It was completed with red chalk (sanguine), pen and ink on paper (15.3 x 14.2 cm) during the 'high renaissance' art period (1490s to 1527) in either 1503 or 1504.
It is a prime example of Leonardo's ground-breaking artistic style and mastery of the dynamic equine form, and a testament to his boundless curiosity and fascination for the natural world.
Multiple outlines and angles portray the range of motion the rearing horse would take, providing a three-dimensional effect incredibly advanced for the time.
There are three outlines of the thrown back head and two outlines of the rearing forelegs. Leonardo’s use of sweeping strokes, curved cross-hatching, fervent shading and white space adds definition capturing the strong thigh muscles and powerful flank.
The faint outline of the tail contrasts the clearly sketched body and a few barely visible strokes depict the rider struggling to regain control.
Leonardo’s left-handed fervent pen strokes provide a strong visual representation of movement and power and epitomise his talent for accurately portraying anatomical form. The overall effect is both elegant and terrifying.
At first glance it is easy to miss the much smaller and fainter depiction of a second rearing horse below the larger sketch. This horse is sketched from a similar angle but with much less shading and definition. This preliminary drawing may have been a practice run for the main sketch.
A perfectionist and a procrastinator, Leonardo prided himself on his impeccable attention to detail and thorough preparation. He created numerous iterations of the same drawing over and over again. It is believed that his horse drawings were preparatory sketches ahead of a commissioned mural depicting the locally celebrated Battle of Anghiari.
Unfortunately, the mural was never completed, however, numerous practice battle and horse sketches remain. Leonardo was also commissioned to design the largest horse sculpture in the world; again, this was not completed during his lifetime.
His love of horses is apparent from his numerous artistic depictions of them. Apparently, he loved to go riding and also considered horses a magical and powerful creature. Having read the Classics, he would be well aware of the prominent feature horses play in Greco-Roman mythology, being the chosen mount of many Gods.
As well as drawing numerous informal freehand sketches of stationary and moving horses, he also carefully studied the relationship between skin and muscles and created numerous detailed and accurate mathematical diagrams of horse anatomy from every angle.
This particular sketch of a rearing horse was part of a collection bequeathed to his apprentice, Italian painter Francesco de Melzi, and was eventually acquired by King Charles II of England at the end of the seventeenth century and has remained in the British Royal Collection ever since.