While the anatomy of all horses is fundamentally the same, proportions can vary considerably from breed to breed, and each has characteristic features. A tubby pony and an elegant Arabian might have the same basic gait, but each has a quality of movement all its own. Be sure to spend some time observing horses both at rest and in motion, paying attention to their natural range of movement. In this way, you will avoid drawing unnatural poses and you will develop an understanding of your subject. Most of the time, you will probably want to use photographs to draw from, as horses rarely stand still, though you should try to draw from life if you can—even if they are only quick sketches.
Midmorning and the afternoon are the best times to photograph your horse, when the sun is high enough to give definition but not harsh shadows and highlights. As a general guide, stand so that you can comfortably see your subject in its entirety (whether head and neck or whole horse), in a single glance. This will minimize distortions at the edges (from too wide an angle) or compression of perspective (from too long a zoom); this approach is particularly useful with point-and-shoot cameras when one tends not to think about focal length. Take plenty of pictures—most animals are a bit uncooperative and will look dopey, move, snuffle the camera, and so on, until you've given up and put the lens cap back on.
The Horse's Head
Sketching a simplified structure is a useful way to begin drawing the complex forms of a horse. In profile, the head is a fairly rectangular shape and the neck is triangular. Make sure you observe the angle formed by the head and neck correctly. Some people see the head in profile as an ice-cream-cone shape. Build on the cheekbones and chin, and place the eyes, ears, mouth, and nostrils. The eye at this angle is essentially a bowl shape with a triangular hat. Remember that this formulaic approach, like the proportions of the human head, are only a ballpark guide to establish the basics. Observe your subject and make sure the proportions are relevant to the individual.
The three-quarter view can be a bit tricky, but the horse's beautifully angular head shape makes it a bit easier, forming a sort of kite-shape from poll (between the ears) to nose. Draw a line all the way down the face, then draw lines through the eyes and across the nose. Note the shape of the eyes at this angle, with the far eye being partly visible. When sketching the head in a three-quarter view, break it down to basic shapes first, keeping perspective in mind, and build up the details from there.
Establishing structure with key planes
Directional hatching helps to describe the form.
Note that the horse's eyes do not show white except when rolled back in anger or fear. The pupil is a rectangular shape across the middle of the eye, though it is usually difficult to see it against the dark brown of the iris. A curved highlight helps to add form to the eye. Note the way the upper edge of the heavy lower lid catches the light. Some horses have quite long lashes.
Note the overlapping curves of the nostrils. The nostrils express the horse's attitude and may be flared when the horse is fearful, angry, or running hard. Avoid hard outlining.
The horse's mouth, with its thick lips, can be a bit of a challenge to draw. The best results are with a simple, single line between the lips, and a slightly broken line suggesting the lower edge of the lower lip. A bit may create a crease in the upper lip or corners of the lips. The droop of a horse's mouth can seem a little awkward to draw, even sad, but drawn correctly it should look fine—trust your eyes and observe your subject carefully.
Horses have large, barrel-shaped chests and powerful hindquarters. Note the sloping shoulders.
The hind legs are rather tricky to draw, often looking awkward. Use negative spaces and check the angles of each part of the limbs against the vertical or existing lines.
Many people find drawing the horse's hoof difficult. Looking for familiar shapes makes things much easier. If you begin by drawing a triangle, then cropping one corner, you'll get a pretty good hoof shape. Often, nature doesn't always look as elegant as we think it should—practice drawing from life until you are familiar with the hoof from every angle.
A cropped triangle helps to get the hoof shape.
Drawing Horses and Riders
If working from a photograph, select a shot that shows the rider seated well with the horse under control—a rising trot or unbalanced seat is difficult to draw successfully, and a horse that is fighting the bit won't make for a good drawing.
Including the environment gives a sense of narrative to your sketch.
Begin drawing with a good structural sketch of the horse first. You want to indicate the solid roundness of the horse's body and visualize its form well. Make an imaginary line through the center of the rider onto the horse, so that the figure is centered. From there, you can place the saddle and rider, ensuring that the form of the saddle follows that of the horse, and that the rider's legs similarly follow the saddle and horse. Take your time and carefully observe the proportions of the horse and rider. A common fault is to make the legs too long, as the thighs are often slightly foreshortened, depending on the angle of view. Use points you have already drawn to check the position and angle of the hands.
Including shadow places the subject in relation to the ground.
Of course, your subject will influence the finished result.
Pen and ink is an ideal medium for sketching horses in action. The fluid nature of an ink wash helps to create a fresh, lively feel. There are many opportunities for sketching and photographing horses, even if you don't have access to a horse on a regular basis. A day at the racetrack or rodeo or a polo match make for excellent reference material.