How horses made me who I am

When I was about four years old, my mother first told me about the horse she had when she was growing up. His name was ‘Watch Charm,’ but Mom just called him Charmie. After that, I became a typical horse-crazy girl growing up in the middle of the city. But I can trace that fact that I’m sitting here, now, as a paleontologist back to that conversation. This is how it worked.

I had this one toy horse that I loved. In fact, I still have that toy horse. I should find it an post a picture here. Anyway, I sat down and started drawing pictures of that horse. I wanted to draw the perfect horse. It was my way of imagining actually having one.

I spent years perfecting my drawings. I would study some of the toy horses that I had and sketch those. Then I graduated into looking at pictures of horses and copying those. I got some ‘how to draw’ books.

Something clicked in me around middle school. I noticed that horses and humans had all the same bones, they were just arranged differently, for different functions. In fact, I realized that all terrestrial vertebrate (though I didn’t call them that at the time) had all the same bones. Then I got creative.

Of course, I didn’t fully understand biology or evolution then,  but I tried to imagine what animals that evolved in different environments would look like. Or what a sentient horse would be like. I spent years creating strange new alien species, mostly mammals, based upon what I understood of comparative anatomy (all of which I taught myself).

In middle school, I read parts of Gray’s Anatomy, and began to think about how muscles and bones work together. Every animal I created had to ‘work’ to the best of my knowledge. I would draw skeletal and muscular reconstructions for each animal. Things were getting pretty detailed.

By the time I was in high school, I’d gone so far as to invent some cultures and interactions for some of the species, but still, they were mostly mammalian. I took a number of art classes and was by then producing some great paintings and drawings of my critters doing unexpected things: the Ulfrese (my biological answer to the ‘transformers’) were cheetah-like and seemed to like to ride mountain bikes. Then there were the Pronons that were my functional concept of a minotaur, that for whatever reason, enjoyed winter sports (it could have been that the Winter Olympics were on!).

An Ulf riding a bike. Pencil on illustration board. I drew this in high school. All rights reserved.

A Pronon ski jumping. Watercolor. I painted this in high school. All rights reserved.

A Pronon speed skating. Watercolor. I painted this in high school. All rights reserved.

Then my art teacher challenged us to invent an animal that looked like a plant, or vice versa (I don’t remember). I naturally came up with an animal the was a plant, and spent a great deal of time conceptualizing it’s fern-like reproduction.

When high school was nearly over, I had established a few things about myself that remain true today: I am an artist and I am a scientist. I was mulling over how I could be both and make a career of it. The obvious choice was dinosaur reconstructions. I’d be the artist that fleshes out the dinosaurs. I’d be a paleontologist!

I went to college to study geology and biology. I already knew that paleontology was an interdisciplinary science. I knew I could never do what I wanted to do without solid training in both geology and biology, so I double-majored.

The unexpected occurred. I found that I really liked geology a lot! I could actually see myself being just a geologist. That’s OK. There’s a future in that. I also rekindled an old interest in chemistry, which surprised me.

I learned also that paleontology isn’t just something you major in. If you wanted to be a paleontologist, you had to get an advanced degree. That degree would either be in geology or biology. When I was near graduation, I started applying to graduate programs in both fields, but the ones that attracted me the most were those in geology. I wound up in a Ph.D. program at the University of Wyoming to study vertebrate paleontology. But here’s the kicker: I wasn’t going to work with dinosaurs or even with life reconstructions.

Well, it’s worked out. As a grad student, I was introduced to isotope geochemistry, which is what I do to get paid now. Occasionally, I even get to work with dinosaur fossils. I’ve never become a paleoartist and done reconstructions. Perhaps I should be disappointed, but the people who actually are paleoartists do some amazing work. I don’t think I could do that! I do still draw – a lot! I do my own figures for papers. It’s nice to not have to hire anyone to do that for me. I really enjoy putting together posters for professional meetings. I get a little arsty-fartsy with them. It’s a lot of fun. And doodles of horses appear everywhere!

Artsy-fartsy rendition of my singular new species of Mammal, _Fractinus palmorem_ . Pen and ink and watercolor. Did this in graduate school. Never finished it. All rights reserved.

Here’s the fun thing: After grad school I found myself on a postdoctoral project working with – you guessed it – horses. Yeah, it came full-circle. I started with a love of horses, and today I do a lot of work with fossil horses (and other cool mammals). I still have it in my head to one day own a horse, though honestly, I’d be happy with any equid. Mules are nice. Donkey’s are cute and fuzzy. Maybe not a zebra…

So. I’m a vertebrate paleontologist. And an isotope geochemist. All because my mom told me the story of her horse way back when I was four years old. Never underestimate the influence your little story might have on someone. Such things could be life-changing!

5 thoughts on “How horses made me who I am

  1. Penny,
    I enjoyed reading this entry. Not to say I haven’t enjoyed others. However, this one brings me back. I have memories of you that seem to go back as far as third grade. I remember you constantly drawing horses of all sorts. So many years later, I am not at all surprised to read that you still have a profound love of those critters and just how much they have colored your life.

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