Horses Don’t Hop

Horses don’t run like rabbits—they don’t hop; but you wouldn’t think artists knew that, even real horse lovers and good observers like Leonardo da Vinci.

Or George Stubbs, an eighteenth-century horse specialist, who showed his race-horses scampering over green English lawns in a way he knew they didn’t, they couldn’t.

Even in 1878 when Muybridge came out with his famous photographic studies of a horse’s gallop, proving that the traditional artist’s rendering was nonsense, painters went right on showing horses flying through the air like cows jumping over the moon. Here is a painting by Degas who had seen the Muybridge photos and pretended not to.

Why did all these artists insist on perpetuating the error? Couldn’t they find a compromise between truth and beauty?

When you sit on a galloping horse, it FEELS as though you fly—that your horse is constantly jumping into the air, its legs spread out in front and behind, all four hooves off the ground. It is the most exciting moment of a ride. A horse shown diving into the air also transmits the feeling of excitement and speed better than any other. Aesthetically it is also the most satisfying because of the symmetry. In all the other phases of the gallop the legs are messy, apparently disorganized.
So much for aesthetics.

In fact, few of those experts, artists or otherwise, probably knew that the pose was a fiction. Muybridge’s photos proved that everyone was wrong—those who claimed the horse constantly dived through the air and those who contended that there was no moment when its feet were all off the ground. The photos showed that the horse did indeed jump into the air but when it did so its legs were all tucked UNDER its body, not stretched out ahead. THAT was the moment the rider felt he was flying.

Muybridge’s famous photographs, 1878

Once the truth was out, realist artists could no longer do hopping horses with a good conscience. Of course there were still plenty of artists who thought a horse galloping should look the way it feels, science be damned. “We aren’t painting a real horse galloping but the IDEA of a horse galloping,” they said.
“Well, when I make a horse,” said Frederick Remington, the American artist, “I don’t turn him into a cat.” And he painted and sculpted horses in all the real phases of a gallop, a trot, and a canter.

“He runs like a dog,” said the merry-go-round horse makers. “Do you think that’s pretty?”


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, great artists, Leonardo da Vinci, oil painting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Horses Don’t Hop

  1. The Minoans first developed this pose, which archaeologists call the ‘flying gallop’, and it’s absolutely characteristic of their animal art (though not with horses [Minoans didn’t do horses] but bulls, wild goats, and even the occasional lion. So, I’m not sure that it comes from the feel of flying on the back of a galloping horse (it’s just possible that they did ride horseback, though I doubt it), but because it looks great and springing with action. No other ancient art picked it up and it died out after Minoan civilization peaked (perhaps ca 1400 BCE).

  2. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Judith. That’s right–now I remember seeing the flying gallop of that bull those dancers jumped over in the Minoan fresco. Of course, bulls don’t gallop like horses (not that what you say about the springing action doesn’t apply anyway). I realized that myself while watching them during bullfights. But it wasn’t until I saw Muybridge’s bison photos (Wikipedia, Muybridge) that I understood the difference.
    When do you think the pose re-appeared in Western art?

  3. I’m afraid I can’t help. I’m an ancient historian. My mind is exhausted before I get to 600 AD :-).

    When it does re-appear, though, I think it is restricted to horses (so your ‘feel’of flying could be the right reason for its re-invention). If I had time, I’d explore early 18th C France and England painting. Both countries are devoted to horseflesh (in the former case, perhaps too literally).

  4. 100swallows says:

    Judith: For an ancient historian 100AD is getting awfully late, I know, but could you maybe offer Madame Monet and me an answer to her question about Roman “intolerance”?

  5. rich says:

    The only thing in that dull greyness of George Stubb’s painting not depressing me is the horse…but even there: why did they clip that tail?

  6. 100swallows says:

    Rich: Don’t go too hard on Stubbs. I chose this etching only because the horse was flying but Stubbs usually does more original work. And though here there’s no sign of it, he is a very good colorist. People, even horse lovers, have done worse things to their animals than cut their tails. Did you ever see the slit nostrils on the horses Pisanello drew?

  7. iondanu says:

    I wonder if we cannot see a galloping on all fours bull or deer ar another animal among the Lascaux’s drawings? It would put flying gallop even far away in time…

    They cut the tail for the same reason bicyclist shave their head : aerodinamcs…

    As for the flying gallop I would say the Italian saying appllies: Si non e verro e ben trovatto…

  8. 100swallows says:

    Danu–you are right! I’ve seen flying animals on cave ceilings and walls too. Of course one never knows what those cave draftsmen “meant” by their pictures but that gallop does seem to make the animals come alive.
    And thanks for the explanation of the cut tail. Why do you think the Italians slit their horse’s nostrils? More air, greater lung capacity, faster gallop?
    Ben trovato indeed.

  9. Holly says:

    I think in pic 2 the horse has freakishly long legs. It’s scary. But the wrest are ok. Still not the best peice of art or anything. Only ok.

  10. will says:

    The story of the ‘flying gallop’ is, as shown by this discussion, quite interesting. Its disappearance from Europe after the Minoans and the Mycenaeans eras, its reappearance in China under the Tang dynasty with the women polo players’ clay statues, and its return to Europe at the end of the XVIIIth century is intriguing.
    There is another question, though, which seems to me even more puzzling: why no artist (including the greatest ones) seems to have been able to picture gallop realistically before Muybridge’s photographs?
    It is useful to bring in the horsemen’s perspective at this point, which indeed turns out to have been more advanced and earlier so than the artists’ one.
    The gallop is just the high speed version of the canter. And canter biomechanics had been well understood for more than a century before Muybridge’s time. In 1730 when La Gueriniere published ‘L’Ecole de Cavalerie’ which is still today considered as the major book written about Horsemanship, the process of the canter is described and analysed quite clearly:
    Canter is an asymmetric, leaping, rocking, three beats gait.
    “When the horse canters on the right lead, after having pulled the forces of his hinds for pushing the fore part of his body; the left hind foot hits the ground first, the right hind foot does the second position and is put ahead of the left hind foot, and at the same time the fore left foot hits the ground too, so swiftly that in the position of these two feet, which are on the same (left) diagonal; like in trot, there is only one single beat that can be seen and heard; and finally the right fore foot, which is set ahead of the front left foot, and on the same trajectory as the hind right foot, strikes the third and last beat. These movements are done again at each beat of canter, and keep going on alternatively.”
    This description excludes any possibility of full horizontal simultaneous extensions of the horse’s four limbs. Furthermore, it depicts the sequence of the beats accurately, and one would think that it gives the possibility of visualizing the position of the horse’s limbs and body at each beat. Producing a correct drawing from such a detailed set of indications would hence seem feasible.

    Taking another approach to our question, it is possible to bring canter down at very slow speed (even in place) with properly schooled horses, and any observer can actually see and follow the movements of each limb at such low tempo. Some might object that canter and gallop may differ because of speed. This is not true. Again, riders know that when increasing the speed of the horse from canter into gallop, there is no change felt by the rider in the sequence of beats, neither in the dissymmetric nature of the gait. The only change that may occur from canter to high speed (‘racing gallop’) is that the diagonal feet (in the second stage of the sequence) no longer hit the ground simultaneously, and produce two beats instead of one. The gait becomes a four beats one. But this does not alter its nature and positions anyway near a flying gallop.
    This continuity between canter and gallop dismisses the argument that it is impossible to draw gallop movements since they are too fast for the human eye. Yes, they cannot be seen, but, when understood with the previous observation, they could be re-created by the draughtsman, one would think.
    So this second approach would again support the idea that picturing gallop should not have been out of reach to painters, should they have teamed up with horsemen on this question.

    And yet, having said all this, it is all the more surprising to notice that not only gallop was never drawn correctly, but moreover, slow canter itself has not been pictured accurately – ironically not even by Charles Parrocel, who drew the beautiful prints illustrating La Gueriniere’s book!
    Stubbs, who brought so much to the painting of horses through his incredible efforts to understand the anatomy of the animal, failed completely in picturing canter. He was probably not as skilled in riding as in painting, and maybe was not aware of the rider’s experience described above.
    More surprising is the fact that Gericault, the great Romantic artist and in my opinion the best equestrian artist ever, failed too on our issue. Yes, he adopted the flying gallop for his well known ‘Derby at Epsom’ pictures at le Louvre; but he did try to represent gallop in different attitudes in other drawings and watercolours: legs folded beneath the body, but quite wrongly. These pictures are clumsy and so far apart from Gericault’s genius. He was a keen and bold rider himself, and this probably prompted him to these attempts – without success.

    What learning can be retained of such quick overview?
    Drawing fast movements is challenging.
    Using a symbol instead of observed reality is always a bad idea in the art of drawing (Ruskin was quite right on this point)
    Or perhaps, Delacroix (again!) was right in writing that for drawing horses right, you should live with them in the stables day and night! Great Masters had indeed better things to do, even at the cost of missing out some details about horse painting!

    A last word for the fun of it: I am not so sure, Swallows that ‘horses don’t hop’. Actually they can in a gait called ‘terre-a-terre’, in which the horse literally hops from his two hind legs onto his two front legs and again. It expresses a very high degree of excitation and energy. It is used in dressage when one wants the horse to pile up a lot of impulsion before executing those spectacular ‘sauts d’ecole’ such as the capriole.

    I hope that I have not be too boring, but that the risk of sharing two passions: sometimes one takes over the other where it is not supposed to!
    Thanks again Swallows, for all the attractiveness of your blog, which prompts as seen here all sorts of discussions!
    Best Regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: Thank you for this wonderful comment. One would think I sent the post to specifically you, the expert, as an inquiry. No one else could have brought so much knowledge and personal experience, not to mention interest, to the subject. Yes, I opened a little window but you took us out into the garden. Once again I sigh to think how little I’ve had to do with horses, and that I’m past the age for beginning to ride. Thanks, too, for sending me to Google to see Gericault’s horses. It is incredible that he too should have resorted to the flying gallop in his Derby picture.

      I realized while trying to come up with a title that in fact horses can hop, but since that’s not their usual way of moving forward and the flying gallop evoked the way rabbits run, I let it stand. To be truthful, I know rabbits don’t hop like frogs either! Like all those bad observers of horses before me, I can’t say for sure how a rabbit or a hare runs, though I’ve watched hundreds out on my walks. I’ve seen the terre-a-terre hop sometimes in the bullring, performed by the rejoneador’s trained horses, though of course they don’t use it while fighting the bull.

      Using a symbol instead of observed reality is always a bad idea but that was how it was done, in spite of the observation skills of the best, for hundreds of years. And not just symbols but the great masterpieces of such masters as Leonardo and Gericault and specialists like Stubbs. Living with the horses will not have shown anyone the “obvious”.

  11. will says:

    Thanks for your response, Swallows. I picked out your reference to rejoneadores, and at the same time realized that you run an other blog where you posted things about bullfights. I will go there shortly, because that is another excellent topic!

Leave a Reply