As a boy, Théodore Géricault loved drawing horses and would sit in the stables watching and drawing. In 1817, he traveled to Rome where he witnessed the annual Carnival horse race and subsequently made numerous studies of this spectacle. This study marks the moment just before the race begins, when the terrified riderless horses begin their run down the Corso in Rome.
A groom tries to contain a rearing horse in the center, while other men all around push and pull the wild animals, goading them into a frenzied stampede. Géricault used virtually monochromatic colors applied in thick swirls to animate and suggest extreme physical strength. The dramatic use of light and shadow adds energy to the relieflike scene. Géricault mythologized the event: the muscular nude in the center recalls athletes of ancient Greece, and the thrusting horses bring to mind the Parthenon frieze designed by Phidias. Géricault intended to use this study for a grand painting to submit to the Salon, but he had to abandon that plan when he was called back to France on short notice.