Book review: Horses in Living Color by Barbara Livingston

“…grey is not a coat. Then what is it? It can only be a strange pigmentation disease…” Federico Tesio

A study of genetics focusing on horses’ colors resulted in Tesio’s mid-20th century declaration. Aesthetic observation brings Barbara Livingston, fortunately, to a different conclusion.

“Before I started the book, I knew little about the science of color. I read three books about it, I drew diagrams…and then had to admit that my brain just doesn’t work that way. My dad’s a scientist, but I never really got it. I mapped out codes of genetic information to see how colors would work, but I never really made sense of it. That’s when I realized that science was not what this book was about.”

“This book” is Horses in Living Color, Livingston’s most recent publication and her first venture outside the world of Thoroughbreds. The abortive scientific exploration meant that rather than being an explanation of how horses get their colors, the photographs “simply celebrate the captivating and sometimes shocking world of colorful horses,” as Livingston writes in the foreword.

She began the project with a focus on colorful Thoroughbreds, fascinated by them since childhood, but she soon discovered that that world is still too small to comprise a complete book. Her editor then suggested that she branch out into other breeds, and Livingston realized that this was her chance to “chase down a Knabstrupper.”

“When I was a kid, I thought they were the coolest. They were in all the breeds books when I was a kid. They looked like fake horses with polka dots.”

You’ll find Knabstruppers here, and Friesians, and brindles, and North American Curly Horses. And of course, you’ll find Thoroughbreds. In conversation, Livingston recalls the photograph that she took of Spectacular Bid shortly before he died in 2003. The photo appeared in Sports Illustrated, and his dark grey coat had by then become nearly white. “Horses like Bid sort of inspired me—the ones that changed colors in interesting ways,” she said.

While Livingston does take care to explain breeds and color patterns that might be unfamiliar to readers, the power of the book lies, expectedly, in its visual beauty. We see horses that look as though they’re posing for her; we see horses in brilliant motion, in snowy pastures and meadows of wildflowers. We see pieces of horses: a hoof, a belly, a neck, an eye.

But don’t ignore the text—it is at times indispensable, for how else would we know that the virtually all-white horse on page 191 is the 11-year-old Monarchos, considerably darker when he won the Kentucky Derby in 2001? Or that the array of colored ponies on pages 196 and 197 are descendants of Misty of Chincoteague?

If Livingston is still looking for her next project, she might find inspiration in the manes of the horses that she photographed. On page 14, the creamy mane of an Arabian filly flies above her golden coat. On pages 20 and 21, the dark curly locks might be human, so rich and luxurious are they. On pages 92 through 95, the Colonial Spanish Horse sports natural highlights that would be the envy of anyone who’s spent hours—and hundreds of dollars—in a salon.

The visual feast that the book provides might leave readers sated enough that they’ll pass over the key at the end that matches pages numbers with horses’ names, colors, breeds, and farms (where available). They do so at their peril, as they may find, as I did, some old favorites. That left eye on page 65 belongs to Armonk, a two-year-filly that I met at Saratoga in the summer of 2007, and of whom I lost track when she stopped racing. Perhaps those with keener eyes will recognize Silver Wagon or Flashy Bull without the key…but it added a dimension to my enjoyment when I realized that not all of the horses in the book were strangers.

Livingston travelled the country in search of the unusual and the beautiful, and her camera captures not only the horses’ appearances, but frequently, their moods and their personalities. Tesio might have wanted to know why and how horses got their colors, but Livingston is content to marvel at the results without having to know the cause. Horses in Living Color proves that sometimes, art without science is mighty satisfying all on its own.

Horses In Living Color, by Barbara Livingston. 223 pages. Eclipse Press. $24.95. Available at Exclusively Equine.

Source of quotation:

Tesio, Federico. Tesio: In His Own Words. Neenah, Wisconsin: The Russell Meerdink Company, Ltd., 2005. Google Books. Web. 22 Dec. 2009. 102.

6 thoughts on “Book review: Horses in Living Color by Barbara Livingston

  1. Very cool – I hadn't heard about this book before! I have a great book I got in Iceland about the color variations in Icelandic horses (and it's interesting to see where Icelanders have terms for levels of granularity in coat color most of us never see); this sounds like an ideal companion.

  2. Barbara Livingston is an artist that all horse lovers should treasure. The only thing more admirable than her eye for the perfect image is her genuine love of the animals.

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