Horse Locomotion: A Drama

Posted by Aaron Taylor on

Does a horse at its various gaits ever have all four legs off the ground? Today we know that answer is yes, but it is not easy to tell from simple observation. About 150 years ago, railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford set out to ground truth the theory, commissioning photographer Eadweard Muybridge for the task.

To provide the definitive answer about equine movement, in 1878 Muybridge photographed Stanford's horse, named Sallie Gardner, using twelve high-speed (for the time) exposure cameras with trip wires set along a track. There is a good chance that you've seen this famous galloping image series (pictured above, and once featured as the Google doodle), made even more dramatic when animated, which revealed that a horse is indeed briefly completely aloft during a gallop stride. (Fun fact: The confirmed gallop mechanics surfaced erroneous depictions of horses' leg positions in older paintings, a famous one being The 1820 Derby at Epsom, which hangs in the Louvre.)

Muybridge’s stop-motion technique paved the way for the motion-picture industry, and for using technology to capture processes imperceptible to the naked eye for scientific purposes. He duplicated the process for jumping horses, cantering bison, meandering elephants, human sprinters and wrestlers, and innumerable other species.

Being a technological pioneer was just part of Eadweard's dramatic personal story, though. He originally emigrated to the US from England as a bookseller, but suffered a traumatic head injury during a stage coach crash in Texas that even after years of treatment left him with behavioral and emotional eccentricities. He learned photography and was lauded for his images of the American West, before taking on the locomotion studies. Simultaneously, he married a woman half his age, and then soon murdered her lover with a point-blank gunshot, landing him in a Napa, California, jail.

He pleaded insanity, citing the earlier head trauma, but was ultimately acquitted by the jury, not because of the insanity plea, but because they found that his crime was "justifiable homicide." Free again, Muybridge continued his photography and animation projects, compiling a massive portfolio, and also lectured all across the country and in England. In 1904, he passed away and was buried under a misspelled gravestone. Since then he has been the subject of innumerable films, songs, books and even a Philip Glass opera that uses his murder trial transcript as its libretto. What else can we say but WOW!

Thanks for the horse insights, Eadweard!

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