Saturday, January 27, 2018

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 17


Hello again! We’re back with this 20–part series about the equine head, dissecting it both anatomically, biologically, and artistically. In the previous installment, we discussed artistic flaws that are often found in equine sculpture, giving us a leg up for our own creative efforts. But our endeavors aren’t just about artistic issues—we also have to factor in real–life concerns. This animal is typically evaluated according to a series of value judgements that determine worth or "suitability." This means that the horse is one of the most objectified animals in domestication, finding judgement in nearly every facet of his experience with us. So we have to also factor in all these value systems into our creative considerations with all the nuance and complexity apparent in life. Yet we also need to know when to ignore them, too! 

And all this is no easy task. For starters, there’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding structure. Misguided convention and rhetoric seasons much of prevailing thought, some of which is being exposed as science peels away obsolete ideas. What’s more, there’s a systemic opinion that equine structure is as much about taste as anything else when in fact the only thing truly relevant is function. Remember that the equine physique is a carefully balanced series of specific systems designed precisely for his biological niche. There's not a lot of fudge–factor for our fancies. Indeed, when we push past these biological parameters, we often end up with “lawn ornaments,” nonviable individuals who may certainly fit our tastes, but are physically compromised. Is this what we want to endorse in our art? Even so, we should also recognize that many concepts of conformation are at best hypothetical. Science is disproving much of conventional thought on this issue, and we certainly can’t ignore the many specimens with “perfect” structure who are chronically lame compared to those with “flawed” structure who remain sound. The quality of horsemanship also plays a tremendous role in how conformation affects performance, a factor often ignored in conformational evaluations.

To manage all this then, we should realize there’s a hierarchy of structure. First and foremost, there’s functional conformation, the build that's consistent to nature's blueprint and purpose. Then next there’s breed type, the structural differences that define a breed or type. And last, our tastes, or those features that form a horse more to our liking aesthetically. This means we shouldn’t only know what’s viable, but also what’s desirable as well as what's variable. That’s a lot to juggle.

Now that we’ve already explored some artistic flaws in Part 16, let’s discuss some functional flaws we may find in life with the equine head…

Functional Flaws

A sound frame of reference—a biological context—places the equine evolutionary blueprint at the base of our value system, helping us avoid unintentionally validating harmful structure. That's because it's two different things to sculpt equines and then to sculpt equines within a biological context. Indeed, it's perilously easy to be lulled into "improving" upon nature rather than remembering its parameters. All too quickly we can lose sight of biology in pursuit of our own ideals, something particularly strong when it comes to art. This isn’t reserved just for artists, however; it’s equally true with horsepeople. Breeding and judging decisions in pursuit of “perfection” can result in deformities that then become validated by kudos. And since people are prone to oneupmanship, these deformities can even become ever more exaggerated. This means we need to regard things with a biological objectivity, especially when expounded by an entrenched industry. That's because, though often well–meaning, many of those involved are simply too immersed in their own dogma—and immersion brings with it bias, fads, knowledge gaps, denials, convention, excuses, conformity, peer pressure, and misinformation. Yet, as artists, we have an opportunity for a more objective view since our knowledge base, by its very nature, needs to be more expansive, technical, and interdisciplinary. We simply have to be "lifted out" of the immersion if we're going to be able to create our most informed work.

That said, however, we also should recognize that we can become immersed, too, particularly when it comes to our tastes that can contradict biology just as easily. Truly, it's easy to fall under the spell of our knowledge gaps, blindspots, and prejudices. Artists also tend to idealize which is fine if the definition of “perfect” is firmly seated within a biological context. But if not, we can end up validating harmful structure. And if aren't especially careful, we can slide into objectification, and that's definitely a slippery slope. For example, we perceive a difference between the Mona Lisa and Barbie because recognizing idealized, objectified caricatures of our own form is easy, being so familiar. Yet this distinction isn’t so forthcoming in equine art. Perhaps it’s because we burden the animal our ideas of perfection, our persistent predilection for “more is better,” or maybe because people are prone to objectification anyway. Then mix in status, profits, and competition and we have a rather problematic brew. Whatever the reason though, all this presents an interesting conundrum to us—realistic art demands faithfulness to life, but where’s the line? 

This question has important implications because history demonstrates that artistic visuals can be a potent force in shaping people's perception. That is to say visuals are informed by life, but they also influence life in a kind of feedback loop. Art also tends to absorb ideals of beauty to then exaggerate and idealize them, and so endorse them. What usually happens then is a symbiosis that produces an ever extreme paradigm of beauty. The HYPP problem in the Quarter Horse and the "extreme headed" Arabians are classic examples. In terms of movement, the Big Lick TWH is another clear illustration of this effect. To clarify it further, it's also alarmingly illustrated in the images of fashion models with the profuse use of Photoshop. 

This begs another question: Do we have a moral responsibility to this animal? We can't ignore the possibility that when we tip towards exaggeration we may run into ethical dilemmas. And the problem isn’t whether art work is “alive” and therefore cannot suffer. The issue is what our art work validates. Whatever we create is an endorsement, a promotion, an immortalization, so in this way, our art speaks not only for us, but for the animal as well. So do our visuals promote his well–being? Or do we promote Barbie ideals? Are we pandering to problematic ideals or are we advocating for this animal we profess to admire?

Before we can answer this for ourselves, however, we need to develop an ability to weigh things objectively and it's a biological perspective that will provide us with that measure of objective judgement. This not only gives us the tools to make more informed decisions, but also the rock to stand on when we have to defend our work. It's hard to argue with biological reality! For this reason then, some problematic structures are presented here as a means to jump–start this process, as follows: 
  • Malocclusions: A “parrot mouth” or an “undershot jaw” are severe faults because they interfere with eating. A parrot mouth occurs when the upper jaw overshoots the lower jaw whereas a undershot jaw is when the lower jaw undershoots the upper jaw. This shouldn't be confused with a "pooky" lip, however.
  • Big Head: Also called Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism (NPH), Big Head is a condition caused when the horse doesn’t get enough calcium. Firm bony swellings appear of the bridge of the nose near the eyes. Other symptoms include thicker jaw bones which sometimes become so thick and misshapen that the tongue hangs out because the incisors can’t meet. The condition also causes unsoundness that periodically switches from leg to leg, sometimes making the horse unwilling to move. And because the bones are weaker, they can fracture easily.
  • Narrow jaws: A large fist should fit between the ridges of the jaws between the ramus to allow for a proper airway. When there isn't, the horse may have problems consuming enough air or swallowing.
  • Buggy eyes: There’s a tendency to select for big, buggy eyes in certain breeds such as the Arabian. However, this feature can indicate hypothyroidism or Anterior Segment Dysgenesis (ASD) in a real horse. 
  • “Dishy head,” “classic head,” or “extreme type”: The distinctly dished, domed head (the “jibbah”) of the Arabian is a prominent feature of the breed. A prevailing misconception believes the jibbah creates a larger brain case (or, alternately, to increase air intake). Predictably then, selection for this structure is strong as enthusiasts seek the deepest dish, the most pronounced jibbah, and the most bent concave axis. The result found in many halter classes today then has become markedly extreme compared to heads past. Simply comparing the Arabian profiles of ancestral desertbred photos to those of today makes the difference patently clear. In natural circumstances, however, the Arabian profile is much more discrete in design because, in reality, the jibbah evolved in a desert environment as a means to cool and add moisture to the hot, dry air to protect the sensitive inner tissues of the respiratory tract. In fact, many desert species have cranial dishes for this reason—from asses to hemonids to antelopes—so it’s not something unique to the breed. This means the jibbah is a function of the sinus, not the brain case or breathing capacity.  Being so, extreme concave profiles are a functional lability by actually contradicting nature’s design. Remember that air passing through the respiratory tract can be as fast as 400 mph, faster than an F5 tornado, and this air flow can move unimpeded in a normal head. Yet an “extreme” head causes air sweeping through the sinus cavity to hit the delicate membranes at abnormal angles, causing painful inflammation. Also the easy flow of air within the head's respiratory system is restricted by causing pinch points at key intersections, often producing wheezing and gruntling. In some cases, such a head structure also forces the roots of the upper molars to puncture the floor of the sinus cavity, resulting in various physical and behavioral problems due to pain. Unfortunately then these animals are reduced to "lawn ornaments," unable to function as as nature intended, or even have to be euthanized, their disfigured skulls often found as cautionary tales in equine dentistry schools. This is why Arabians used for sport tend to have less–extreme heads whereas halter horses tend to have the more extreme heads. Yet because a “classic head” is considered so desirable today, Arabian artwork has idealized and amplified it to brow–raising proportions as a means to seduce sales. Indeed, some art work has swerved so deeply into exaggeration that it’s no longer realistic by any measure. For example, Arabians with dolphin–like deformed heads with extremely domed foreheads and crushed nasal bones with tiny muzzles and enormous eyes are quite common in art work. Or seahorse–like heads due to also gouging–down the jaw bars, giving the head a fluted appearance. Stepping back then, it begs the question of how much should our tastes influence our creative choices regarding a structure that must first be functional? For this reason, perhaps it's better to derive influences from those Arabians used for performance rather than halter showing.   
  • Fine muzzle: A relic from the Victorian era, a small, refined muzzle is thought to constitute good breeding whereas a “coarse,” large muzzle apparently indicated poor breeding. In particular, the Arabian ideal demands a “tea cup muzzle” which has inspired breeders to select for ever–smaller muzzles, some alarmingly so. This creates what can be described as an “ice cream cone” head in which the muzzle almost seems to end in a point, something even exaggerated in art work. Yet a “tea cup” muzzle never meant a muzzle small enough to fit into a teacup, but one sensitive and delicate enough to sip from one. Remember that, biologically, the entirety of his evolutionary history can be found in his head, and nature designed all the necessary means for sustenance in his muzzle: The intake of air, food, and water. Being so, a small muzzle compromises their intake by reducing the net capacity of the muzzle. What’s more, an undersized muzzle can cause interference with the rooting of the teeth while, in large breeds, a small muzzle can compromise the consumption and processing of the copious amounts of food, water, and air needed to sustain their mass. Therefore, the animal requires a muzzle of goodly size and proportion to his mass. Truly, biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as a muzzle that’s “too big."
  • Fine head: Current ideals of animal beauty aren’t necessarily self–evident or timeless. More often, they’re rooted in historical cultural, social, or class prejudices, especially during the Victorian period, which was ripe with ideas about elitism and eugenics. One such example is a comparatively small head which was more a function of class prejudice in the Victorian 1800s rather than intelligent breeding. In the past, the common horse used by the working class had a relatively heavy, large head—and what upper class aristocrat would want to be seen with a “common horse”? This fueled the desire for a smaller, “finer” head which only intensified with the emphasis of showing status from utility. Horse paintings, which were the primary means to glorify prize animals before the camera, idealized horses even more with curiously small heads as an artistic expression of this underlaying preference. The work of George Stubbs is a classic example. Consequently, breeders aimed for this ideal even more, causing a progressive shrinking in the equine head, comparatively speaking. As a result, most horses today have smaller heads than those of yesteryear, or in relation to feral or wild cousins. Indeed, Susan McBane noted this trend in her book, Conformation for the Purpose, The Make, Shape and Performance of the Horse: “Domestic horses, however, nearly all have longer necks and smaller heads than their primitive ancestors because we have selectively bred for this characteristic of beauty…” Indeed, we still hear this sentiment today in the comments made about wild or feral cousins being described as “primitive" or even "ugly." Notwithstanding, evolution designed the equine head for things far more important than our ideas about beauty, and serious complications can arise when a large body mass with high performance demands depends on a head that’s too small to accommodate. We should also remember that the equine head is integral to his balance and coordination, being a weight on the end of his neck, and by extension his entire spine. For these reasons then, his head should be in balance with his mass and more faithful to proportions informed by nature. (Note: It’s also curious that other related structures are present in those old paintings as well such as long, fine necks, giant eyes, small muzzles, light bone, small hooves, and often long cannons, all vestigial ideals born of the Victorian age that still influence breeding today in some breeds. So the lesson here is: While art can be technically realistic, it can still be unfaithful to the subject through a misappropriation of proportion.)
  • Homogenization: There’s been a fashionable trend within some breeds of adopting the features of another breed as a means of “improvement. For example, the Saddlebred influence on the breeding of Morgans, or the “exotic” Arab–like heads on American Iberians or Quarter Horses. But shouldn’t each breed be celebrated for its unique features, which are often rich in history and cultural context? And shouldn’t artists be “keepers of the grail” when short–term breeding fads threaten the distinct phenotype of a breed? Even so, sometimes homogenization can be an artistic blindspot caused by a fixation on a particular physique that seeps into the expression of others. For example, an artist enamored with Arabians may “arabian–ize” the sculptures of other breeds, even drafters and stock horses. Artists can also become so fixated on a certain type within a breed that other variations are excluded within their body of work. This is fine, of course, if this is what we consciously intend, but if it’s unintentional, that’s a systemic blind spot. For all these reasons then, knowing the ancestral types of a breed can help us create within context to better express a breed’s diversity and distinction.
  • Breed type: We need to remember that the concept of breed type—or “points of type”—is a relatively new invention born of the Victorian era. Being so, the thinking of the time turned breed type into a kind of branded market identity, improving a breed's profitability in a market veering away from utility. This resulted in a progressive exaggeration of type in many breeds, to the point today that many specimens, especially from the halter venue, are nonviable. So what’s the most responsible way to regard these points of type? Capriciously according to our tastes? Or skeptically with the equine blueprint firmly in mind? For this, familiarity with a breed’s factual history and historic archetypes, firmly rooted in biology, are good balances for making informed decisions. 
Conclusion To Part 17

That’s a lot to factor into our knowledge base, isn’t it? Most definitely, sculpting the equine realistically involves a lot more than simply sculpting what’s there! There’s so much to weigh with each decision. No wonder artistically expressing the equine has challenged artists so profoundly through the ages!

However, we can stay on a steadier compass heading if our navigation points are thoughtfully chosen. In this, if our path homes in on functionality as our destination, the more likely we’ll be able to avoid flawed detours. Boiled down then, it’s all a matter of what we want to say about our values through out work. For this reason, such things are up to our own individual decisions. But what’s a more sincere celebration of this animal? Portrayals that advocate for his wellbeing or those that pander to human capriciousness?

So to continue our explorations, we’ll progress to troubleshooting our sculpture in Part 18. Knowing we’ll make errors from the onset is helpful since we can then preemptively arm ourselves with preventative countermeasures. So until next time…favor function over fashion to fast–track progress!

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.” 
~ Abigail Adams

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