If you understand your horse’s gaits, you have Eadweard Muybridge to thank.
Beginning riders of today spend a lot of time learning about their horse’s gaits — the beats, the rhythm, the footfalls. But in centuries past, riders (even very good riders) didn’t understand how their horse’s legs moved when in action, because they moved too fast for the human eye to see. In the 1800s, a man named Eadweard Muybridge changed all of that.
Muybridge was actually born Edward Muggeridge in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames. He moved to San Francisco in 1855, changed his name, and after a short time working as a bookseller, took up photography, working for the photographer Carleton Watkins.
He gained renown for his spectacular images of Yosemite and Alaska, but his most famous work began in 1872 when he was hired by Leland Stanford, the former governor of California (and later the founder of Stanford University) to photograph horses.
Stanford, a businessman and racehorse owner, had taken a stance on a popular question of the day — whether all four hooves of a horse are off the ground during rapid gaits like the trot and gallop or not.
At the time, most artists painted trotting horses with one foot on the ground, and at the gallop with all four feet off the ground, front legs extended forward and hind legs extended backward. Stanford believed there was a moment of suspension in both gaits, and hired Muybridge to verify.
Muybridge’s early attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1877 he was finally able to answer the question in regards to trotting horses when he photographed Stanford’s Standardbred horse, Occident, airborne at the trot. The original negative was lost, but the woodcut reproductions still survive.
The following year Muybridge produced what was perhaps his most famous work when he attempted to answer this same question for the galloping horse. On June 15, 1878, he prepared to photograph one of Stanford’s Thoroughbred horses, Sallie Gardner, at his Palo Alto Stock Farm.
Muybridge placed numerous large glass-plate cameras along the edge of the track, each shutter set to be triggered by a thread as Sallie Gardner galloped by. After the photographs were taken, he copied the images in the form of silhouettes onto a disc to be viewed in a machine he had invented. The machine, called a “zoopraxiscope,” would come to be thought of as an early movie projector.
This photographic work came to be known as “The Horse In Motion.” It definitively proved that galloping horses do, indeed, have a moment of suspension. It also proved that this moment did not come, as some people thought, when their legs were extended front to back, but when they were collected beneath the horse’s body.
Muybridge spent the rest of his career improving on his photographic technique before he passed away in England in 1904. Motion picture enthusiasts should thank him for his cinematic contributions, and equestrians should thank him, too, for helping them understand their beloved horses.
Have you seen the photography from “The Horse In Motion”? Tell us in the comments below!
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