Friday, September 29, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 8


Here we are back again with this 20–part series analyzing the equine head from both an anatomical, evolutionary, biological, and artistic perspective. This is a unique take on this feature since most resources focus on only one perspective, but realism benefits by a grasp of all four because we're not only provided with the whats and hows, but more importantly, the whys for his cranial structure. Thus armed, we can then make more credible creative choices that improve the realism in our work and which also help to steer us away from unintentionally depicting nonviable structure. Indeed, when we know the Biologic behind a structure's evolutionary context, getting it consistent to both nature's blueprint and intentions becomes all the more important.

And fascinating! Learning the backstory of the equine head deepens our appreciation for this magnificent and ancient animal, making what at first seems common place to be revealed as something extraordinary and marvelous. The equine is truly a biomechanical miracle, formed entirely by economical function. What seems to be so simple on the outside then is actually mind–blowingly complicated and multifaceted, and it pays for us to know just how so.

Because know it or not, much about this animal is taken for grated, being so ubiquitous. Even realistic equine artists are guilty of this, typically focusing on getting anatomy right while at the same time overlooking the biological pressures that shaped it. They end up knowing the whats—sure—but not the whys, and it's the whys that lend substance to our compositions. For example, we may sculpt the most technically accurate head, but if we're duplicating nonviable structure, are we really creating according to our convictions? Are we aware of what our creations are saying about our values and knowledge base? Are we slaves to parroting what we see, or are we able to make informed decisions? Do we have the biological facts to defend our choices?

In this Part 8 then, we’ll continue this exploration by discussing his skull which will set us up for the fleshy bits in following installments. So enough jabber, let’s get to it!…


It might come as a surprise to know the equine skull is comprised of 34 bones, most of them flat. During the birthing process, these bones yield and overlap, allowing the skull to be somewhat compressed for easier parturition. As a newborn, the bones have fibrous joints, which are basically immovable joints where the bones are bound by fibrous tissue, that ossify as the youngster matures.

The equine skull consists of two basic parts—the maxilla (upper jaw and cranium) and the mandible (lower jaw). The maxilla is slightly wider than the mandible and contains the upper teeth, brain case, sinus and nasal cavities, eye orbits, and the ear bullæ. The mandible contains the lower teeth. The cavity created when together is the oral cavity (in the front) and the throat cavity (in the back). From the side, the back of the jaw aligns with the back of the zygomatic arches, in front of the ear, at its “button” underneath the zygomatics.

There’s only one joint in the head, for the jaw, which is located behind the eye, causing the entire jaw to drop when the joint is articulated. The jaw can also open and close with a limited amount of lateral play, allowing the animal to chew in a rotary motion rather than up and down (like we do), or even less so fore and aft. When he chews, the “Salt Cellar,” the cavity above and behind the eye, pops in and out (as do the side cheek muscles)—it’s the coronoid process of the mandible popping in and out of the temporal fossa as synced with the chewing motion. 

When it comes to the maxilla, its bones are grouped into two categories—the cranial bones and the facial bones. Together, they converge to form the orbital and nasal cavities. Specifically, the cranial bones encase the brain and the hearing organs to also include the:
  • Sphenoid: A bone that lays at the base of the cranium. 
  • Ethmoid: Sits in front of the sphenoid and projects forward to help form the cranial and nasal cavities. 
  • Occipital: Located at the back of the skull, commonly referred to as the “poll.” Through it passes the spinal cord into the vertebræ.
  • Frontal bones: Lay between the parietals and the nasal bones, forming the forehead and the brow. 
  • Interparietal: Found separated only in the horse (and cat), it’s present in other species but fused to its surrounding bones before birth. It lays between the two parietal bones near the front of the occipital bone. 
  • Parietal: These two paired bones create the major portion of the roof of the cranium. 
  • Pterygoid: Thin, narrow, bent–back plates of bone on either side of the vomer that serve as muscle attachments for throat muscles. 
  • Temporal: Creates the sides of the cranium and houses the openings for the ears and the petrosal bones. 
  • Petrosal: Contains the ear canal and which isn’t entirely fused to the skull being instead designed to “float” in equines, possibly aiding the maintenance of balance.
  • Vomer: A thin sheet of bone in front of the sphenoid that projects forward to divide the posterior nares into two portions.
In turn, the facial bones form the oral and nasal areas while also supporting the structures of the throat such as the tongue, pharynx, and larynx. They’re comprised of the following:
  • Premaxilla: Sometimes called the “incisive bone,” it lays in front of the maxillæ and holds the top incisors. It has a plate of two bones (the palatine surface) that project from it into the vomer and the palatine process of the maxillæ, forming the front portion of the hard palate. 
  • Orbits: Situated on the sides of the head, the anterior bony portion of the orbit is complete in equines. The supraorbital foramen can be found dorsally, and the foramina for the optic nerve (and other orbital nerves and vessels) are found in the posterior aspect. There’s no post–orbital wall so the orbital floor has a direct opening into the oral cavity, with a barrier provided only by soft tissue—the orb itself sits on a padding of fat within the orbit.
  • Lacrimal: Sits in front of the eye and projects onto the face and into the orbit. Its internal surface helps to create the frontal and maxillary sinus cavities. 
  • Mandible: The largest bone in the head, it’s the lower jaw which holds the lower cheek teeth and incisors. The two halves are united only by cartilage at birth, which ossifies in about 2–3 months. It has a “body,” the thick front part that seats the incisors and cheek teeth and the “ramus,” the broad portion that bends up into the joint of the jaw behind the eye.
  • Maxilla: Forms the side of the face and contains the upper cheek teeth. Its inner portion creates the large surface of the nasal cavity.
  • Palatine: The palatine bones of the maxilla create the back portion of the hard palate with the Palantal Drape attaching to its back potion.
  • Nasal: Outside where these bones meet, the familiar groove down the front of the head is created while, on the inside, they form the larger portion of the nasal cavity’s roof. They’re long and triangular, and broader on the top and pointed at the bottom. Contributing to the profile of the face, they can exhibit some degree variation in their curvaceous properties and width. They also typically have an hourglass shape when seen from above. However, they're very thin at their tips and can be easily broken if the horse bangs his head there, or tack like hackamores and bosals are improperly used.
  • Dorsal and ventral turbinates: Already discussed.
  • Malar: Also called the “zygomatic bone,” it lays underneath the eye and entails the facial crest (also called the “masseteric ridge” or “teardrop bone”) and the ridge of the zygomatic arch. The depression made by the zygomatic arches is often referred to as the “Salt Cellar.”
  • The Hyoid Apparatus.
The equine skull is a true biological marvel being relatively light, tough, and efficiently functional. Who knew such biological economy could end up being so beautiful and expressive? It's also worth stopping and thinking about just how much weight the neck must support—the average equine head weights about 100 to 120 lbs (45–54kg)! For this reason the head is also a counterbalance and integral part of coordination when it comes to spinal movements and, therefore, gaits, posture, and footfall. In field study then, it's important to pay attention to how the animal uses his head in this way in order to recreate believable compositions.

As for the skull itself, understanding its structures is really important since so much of the equine face is defined by its underlying bony structure, with many parts being subcutaneous. Yet this also gives us reliable landmarks from which to build our heads! So once we've mastered its features and structure, we'll have an essential sculpting guide always at the ready. And that's a handy thing! Because the fact is if we get the skull wrong, our whole head will be off no matter how accurately we sculpt the rest of it. For this reason, developing "X–ray vision" becomes an imperative skill. It's a good idea then to train our eyes with lots of artistic exercises such as tracing the skulls inside of photos and images of our sculpture. And we shouldn't forget to do that for different angles, too!

We also need to be mindful of conformation, or in other words, viable structure. Not all conformation points are created equal! (We have functional conformation, breed conformation, and aesthetic conformation, but more on all that for a future series.) For example, a clenched fist should fit between the jaw bars to provide proper space for the structures and tubes at the back of the head. What's more, head structure isn't a function of taste, but one of viability, of function. So if we treat our sculpted heads with the attitude of "I just prefer it that way," we run the risk of depicting harm if we aren't well–versed in equine biomechanics. For instance, profiles that are too deeply concave, or "dished," or jibbahs that are too pronounced will cause dental problems along with compromised airflow, well–being, and functionality. We'll discuss this and other issues more in a later part of this series.

But suffice to say, skulls vary with each individual animal, too. Not that the skulls are intrinsically different—all horses are part of Equus caballus—but that each skull has unique variations to the blueprint that identify an individual, just like with us. In particular, profiles, width (from the side and from the front, of both the maxilla and the mandible), internal axis, and even orbit placement are all variables. We can't forget the infant characteristics of foals, the "tooth bumps" on 2–3 year olds, the subtle differences between genders, or the changes that happen to the skull as the horse ages, either. Likewise, certain breeds are expected to have rather specific cranial attributes such as dishes, jibbahs, "ram heads," "ox heads," convex or concave integral axes, wedge–heads or rectangular heads, etc. The different equine species such as zebras, asses, and hemonids, and each of their subspecies, also have very distinct skulls that need our careful attention. For example, the occipital ridge of asses is longer, allowing the head to stand end up whereas a horse's skull will fall over because of a shorter ridge. We should also recognize that certain aspects of the skull are anatomical features rather than conformational ones and so aren't so variable. Specifically, the ear bulla, "teardrop bone," teeth and their placement, the joint with the Atlas, and the shape of the rami are all more or less fixed. If we approach each skull with fresh eyes then, we'll be better able to capture all these subtle differences for a much more believable result. Every little tweak contributes to a huge difference!

Conclusion To Part 8

The equine noggin is easily one of the most difficult heads to sculpt in the animal kingdom owning to its nuanced and complicated planes, angles, proportions, structures, textures, variability, and expressions. Being so, it’s typically the area where most artists make the most mistakes. So if we can get our heads more correct, chances are we'll be improving our overall skills to become better at interpreting the rest of the animal, too. In other words, sculpting a good head simply requires more attention and diligence, and that helps us with the rest of what we have to do. In this way, the equine head can guide us to become better sculptors as well as better advocates.

The point then is this: don't take anything for granted about the equine head, especially his skull. It's a finely–tuned, carefully–balanced, precise system formed purely by practicality, starting first with its bony base. As such, most of it is nonnegotiable in biological terms. So one false move can spin our sculpture into portrayals we may not intend, so care and practiced technique are essential. For this reason we should, at the same time, regard all points of type with a critical eye. Indeed, we not only have to think about the presence of the desired features themselves, but the degree to which they're expressed and the nature by which they're formed. There's a lot to weigh and juggle here so being equipped to mediate these issues with biological data helps us to build an artistic sensibility that's more consciously aligned to our values. In turn, we affirm our Voice and the nexus of our aesthetic, and that leads to stronger work. In so many ways, the equine head offers us so much! So curious that through all the millennia of convoluted equine evolution, we could come to a point in our own fleeting lives where nature's ancient serendipitous design could help us in so many ways. Until next time then…get ahead and go extra mile to get things right!

“An artist is an explorer. He has to begin by self–discovery and by observation of his own procedure. After that he must not feel under any constraint.” ~ Henri Matisse


Monday, September 25, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 7


Hi, again! We're discussing the equine head from both an anatomical, evolutionary, and artistic perspective, a rather unique combination when it comes to the subject. This 20–part series provides the "Biologic" behind the head's anatomy in order to provide context for its structure and function. Equipped with this insight, our appreciation for this grand animal not only grows, but also our dedication for depicting him both right and responsibly increases as well.

Continuing on with our examination then, let’s consider his brain now, or rather his intelligence. This is actually a huge subject with multiple tangents, so we’ll only deal with it on a more simplistic level for brevity. For this reason, it’s encouraged to explore this topic further through proactive research. So with that in mind, let’s dive in…


During evolution, the equine brain had to evolve double time! By the end of the Ogliocene, as early horses started to enter the plains, they initially competed quite well with the Artiodactyls, diversifying quickly and growing into large numbers during the Miocene.

Yet having ventured onto the plains first, the Artiodactyla primed the predator species on the plains prior to the appearance of the early equids (Bennett, 1999). The result was a habitat full of smart, fast, efficient hunters, creating a kind of evolutionary Cold War of wits between these first plains animals—and it’s into this that the early horses stumbled. As such, early horses had to contend with packs of intelligent, roving predators already well–equipped to make them an easy lunch. Hardly an optimistic beginning! Yet this may have been this very condition that hastened and diversified equine evolution so markedly.

To explain, Hyracotherium is considered to have a proportionally larger brain than other comparative herbivores at the time, a trend that continued through equine evolution. Indeed, the development of the horse’s cerebral neo–cortex is thought to account for his great capacity for learning by associating sensory stimuli. Yet the frontal lobes of Hyracotherium weren’t impressive, so the nature of his problem–solving or planning abilities are debatable. However, once he ventured onto the plains, the development of equine brainpower seems to have accelerated, perhaps because those simply too dim were quickly devoured. In fact, a newborn foal is neurologically mature unlike many other species, and has his full capacity to learn within minutes of birth. Indeed, the first few days of a foal’s life are a critical learning period. Horses are born smart!

Yet many people actually take equine intelligence for granted, either regarding the animal as dumb, dismissing it entirely, or erroneously comparing it to a dog. Yet we must weigh his intelligence within the context to his biological evolution, and in that regard, the equine is a genius! Indeed, the horse is by no means stupid despite what some people may have us believe. He’s actually remarkably intelligent, intuitive, and perceptive, highly trainable, and a very quick learner who exploits many learning strategies to problem–solve involving generalization, association, deduction, categorization, and concept learning, and to even deduce our intentions. There have even been reports of horses using tools to snatch a desired treat, and we all know how fond horses are of unlocking doors and gates. Horses are very curious, too, being quick to investigate something once the “spook factor” fades. Horses are also very playful, and find play enjoyable with herd mates and other animals (including us) as well as with objects—and many animal behaviorists consider playfulness a sign of higher intelligence. This may be why horse’s learn our demands best when the training situation is framed as a game rather than a task. Horses have also been known to have a sense of humor, sometimes pranking people or herd mates. 

Research has also shown that horses show more interest in new conditions or situations. In other words, like us, they're more interested in looking at interesting stimulation. Studies have also found that equines use all their senses to identify things and other individuals, including us. This demonstrates that horses can put different cues together into one representation of a distinct individual, indicating that horses are excited to see us for more reasons than food—though treats certainly help!

Equines also have a good sense of spatial relationships and subsequent deductions. For example, a jumper is doing amazing calculations at speed when approaching a jump. For instance, he has to create a 3D concept of the obstacle to determine when to take off at his current speed, how much to arch over the poles, and how much strength it will take to produce the necessary take off. And he also has to listen to the rider while doing all this!

Horses can also count—to a point it seems. It was found that if a researcher put two apples in a bucket and three in another bucket, most horses will go for the bucket with three apples. However, when four apples were put in a bucket and six in another, the results were more randomized. However, this doesn't disprove the possibility that some horses may indeed be able to "count that high."

Yet another study found that horses have the cognitive ability to understand someone's knowledge in social communication. To illustrate, horses watched as someone put a carrot in a food bucket; the bucket wasn't accessible to the horses, only the person. In the first condition, the person saw the food going into the bucket (they had knowledge of its location). In the second condition, the person didn't see into which bucket the carrot was placed (uniformed state). The horses in the experiment used more tactile and visual signals with the uniformed person than with the informed person. In other words, the horses increased how much they looked at, touched, or lightly pushed the uninformed person to get them to realize where the carrot was hidden. This also demonstrates that horses have flexible cognition, able to adjust their communication behavior based on someone else's knowledge state. What's more, it shows that communication isn't a one–way street in that people order and horses obey. Instead, horses do try to communicate with us, only most of us don't learn their language or pay attention.

Horses also join primates, dolphins, and pigeons with the ability to use symbols to communicate, influence, and interpret their surroundings. Scientists taught 23 horses to look at a board with three symbols to choose from, those being "no change," "blanket on," or "blanket off." Once all the horses independently learned the meaning of the symbols—after 14 days for all of them—they were able to tell their people when they wanted the blanket on or off, depending on the weather. For example, when the weather was cold and wet, they all chose the "blanket on" option. They even chose the "no change" option if the weather continued to be chilly and damp. Then when the weather turned warm and sunny, they all chose the "no blanket" option. This demonstrates that horses understand the nature of consequence with their choices. It also reveals that horses are eager to communicate with us and it's us that need to listen.

Like elephants, horses also display a love of learning. They're quite curious and amenable to learning new things given the technique is thoughtful and interesting to them. They're also quick to emulate other horses to achieve a desired end. For example, if a horse sees another get a reward for doing something, he may become immediately ready to copy that action. They also respond best to positive feedback loops that are predictable, reliable, and which produce a desirable result. They also never stop learning so we can teach an old horse new tricks!

Horses can also demonstrate emotional empathy. That's to say horses may feel the emotional state of another horse, which is expressed through posture, vocalizations, chemical scent, and movement. In doing so, they may copy those signals upon feeling a similar way in response. Likewise, they're highly sensitive to our emotional states and will change their behavior and state of mind in reaction to it.

The horse’s memory is infamous, too, and it seems he never forgets a lesson learned, good or bad. Luckily for us though, most horses have a forgiving, generous nature. Yet being so, he's also able to remember routes, objects, and locations very quickly as well as the locations of resources like water or the food bin. In addition, he's able to quickly make associations between cause and effect, and shape new behavior in response. His exceptional memory may actually be an evolutionary advantage—there may be very good reason why a horse spooks at a new feature in his customary habitat like a new building, a new fence, even a new bucket or newly–planted shrub. He’s not being stupid—from his perspective he’s being smart. For instance, when scanning the grass line for predators, he’ll use his memory to determine “all is well.” Truly, “no news is good news” to the horse. That’s because changes could indicate a threat stalking through tall grass or laying in wait to ambush. Even something new placed on top of a rock can be interpreted by the horse as a crouched predator ready to pounce—even if it’s just a backpack. Horses remember their surroundings quite keenly so anything new could be potentially threatening.

We also have to remember that nothing in the equine’s evolutionary make–up prepares him for our human world, our contraptions, our artificial habitats, or our imposed demands. For this reason then, he has to be taught how to interpret and react to a stall door, a bucket, a saddle, or even what to do when we fall off—no wonder our horse looks so confused when we tumble off! These are things we take for granted, but he has to learn, and quickly, and often despite what his biology would have him think otherwise—and despite how unclear we may be with our demands. Indeed, horses do a lot of “filling in” for us, adroitly deducing what we ask even when we’re entirely unclear in our request. Moreover, horses have been known to “babysit” inexperienced or compromised riders, even shifting their body position or balance to accommodate an insecure seat. For all these reasons then, the horse’s intelligence is a marvel as is his graciousness, willingness, intuition, and ability to trust.

We should also know that body language is so developed in horses that they have an uncanny ability to pick up even the most subtle or most unconscious body signals, even including those from people! At the turn of the century in Berlin, a rather famous example was Hans von Osten, otherwise known as “Clever Hans," who was renown for apparently solving complex mathematical equations, pawing out his answers. However, it was discovered that Hans didn’t actually know mathematics, but he did know body language, the unspoken language of horses. He had learned to key onto a person’s involuntary physical responses and quickly became able to perceive even the most subtle tensing and relaxing of muscles or changes in breathing in anticipation of a correct answer. So Hans would simply keep tapping his hoof until an unconscious cue from the human observer cued him to stop at the right answer. He was particularly keyed onto Wilhelm von Osten, his owner, resulting in answers of surprising consistency, but did reasonably well even with other people. But as long as the person providing the unconscious cues didn’t know the answer neither did Hans. All this makes one wonder just what we’re unconsciously telling horses with our bodies, smells, touches, breathing, postures, fascial expressions, sounds, and our tensions and relaxations! It’s known that a person’s emotional state can dramatically affect a horse, for better or worse, as horses may look to people for appropriate reactions or responses to a situation. So it’s important we be aware of what we’re “telling” a horse at any given moment, particularly during a scary moment. This is also why compassion, patience, calmness, clarity, consistency, and softness are so important for working with horses.

Then there's the case of Lukas, dubbed "The Smartest Horse In The World" by the Guinness Book of World Records. Among many things, he's able to recognize words and react in a way that indicates he understands their meaning. For example, when asked to point to a red object, he reliably does so. When asked to point to a square object, again, he reliably does so. He can also count!  Then on June 16, 2010, he received Guinness certification for "the most numbers correctly identified by a horse in one minute," having identified 19 numbers. What's more, he can spell his name, his owner's name, and her husband's name. Even more, he can tell the difference between those objects that are the same and those that are different, like those that are bigger or smaller. He also understands the concept of "absentness," or recognizing when something is missing, an ability thought only reserved to people, primates, and parrots. He's also been known to fake being lame to get out of work, and nodding "yes" or "no" to get what he wants. It's been reported, too, that he has definite opinions while also being observant, sensitive, and empathetic. He's able to deduce what's requested as well, and will do the required task even before being asked. He also has a great fondness for games and training framed as play, which tends to be typical of the horse. In fact, he's become on of the top liberty performers today, knowing 35 separate actions, and growing. Clearly, Lukas gives us more insight into equine brain power, and the potential of any relationship we may have with one.

Horses also have distinct personalities which become more apparent the more their intelligence and autonomy are factored into their treatment. In other words, the more we respect and protect their personalities, the more they let them show. Horses have to be met “halfway”—we have to “go where they are” first in order to tease out their character and best facilitate cooperation. A horse can be bullied into submission, but he’ll tend to “shut down” as a result, drawing into himself and hiding his personality, even dumbing himself down in trepidation of bullying. Our chronic lack of clarity in our demands may also cause him to essentially give up, to lose interest or even become resistant to learning or trying new things. Instead then, the best results are produced in the spirit of respectful teamwork with perceptiveness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and compassion at the forefront, with absolute clarity the rule.

Horses also get bored and so do best with an enriched environment such as herd mates, toys, trick training, and training and workouts framed as play and exploration. It’s no surprise then that horses can become resistant and barn sour when all they do is move in circles for a couple of hours a day. It’s not that they’re lazy—they’re probably bored! Remember that much of what we ask makes no sense to him, and may also be interpreted as a bullying relationship as he's forced to do these things. Indeed, horse behaviorists now discourage the use of the round pen. Indeed, being compelled to trot in circles probably doesn't serve his psychological enrichment. This is why equine behaviorists often recommend trick training, play, quiet time with no demands, grooming bonding, or trail rides to break up the monotony of routine training and to develop more of a partnership rather than a "master and servant" relationship. Researchers are also now discouraging the "dominant alpha" paradigm of working with horses, of taking over the alpha position in the relationship. There's no evidence that the equine's cognitive abilities prepare him to understand the abstract concepts of "leader" and "hierarchy," especially when it comes to people. Equines interact with each other on an individual, fluid basis, and we don't yet fully understand how they interpret the world when it comes to their human bonds. Plus, the concept of dominance introduces the practice of punishment, something that's proving to be deleterious for building an equitable partnership. This may be one of the reasons why the Dorrance brothers were able to develop such deep, psychologically beneficial, effective bonds, and working relationships with horses since dominance and punishment weren't part of the schooling paradigm.

Conclusion To Part 7

As equine artists, chances are we’ll run across the sentiment insisting that equines are dull–witted, stupid creatures. Maddening, isn’t it? The sad thing is, too, that it’s likely the horses of such people have simply withdrawn into themselves as a consequence of being regarded so disrespectfully, only perpetuating this ugly sentiment. But as equine artists, we can express his intelligence and spirit in ways that advocate for him, deepening the meaning and importance of our work. Truly, it’s one thing to sculpt a representation of a horse and quite another to sculpt a representation of a soul. Which is our aim?

At some point in our career then, we'll be confronted with a choice—to sculpt equines as we wish them to be or sculpt equines as they really are? Or put another way, do we wish to sculpt the idea of an equine or an actual equine? Know it or not, the former idealizes and objectifies, turning our work into more like representational art. For example, "this is a Thoroughbred" or "this is an Arabian" and that's about all the sculpture has to say. And that's fine! If that's the kind of work that appeals to us—go for it! But if we want to say something more, we're going to have to dig deeper. That's because wanting to portray the inner experience and soul of an individual equine, through the vehicle of equine realism, is an entirely different task. Rather than focus on clinical structure alone, we must also ponder his inner experience and the world from his perspective in order to climb into his head, heart, and spirit to better convey all that in our clay.

And to do so, we must first recognize the dignity and autonomy of his being—this is a creature far older than us who perceives the world in radically different ways. Being so, he has very different priorities and expectations, none of which are fully prepared by evolution for our human world. So we must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: the typical horse lives in constant existential terror in our world. Can you imagine being captured by aliens and made to do confounding things simply by learning their unfamiliar, strange language, body language, or intentions from scratch? None of it makes any sense, either! Why are they making us spin a light for an hour every day? Plus, everything would be communicated with pressure release and voice associations, none of which are easy to learn, or ever really clear, or lack clarity altogether. Can you imagine being spoken to in a language that has no context for you? Or actually gives you mixed signals, or signals that conflict with our human interpretation or biology, or are unconsciously given? Can you imagine being in a room with frightening, unknown, confusing objects and unseen sounds, then required to "behave"? And being tugged, hit, shoved, yelled at, or poked as an inducement to "behave"? All the while all the rest of this is going on? Now add in dominance treatment and the application of punishment, especially when you have no idea what's wanted or why you're being punished in the first place! No wonder they're so typically content to be left alone in their stalls! No wonder they shut down so often! No wonder why they can become barn sour! No wonder why they can be so jittery and unpredictable! It's not them—it's us!

His experience is as real to him as ours is to us, and just as valid. It also has a far more ancient basis, one designed for very different circumstances and priorities. Now this isn't to say that keeping horses is wrong. In fact, if not for domestication, Equus caballus would probably have gone extinct! But what it does mean is this: if we hope to pay homage to this generous creature, we must first dismiss our latent arrogance, casual indifference, one–sidedness, and predilection for objectification when it comes to our regard for him. We need to see him with fresh, respectful eyes that take nothing for granted and first recognize the autonomy and grace of another individual soul, one that's vulnerable in our distracted world. If we can see him from the perspective then of "what can we share?" and "what can we learn from each other?" rather than "what can he do for me?" or "what can I make him do?," we'll have come one significant step forwards in what our Voice can convey. The truth is that the more we come to appreciate his inner experience, on his terms, the harder it becomes to objectify him and overlook his reality. Just like with us, we come to see him as an individual soul and so tend to stop judging him based on physical "perfection." If we don't want to be judged by a Barbie–standard ourselves, shouldn't we also afford the same consideration to something we profess to love?

Now granted, we must also realize we do have to pay attention to some ideas of "perfection" such as certain notions about conformation and breed type. There's just no getting around many of the rampant objectifications in the horseworld. But what we can do is reframe it all with a new outlook. Truly, when we can more clearly see the inner beauty of each equine, we're better armed to weigh such notions with more objectivity and evidence–based determinations. If everything is weighed against his perfect heart, only those features that are good for him rise to the top and the rest sheds off like chaff. Then marry this with an understanding of his anatomy and evolutionary biology, and we can now more fully appreciate what it means to be equine in the first place, and that informs our work in deep, countless ways.

Even more, it not only changes our work forever—it changes us forever, too. Everything about how we See ourselves, how we See each other, and how we See our purpose evolves into something more—we become more. It's a kind of Enlightenment. As such, how we perceive this creature and the nature of our work will never be the same, and the better for it! It's a journey, one led by the equine and we follow—humble, unassuming, open, and willing. This is the great gift of equine realism—it's not necessarily just about attaining accuracy, but even more about attaining Insight. And in coming to understand this creature, we actually come to understand ourselves more, and this improved self–awareness informs everything we do—everything we are—thereafter. As always, the horse is the best teacher. So until next time…ponder those doors he opens for us!

“We might as well give in to the tug of our spirits to explore this confounding and wondrous world. We might as well greet each other as endless pilgrims and bid each other well on our way. Because we’re already on the road…” ~ Anthony Lawlor


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Heads Above The Rest!; Exploring The Science and Art Of The Equine Head for Sculpting: Part 6


We’re back with this 20part series scrutinizing the equine head in biological and artistic detail to deepen our understanding of this unique and complicated feature of this singular animal. Knowing the Biologic of the equine head gives us not only more insights as to how to sculpt it, but also a better context from which to base our creative decisions. In this way, our work not only improves in realism, but becomes more responsible in its depiction. A win–win! 

In this Part 6 then, we’ll delve into the equine's ears and sense of hearing, features that help to define the his biology. Undeniably, his ears are an essential sense, so without further adieu, prick those ears up!…


Seated behind the zygomatic arches and the back of the mandible, and in front of the occipital crest and on the crown lays the bulla for the ear, one on either side. The flute of the ear moves much like a ballandsocket joint at its bulb with the bulla. They're usually busy as they express mood and home in on sounds, making them a fun feature to play with in sculpture in terms of narrative. 

As for shape, equine ears can be tricky to sculpt due to their delicate and complicated structure—they truly are unique in shape and specifically characteristic of Equus caballus. In particular, note the gracefully shaped flute and the dainty rims and sometimes curved tips (depending on breed or individual variation). Also notice the delicate twist, curvature, and fold at the base of the inner rim in the helix region, and the “V” formed at the base where the two rims meet in the front. Also note how the flute, this “V,” and that twisty fold change as the ear is rotated. Additionally, the medial rim has slightly rounded edges while the lateral rim fans out more with a flatter edge. 

However, most anatomy references skim over them, so we have to really hunt to find clear, reliable information. Nevertheless, we can simplify and separate the equine ear into seven basic components:
  • The scutiform cartilage: A small plate of triangular–shaped cartilage on the temporal muscle that acts as a fixed point and stabilizer for some of the ear’s muscle attachments.
  • The outer ear: The conchal cartilage (or auricular cartilage), the delicately curved flute of cartilage responsible for the visible shape of the ear. Attached to the external acoustic process of the petrous temporal bone, the base of the concha is a rounded bulb (Eminentia conchæ), almost globe–like in structure, and rests nestled in a pad of fat (Corpus adiposum auriculæ), making the movements of the ear like a ball–and–socket joint. The long tube–like aspect of the conchal cartilage is called the pinna (or auricula) (plural: pinæ) which projects from the bulb in an upright fashion. Its convex surface (or dorsum) faces backwards (when the ear is facing forwards) and is widest in the middle aspect while its upper portion (apex) flattens out and narrows to a rounded point, which can have various degrees of medial or medial posterior curvature depending on breed type or individual variation. The pinna itself is rather flexible, becoming more so towards the apex while the bulb is more rigid. The outer rim (or posterior border) runs uninterrupted from the “V” to the apex, and is straighter and flatter than the inner rim (anterior border) which is delicately and deeply curved to meet its partner in the “V.” It’s concave at the apex and convex as it approaches the “V.” This inner rim divides into two subtle parts next to this “V,” forming an overlapping fold and concave twist towards and within the “V” (a detail often missed by sculptors). This configuration changes shape as the ear is moved. Inside the ear, under the fuzzy hair, exist several delicate ridges radiating outward which soften and disappear towards the apex and outer rim. When the ear is pricked forwards, the “V” opening at the anterior base faces forwards, but when the ear is twirled backwards, this “V” faces backwards and downwards. Its movements are orchestrated by multiple muscles that actively move those mobile ears in various ways to home in on sound or create expressions for communication. The ligaments of the ear are more elastic while the bulb at the base serves as an attachment for most of the ear muscles, and the parotid gland overlaps the bulb on its lateral aspect. Below the bulb, the conchal cartilage narrows to form a curved tube which is covered by muscles and bordered by the parotid gland below. Its lowest aspect has a pointed, curved projection called the styloid process which is about 1” long (2.5cm) and projects over and covers the…
  • The annual cartilage: A small, plate–like ring of cartilage surrounding the auditory process of the petrous temporal bone of the skull that helps to connect the conchal cartilage to the bone. Its surface is somewhat convex from side to side while its inner surface is similarly concave. Its front part is rounded and thin while its back aspect is wider and thicker, with a pointed process along its medial rim that’s about .50” (or more) long (1.2cm). This cartilage moves freely.
  • The external auditory canal: A short bony tube projecting from the petrous temporal bone.
  • The middle ear: Entails the malleus, incus, and ossicles (also known as the stapes bones), eardrum cavity, and the Eustachian Tube. Basically it contains the eardrum which transfers sound waves into the inner ear for the brain to process.
  • The inner ear: Fluid–filled, it’s located within the petrous temporal bone and contains the fleshy and bony canals (also referred to as “labyrinths”) and the cochlea. It translates sound waves into impulses the brain can understand. It’s also important for balance control.
  • Hair: In its natural state, a thick proliferation of soft, downy, fuzzy hair grows within the pinea to protect the inner ear from debris and insects. However, for show, this hair is often shaved to reveal the subtle ridges on the ear’s inner surface, radiating from the ear hole somewhat like spokes on a wagon wheel. 
The horse uses his pinea to collect and flood sound waves into the inner ear, capturing sounds our flat ears miss. (If we cup our hands and hold them to our ears we’ll discover some of the sounds our flat ears miss.) When a sound occurs, the ears automatically react through a “Preyer Reflex.” This improves his chances for escape because, on the open plain, the only noises present—other than those from the weather, foliage, or the herd—could be a stalking predator. Practically speaking, too, the horse only has to approximate the location of the sound in order to run in the opposite direction.

That said, he exploits two ways to localize sound sources. The first is the time delay the sound signal arrives at each ear, revealing which ear is closest to the source. That is to say it takes slightly longer for a sound to reach one ear than it takes to reach the other ear. So if the source is directly in front of or behind the head, the sound arrives at both ears simultaneously. However, if the source is off to the side, one ear receives the sound waves slightly sooner than the other ear. As for the second way, the head casts a "sound shadow," so one ear hears a sound slightly louder than the other, indicating the direction of that sound. For this reason, animals will a larger spaces between the ears—wider crowns—may have better sound localization abilities, another benefit of a larger head.

Curious though, less distance between the ears can usually cause an animal to detect higher frequencies better. The distance between the ears in horses, as measured from one ear canal to the other, is about 7" (18cm) compared to about 1112" (2830cm) in people. Because of this in part, horses have a greater sensitivity to highfrequency sounds, however, equines aren't that good at localizing them. This is why a horse may hear a whistle, but not be so good at discerning where that whistle is coming. However, equines have such sophisticated vision and scent abilities for predator detection, they don't really need to pinpoint the exact location of a sound, only the general direction to run away from it.

Each ear is equipped with about 21 muscles to activate them. In comparison, we only have 3 (all of which are vestigial). Each equine ear can swivel up to 180˚ to quickly target and track sound, giving the horse 360° hearing without the need to move his head. The sound waves then funnel through the external ear canal (also called the “auditory canal”) into the middle ear where they cause the eardrum, a thin membrane, to vibrate. These vibrations are sent through the stapes bones, and finally the sound waves reach the inner ear where they cause vibrations in a snail–shaped structure called the cochlea. Running up and down the cochlea are extremely sensitive hair cells that act as transducers. When these hair follicles bend, they generate electrical signals that stimulate the auditory nerve which are then sent to the brain.

Equine hearing is similar to ours, with binaural hearing, in which the ears detect sound concurrently. Nevertheless, it’s clear that equines have a keener sense of hearing—a recent study indicated that horses can even hear sounds up to 2.73 miles away (4.4km)! Furthermore, while we can hear sounds in about the 20 Hz to 20 kHz range—being most sensitive to the 1 to 3 kHz limit—studies have shown that horse cochlea have 2.5 spiral turns with an audible frequency range of 0.20-22 kHz (6.8 octaves) at 30 dB SPL and 55 Hz-33.5 kHz (9.3 octaves) at 60 dB SPL (Waring, 2003). Even so, horses appear to be most sensitive to sounds in the 1 to 16 kHz range, with the lowest threshold of 7 dB (Waring, 2003). This means that horses can hear higher and lower frequencies than we can, and seem to be better at locating low frequency sound. They’re also especially good at identifying tiny differences in tone and loudness. Recent research has even implied that, like elephants, horses may communicate with frequencies outside of human hearing. Subsequently, horse ears are typical busy between being so expressive, mobile, and capable of hearing sounds we can’t.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that equines filter out sounds deemed non–threatening which seems to be biologically based, but also dependent on the individual. For example, equines will typically respond to the vocalization of other equines. They’re also usually quick to react to rustling sounds, for good reason—it may indicate a stalking predator. That said, however, an equine can also become conditioned to a sound associated with something pleasing such as an owner’s voice, the sound of a treat bag, even the sound of the owner’s car. Like people, too, horses can loose their hearing with age, with the high frequencies being the first to be lost to then gradually down the sound range. Yet since the horse has a broader range of hearing, he can lose some of it without significant problems.

Conclusion To Part 6

There’s a lot more to the ears than simply fun, flighty flutes on the top of his head, isn’t there? It would be so interesting to hear how an equine does, wouldn’t it? To discover all the sounds we miss would be fascinating! Perhaps a little disconcerting, too, being much more noisy.

Nonetheless, equine ears are no easy thing to sculpt. Their convoluted shape, nuanced details, expressiveness, mobility, location and "seat," and changing nature will always challenge us no matter how experienced we become. In fact, if we're truly doing our job, we'll pay very close attention to them, just as much as sculpting an eye or nostril. Indeed, incorrectly or carelessly done ears can destroy our illusion just as quickly as anything else. Yet too many artists only give the ears a cursory treatment, seeming only to settle for approximating their qualities with oversimplified treatment. Still others don't quite understand them and so create errors in shape, symmetry, movement, details, or placement. For these reasons, we can deduce a great deal about an artist's abilities by inspecting their sculpture's ears. Any misinterpretations or stylizations there will reliably indicate errors elsewhere on the sculpture.

In Part 7 then, we’ll continue our analysis with his brain, his smarts. This is an extraordinarily complicated structure and subject, so we’ll only discuss it in simplified terms, but even a basic understanding is immensely helpful. So until next time…keep your ears open for more insights about the equine head!

“I am mindful to allow for the joy of exploration and discovery within the framework of each of my works.” ~ Tom Francesconi

Related Posts with Thumbnails