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This post has a gross factor of 4: no harrowing photographs but I describe and discuss the colour and smell of internal structures in graphic detail. You read on at your own risk.

Tonight was the night I’ve been waiting for since early September: an evening at the Royal Veterinary College complete with dissection and a lecture on epilepsy. The evening started out with a choice of: bar or sketch the specimens. I opted for the latter. I had to work quickly as the exhibit cases were attracting a lot of traffic but here’s the result:

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Before you could say “where did the last 45 minutes go”, they were handing us our lab coats and ushering us into the auditorium for the dissection. As we settled down I took a quick scan of the surroundings: a mounted horse skeleton; a couple of mounted skeletal pony limbs; something inexplicable on a bench that looked like a giant, sweaty walnut – or a creature from the Aliens movie playing Twister (I later learned that it was a preserved gut); and a New Forest Pony under a blanket on the table. Presiding over the proceedings was Dr. Crook, a zoological anatomy expert at the college. He told us that the specimen came from a recent cull. He explained that animals like this often find their way into the food industry. If he must die anyway then better that he be used to teach student vets how to save a horse’s life than die completely in vain. We weren’t allowed to take photographs but I still wanted a lasting record of the event, so I resorted to sketching the layout of the table and its equine contents. I was up against the clock here again, so I quickly jotted down the basic shape:

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We were to be taken on a tour of the locomotor system, the digestive system, and the cardiovascular system. First stop: the ‘Stay Apparatus’ in the hind limbs, which allow the horse to sleep standing up. An inspired solution to the problem of responding to ambush while snoozing. Dr. Crook told us that Giraffes have the Stay Apparatus also – when it takes you 30 minutes to get up, you need it. It takes me that long to get up sometimes, the ability to sleep standing would be pretty handy (specially during rush hour).

It’s no good sleeping upright if your head hits the ground. To counter this, the horse has a muscle called the Semispinalis capitis, which acts as a suspension bridge from the back of the skull to the raised vertebrae between the shoulder blades. Dr. Crook tried to move the head down but met resistance. The force on the head was moving the body with it. When he cut through this structure, the head could be positioned any way without resistance. We could see that it was a whitish yellow colour which is indicative of very spongy, springy tissue.

The gut came next, with quite startling results: Dr. Crook made an incision down the length of the belly and the gut sprouted out to greet him. It had more structure than I had expected. My sketch really doesn’t do it justice but it did act as a reminder of where the postmortem discolourations were:

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It wasn’t the freshest carcass: I have a bad sense of smell (caused in part by a broken nose playing Scrabble) but, when he opened up the gut, I could effectively taste the scent against the roof of my palate. This answered a long held speculation of whether I would wake up if I ticked off the mafia. I slept through the storm of ’87, after all.

One of the students held a roaming, mounted video camera up to the table and projected the image up the wall so that every audience member had an equal chance of seeing the discussed detail on the table. As the layers came away, I kept thinking what a difference there was between the colours I was seeing live and the colours being picked up and interpreted by the roaming camera. For example: the lungs were a dark raspberry colour when he first exposed them. The colour on the screen approximately matched. When he inserted a tube into the pony’s nostril to inflate the lungs, they returned to a raw pork red colour in actuality, while the projection screen showed a more Angel Delight pink. I wanted to get my camera out and compare the quality but, as I say, we weren’t allowed to take photographs. The last thing I’ll say about the intubation: hearing a dead horse snore is one of the most disturbing sounds ever.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my account of horse anatomy. If you ever have the chance I thoroughly recommend attending a dissection. For an artist there really is no substitute quite this effective for familiarising yourself with the anatomy of living animals. In parting, I leave you with a beautiful view up the nostrils of a Polar Bear (incidentally the Polar Bear from the Golden Compass):

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