...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.
- A Repeat column
Horses in art have a history that goes back thousands of years, even before the time when the horse became a domesticated animal. In Avignon and Lascaux, France, discoveries of cave paintings have given insight, not only on the early artists, but also on the primitive physical appearance of the horse.
It is unbelievable that these paintings have survived at all, considering they have been dated at 20,000BC, but looking at their well-preserved condition is quite remarkable.
Both cave art sites in France are buried deep in underground caverns, and perhaps that is why the art is so well preserved. The significance of cave paintings and why the artists drew them so deep underground are interesting points to ponder. The places are nearly inaccessible and perhaps the art is a depiction of what early man thought were godlike or highly spiritual animals.
Perhaps they were simple portrayals of the admiration man had of the wild and fierce spirits of primitive horses. One particularly vivid drawing is of a horse in Niaux, in the mid-Pyrenees Mountains. Meticulously drawn with a thick black outline, it is remarkably similar in features to that of Przewalski’s horse.
Other drawings, at a site in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, are show with brilliant colors and flowing lines. They are so detailed, in fact, that it is possible to see the spotted marks similar to Appaloosa Horses.
The horses at this site appear to have finer heads than those of the Niaux horses, showing some resemblance to the Arabian.
It is possible to see the role horses played in society and how it developed from looking at pictures of them from throughout the centuries. Pictures provide huge amounts of information.
The Assyrian people from the Middle East are another great source of pictures. The best form of these comes in bas-relief, a sort of carving, from the palaces of Nimrud and Nineveh. The bas-reliefs from
Nineveh provide a vivid portrayal of the times and date back to approximately 645 BC. There is one featuring a lion hunt, with the king in his chariot. The displayed horses appear tense for the chase, standing evocatively and beautiful alongside the chariot. The tack and harnesses are even detailed as to how they were used on the horses. The horses are obviously well-cared for, as they are muscular and in good condition.
However, they are depicted in what is known as “straight leg” movement, a stiff appearance that is not as natural a carriage for the animal. It would be many years before horses would be portrayed with more natural carriage.
The Nimrud reliefs, which are historically dated to 865-860BC, (1) are of an equal caliber to those at Nineveh. They portray archers mounted bareback on powerful-looking stallions, as they aim their bows.
These bas-reliefs show elaborate bridles that were being used at the time along with a type of decorative neck-string with tassels.
Horses were also sculpted. Some of the most remarkable early horse sculptures are located in the Basilica San Marco in Venice, Italy. They are four figures made of gilded copper and are sized at larger than life and date from the third or fourth century BC. (2)
They were possibly produced by the Greek sculptor Lysippus and are beautifully done and very muscular. The anatomy is decently correct, they are incredibly life-like, and look as if they are about to spring into action at any moment. In their original condition, these horses would have been a brilliant, burnished gold color and would probably have been even more stunning. There is still some remnant of the gold leaf and this is probably because they had been covered in many layers.
Another Greek sculptor, Phidias also had a great concept of the sculptures he made and also and understanding of the horse itself.
He made part of a frieze around the Parthenon in Athens, surely a tribute to his artistic skill. They date to approximately 447BC (3) and portray the Greek idea of perfection. There are young men riding bareback on anatomically correct and proportioned, even collected, horses, which are displayed in different stages of movement.
Horse sculptures were important in early Chinese societies, also, and were evidently a big sign of power and wealth.
Perhaps the best example of this is the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which dates back to the third century BC.(4) Unbelievably, the whole tomb has yet to be excavated, but what has been discovered is a display of power on a very large scale. He was buried along with 7,000 life-sized soldiers, 600 life-sized horses, and also weaponry and carriages. The sculptures of the horses are impeccably detailed with individual features.
Comparing the sculpted horses from the Basilica San Marco, or the large bronze of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, dating from 160-180AD, these Chinese sculptures are a little less realistic anatomically and appear a bit stiffer in appearance. Interestingly, there is a clear breed distinction between those seen in China, and those of the Romans and Greeks.
Makes you want to grab some Play Dough and take up Hippology.
So long for now. I will leave you with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
(1,2,3) The Encyclopedia of Horses and Ponies by Tamsin Pickeral