Style over substance: Equestrian art and horsemanship through the ages

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Ancient paintings from the Lascaux caves in France.
Ancient rock art from Lascaux. © Jack Versloot

Interestingly, cavemen were better at depicting four-legged animals in motion than most modern artists.

Before the photographic series of Eadweard Muybridge, the margin of errors of such illustrations of walking was 83.5%, which is higher that the range of error rate of 73.3% (that is, the percentage of errors that anyone trying to illustrate quadrupedal locomotion based on the observations of the naked eye, is likely to make).

The numbers suggest that modern artists were more interested in dramatic painting than accuracy in locomotion. After Muybridge, the percentage of errors decreased to 57.9%, which is still higher than the upper paleolithic, Homo Sapiens. Their range of error rate was very low, at 46.2%.

These early humans lived in close contact with the animals that they hunted; their hunting techniques were close range and when situations evolved the wrong way, their capacity of anticipating the animal’s next move was critical to their survival.

Quite often, the position of the horse’s legs on cavalry statues are symbolic, for instance, an elevated right front knee might indicate that the General riding the horse died in combat.

Even Leonardo da Vinci, who was very well known for his unusual ability to “see”, movement during flight, did not accurately depict the limb movement of his walking horse.

Two corrections are possible here; one is keeping the hind leg posture and adapting the front leg position to the kinematics of the hind legs at this instant. The other correction could be keeping the forelegs as depicted by Leonardo and placing the hind legs as they would be at the sequence of the stride illustrated by the front legs.

If we look at the three options from a purely artistic perspective, Leonardo’s option is the flashiest one. Many artist opted for these embellishments, as well as many riders and trainers. The elevation, amplitude, and rhythm of the foreleg during piaffe is the outcome of an elastic strain energy stored in the long tendons of the lower legs, the internal tendon of the biceps brachii, the muscles which act like tendons even in the absence of tendons, and the aponeurosis of larger muscles such as the serratus ventralis thoracic. This subtle use of energy is influenced by the direction, intensity, duration and frequency of the forces coming from the hind legs. Forward shift of the weight over the forelegs is resisted by the decelerating activity of the supporting hind leg.

The work is continued by the conversion through the back muscles of the thrust generated by the hind legs into upward forces. There are concepts such a transport of forces that use muscles and tendons. There are the constant inversions of the forces acting form the limb down to the ground and from the ground up to the limbs. We have talked about these transfer of forces in previous articles. All this knowledge is not in the equitation of classical authors.

The most talented intuitively figured out a part of this sophisticated network but they did not figure out the whole picture. This is where science is now offering two decisive choices. One is embellishing poor riding and training techniques and this is what poor trainers do, stimulating the horse’s hind and front legs with a bamboo pole. They try to embellish poor gestures instead of providing to the equine athlete the athletic development and coordination allowing full expression of the horse’s talent. The other choice is flying above the “BS lines” and sublimate the horse’s talent with advanced knowledge of how their physique executes the moves.

Month ago, a friend of ours, who is a great artist, looked above my shoulder as I was finishing an illustration for an article. She asked me: “Why do you add these BS lines?”

I told her: “I don’t feel I succeeded to fully express the role of the biceps brachii.”

“So you add a few BS lines to cover up a bad draw. That’s not your standard. A lot of low artist do that, BS verses art and science. In your art, there is a living creature that will try to do what he is asked to do and he will suffer from these BS lines.”

I redid the drawing and there was no need of fake lines.

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Jean Luc Cornille

Jean Luc Cornille M.A.(M.Phil) has gained worldwide recognition by applying practical science to the training of the equine athlete. Influenced by his background as a gymnast, Jean Luc deeply understands how equine training can be enhanced by contemporary scientific research. A unique combination of riding skill, training experience and extensive knowledge of the equine physiology enables Jean Luc to "translate" scientific insights into a language comprehensible to both horse and rider. This approach has been the trademark of his training. - read more about Jean Luc

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