Deborah Butterfiled grew up in San Diego in the 1950s and 60s, and frequently rode and drew pictures of horses. At the University of California, Davis, in the 1970s, she studied ceramics under Robert Arneson, the funk artist who helped propel the medium from the realm of craft and encouraged his student to pursue her idea of making elaborate life-size saddles. In graduate school, she moved onto a horse farm and helped take care of the animals to pay her rent.
In the 1970s, Butterfield made her first horses from plaster, papier-mȃché, and mud and sticks. In the mid-’80s, she began casting her work in bronze to retain the aesthetics of rotting wood in the casting process, in which the raw material burns away in the furnace, and molten bronze fills the void.