Visual Arts

Practicing rare art, man brings life to skeletons of dead horses

Walter Varcoe created a jumping skeleton, using a former New York City police horse, for the Rood & Riddle tent at the World Equestrian Games.
Walter Varcoe created a jumping skeleton, using a former New York City police horse, for the Rood & Riddle tent at the World Equestrian Games.

Near the start of the new exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse is a striking pair of skeletons.

Posed as a man leading a rearing horse, the piece from The Horse has drawn comparisons to Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus.

According to legend, Alexander succeeded where everyone else failed by seeing what others didn't: that the horse was afraid of his own shadow. Alexander turned Bucephalus into the sun, and the great horse was tamed.

It's a moment from classical history captured in bone, originally by naturalist S.H. Chubb, whose exhibits of "living skeletons" of horses, dogs and other animals set new standards for lively, beautiful science.

The version in Lexington is a new re-creation, made for the American Museum of Natural History by a former New York prison-guard-turned-farrier who now specializes in horse skeletons.

"The only reason we don't have the original is because we've struck a deal for a long-term loan, so it's been sent to the conservators," said Bill Cooke, director of the Kentucky museum. Once the Chubb mount has been fully restored, Cooke said, it will come to Lexington for an extended visit. Cooke hopes it will arrive in time for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event at the end of April.

But The Horse exhibit needed to include the piece. So where do you get an articulated horse skeleton, posed to perfection, these days?

The answer: Walter Varcoe.

Practicing what might be a dead art, Varcoe looks at horses and sees bones. By posing those bones, he can make us see the horse as never before.

"I find horses just beautiful, and (seeing their skeletons) impresses me even more that they can do what they do," he said.

Varcoe didn't start out working with bones; he began working with people.

"It was a very odd thing," Varcoe said. "I started out as a corrections officer in 1981. About seven years into it, I got into mounted patrol."

In 2004, while he was running the farm program at Otisville Correctional Facility for the New York State Department of Corrections, one of the horses got kicked and had to be put down.

Varcoe also was teaching farrier skills to inmates and decided to use the farm's new commercial composting operation to compost the horse.

"I said I'd really like to have a leg for the inmates. ... That turned into a whole horse," he said.

Friends from the New York City Police Department saw the skeleton and wanted one for their Remount Training Facility in the Bronx.

When he retired in 2006, Varcoe planned to become a farrier full-time. Instead, for the last few years, this new line of work has been keeping him busy lecturing on equine anatomy and building skeletons.

For the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Rood & Riddle asked him to create a mount for their veterinary tent, where they would conduct educational seminars.

The result was an artistic leap.

"I said, this is going to be the World Equestrian Games, and it's Lexington," he said. "How about a jumping skeleton?"

He used Louie, a tall Thoroughbred-looking standardbred who was a former New York City police horse, he said.

"I had an idea, and I had to find a picture of a horse that really captured the exact moment, that striving, that intent to get over the jump," Varcoe said. "I find the biomechanics fascinating."

He has since created a "bookend" pose of a horse landing; the pair are planned to be part of a five-part series, including a horse over a jump.

For a booth at a veterinary conference in Texas, Varcoe created a classic reining-horse slide.

Such "animated" poses can take a month or more to put together, and they require precise calculation and engineering.

Varcoe has created more than 30 full skeletons and numerous "bits and pieces," smaller works to illustrate legs and hoofs.

He gets most of his "mortalities" from local vets, the extension service and horse owners. He composts the horse carcasses on his farm in Orange County, N.Y.

At any given time, he might have a dozen horses quietly returning to nature under piles of wood chips, waiting for a new order or an inspired moment. At present, he's composting a former Grand Prix dressage competitor for a New Jersey veterinarian who wants his horse posed in a piaffe, just as he performed it with the vet's wife.

"Some people find the skeletons creepy," he said. "But some people call me up and say it would mean the world to have their horse do this. ... It's like a very noble thing."

Whenever possible, Varcoe likes to meet the horse beforehand to get its back story.

"It's nice to meet the horse," he said. The animal's personality comes through in the finished work in the way it carries its legs, in the turn of a head, he said.

"The skeleton can speak, just like the animal can speak. Everything can come out just from how it is positioned," Varcoe said. "I try to get the emotion, the mood. All I'm doing is capturing the foundation."

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