • Strained Masseter
  • Tense muzzle with pronounced, stiff chin
  • Strained, slightly dilated nostrils with elongated lips and flattened profile
All said and done, perhaps we should consider this: why be so dour with horses? So agendadriven? People tend to be so goal–oriented when they interact with horses that they lose sight of the real gift right in front of them! If we love our horses and enjoy our time with them, why not simply relax and show them we care about them as individuals rather than just what they do for us? Learning to speak their language helps us to do that since it gives us the tools to communicate our affection back to them. Horses appreciate knowing they're more than just a means to an end! For this, it's also best to adopt a sense of humor, and to love and allow ourselves to be loved in return, and this will open the floodgates to a horse's inner landscape that will enrich our relationship in so many welcome and untold ways. Allowing ourselves to see our horse beyond our agenda and for the individual soul he is gives us the first step towards true union, a true bond. And there's nothing in the world quite as special as a true bond with a horse!

Conclusion To Part 13

Clearly there’s a lot more to equine head mechanics than simply the opening of the mouth. A whole slew of mechanisms are crammed into a relatively small, tight place, and each movement influences the whole system. This again confirms the holistic nature of head mechanics, just like the body—nothing happens in a vacuum.

The same can also be said for his expressions. In few other animals can communication be so subtle and complex, and since his underlying anatomy influences how he can manifest it, knowing how it’s all structured helps us to get those expressions right. Understanding cranial anatomy also lets us See the full spectrum of those expressions in the first placedon't we have to know the "neutral" state in order to recognize changes?

And expression goes far beyond fun options for our clay—it actually speaks to the kinds of narratives we wish to portray. In other words, we may not want to inadvertently convey things such as anger, distress, or pain. We may also create expressions inconsistent to the "living moment" in our composition or inconsistent to the rest of the depicted body language, compromising the believability of our work.

Most definitely, all this contributes to the difficulty of sculpting the equine head. There’s always something going on with it—it’s a busy place! But once learned, EquiSpeak becomes a fascinating aspect that will lend depth and richness to our compositions as well as to our appreciation of him. So until next time…get ahead with careful observation!

“I explore the particular with the hope of discovering something microscopically universal.” ~ Lynda Gaelyn Smith

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