All in a day’s work: The equine functional anatomist *H&H Plus*

  • Gillian Higgins on making anatomy fascinating, painting horses for The Queen and “skeletons” running in the rain

    I never dreamed I’d be doing this, it’s one of those things that just happened. I’ve always loved horses and been interested in how they work, and am quite creative. I started as a human sports remedial therapist, then did other courses and my British Horse Society coaching exams.

    I evented to advanced level when I was younger so I had the riding and training background, and pulled it all together. I was coaching and doing therapy when I realised many clients would benefit from a better understanding of how horses work.

    The position of horses’ neck vertebrae is a good example; everyone thinks they’re lower than they are. I had one client, who’d qualified for Badminton, who was really worried about some lumps in the neck of a young horse, and I said, “No, they’re the neck bones.” It was a realisation that there had to be a way of helping people understand more about the animals they’re riding, and help them. It’s always about trying to help the horse.

    I started doing a few workshops for clients. On one, I indicated a semblance of the musculature and bones on a horse, and it started from there and snowballed. Every time I’ve painted a horse, it’s got better, and I learn so much every time. It’s all about inspiring people to learn more about their horses.

    Anatomy and muscles can seem a dry subject – but not the way I do it. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world doing this, and hopefully improved the knowledge of a lot of people.

    I think my passion for the subject comes through. I’ve been told I’m good at explaining complex things in a way that’s easy to understand. It’s not about the names of bones and muscles; for people working with horses, what’s important is understanding the structures and how they work, and how that affects what they do with their horses. In what way can understanding this help me improve my training, riding and management? If I stood there and reeled off a load of Latin names, I’d lose everyone. It’s about helping the horse be more comfortable and perform better; not just in competition but for everything.

    Painting a horse for The Queen was quite something. I’d been asked to go to Hyde Park Barracks, and one of the officers rode in a human bone bodysuit I’ve made — you can buy them for Halloween but the bones are on the front and that’s the wrong orientation for riding.

    They invited me back as they said they had a “very important person” coming. The Queen said it was really quite striking, and commented on the neck bones’ position; she thought it was really good. It was one of those days you know is a real high point.

    People’s reactions when they hear what I do can be strange. If I say I paint horses they think I’m an artist but when I explain, it takes them a while to understand; when they do, they’re fascinated. The non-horsey people take longer to get it but once they do, they all want to see pictures.

    Riders falling off in demos isn’t funny, although it can be interesting, but the funniest moment I think came at Dublin Horse Show. I did three days of lecture-demos, with three horses, which was fantastic. They all had skeletons painted on and the riders were in bodysuits, and as we headed down to the ring it started pouring – and the paint was water-based. We waited until it eased off, then started in the corner near the Guinness tent, where everyone had gone. The sun did eventually come out, but the paint had definitely run.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 19 March 2020