Why would you even want to switch heads when customizing a model horse? Change the head on a custom, and change the entire look of your model! Mixing things up in unexpected ways makes sure people will take a second look at your piece - sometimes we get so used to seeing the same old thing. By thinking "outside the box," it encourages the viewer to pause to ask themselves what is different. Seeing another model's head on a different body is like a puzzle that just begs to be figured out.
A more practical reason to swap out heads on models may be because certain models have problems with the proportions of their faces. For me, it’s a lot easier to lop a head off and start off fresh! Resculpting an existing face can take at least five hours, fifteen hours, or more. Taking the head off of another model can take five minutes! Some models have great conformation on their body and legs, and a particularly lovely head from another donor model is all it needs for a quick freshening up.
I love giving old models new expressions and a new twist. I even take brand-new models with perfectly lovely heads and switch them just for fun. It always causes these “Frankenhorses” to get a second look at shows! When I take a model that has its ears pinned back and a sour expression, like the wild Mustang Nokota mold, and put it on a model like Strapless it inspires me to make an elegant show mare into a crabby appaloosa gelding!
Do you have a model whose soulful eyes you especially love? If it's that face that wins you over, try looking around for other models of similar size that you could expand on.
Custom Strapless model with a Nokota head
Think creatively. Look at the face’s expression and quality, and unless you are working on an extremely “typey” breed like a Clydesdale or an Arabian, try to disregard the breed. For example, the old Tennessee Walking Horse sculpture Midnight Sun has a beautiful expression, and can swap out easily with many other molds sculpted by Chris Hess, who created most of Breyer's early sculptures. For example, I took the Breyer Stretch Morgan and put a Tennessee Walking Horse face on it to create a lovely parked-out Saddlebred model. Who says you can't put a Foxtrotter head on a Thoroughbred? Let go of breed definitions, and look for the fun and different!
Older models are relatively easy to find and can be very affordable, especially at events you might attend in person. I look for “body” models with broken legs for $5 at a local shows or while shopping at BreyerFest, hoping for bargains. Newer molds can cost more than older ones, so I check for ones with broken legs or wait to find them on sale at discount retailers, if possible.
Trying a custom with swapped heads will cost more than simply working with a single plastic body. Even it isn't possible to find a newer model dirt cheap, it costs more for two models: one for the body, plus a “donor horse” for the face. However, nice customs can win at shows for a very long time - many are still winning ten or more years after being created. I consider it a good investment!
I size the head of a possible donor horse by comparing it to the barrel of the body of the model I'm planning to put it on. The length of the head should be about as deep as the body, from topline to belly. Remember that small changes can be made to shorten on lengthen the donor head, but it should be within one quarter-inch for best results.
Custom vintage Jumping Horse with a Salinero head
Donor heads can be modified in a couple of ways. Sometimes I can lengthen the head slightly by adding more epoxy to the back of the jaw, while adding just a touch to the lips. This needs to be minor and subtle - no big globs of epoxy on the muzzle, and the jaw cannot extend very far behind the ear. Conversely, the cheeks of a model can be brought a touch forward or trimmed on the underside to make a donor face appear smaller. If the adjustments are minor, they can smoothly blend the new head onto the separate plastic body.
Add epoxy for a perfect fit
The finished, attached head
Place the potential heads forehead-to-forehead to compare their width. This can be much trickier to change, so the width of the two heads should be as close as possible. I might “fatten” the cheeks a bit on a donor face to help, using epoxy, or thin the cheek area slightly to make the face seem narrower, but eyes need to be about the same distance apart. Narrowing or fattening the neck a bit can also help transition a new head onto another body.
Adding the new head is the exact same process as if I was cutting off a head to reposition it. I use a rolled up “snake” of aluminum foil and stuff one end in the hollow plastic head, and the other side is stuffed into the neck cavity. Epoxy fills the gap in between.
Look at the photos shown here to see the dramatic difference a new face can make. Whether it’s a Nokota head on a Strapless body, or an old "Pacer" head on a Keltic Salierno mold, a new face can totally change the look of any custom!
Custom Nokota body with a Strapless head