Born the same day as the 75th running of the Kentucky Derby (May 7, 1949), Butterfield partly credits that birthdate as an inspiration for her subject matter;[2] She has also said that she would have preferred to work in the female form, but that her mentor Manuel Neri dominated that form. Instead, she chose to create self-portraits using images of horses. Gradually, the horses themselves became her primary theme. Butterfield earned her bachelor's degree (1972) at the University of California, Davis with Honors[3] and a Master of Fine Arts (1973) at the University of California, Davis, where she met her husband, artist John Buck, whom she married in 1974.[1]


Butterfield's work has been exhibited widely and there is demand among art collectors for her sculptures. Her earliest works from the mid-1970s were made from sticks and natural detritus gathered on her property in Bozeman, Montana. "The materials and images were meant to suggest that the horses were both figures and ground, merging external world with the subject."[4] She began crafting horses out of scrap metal and cast bronze in the early 1980s. She would sculpt a piece using wood and other materials fastened together with wire, then photograph the piece from all angles so as to be able to reassemble the piece in metal.[1]
Butterfield has said, "I first used the horse images as a metaphorical substitute for myself - it was a way of doing a self-portrait one step removed from the specificity of Deborah Butterfield."[5] She also said, "These first horses were huge plaster mares whose presence was extremely gentle calm. They were at rest, and in complete opposition to the raging warhorse (stallion) that represents most equine sculpture. The next series of horses was made of mud and sticks and suggested that its forms were left clotted together after the river flooded and subsided. the pieces were dark and almost sinister, reflecting the realization that I was perhaps more like the warhorse than the quiet mares. For me they represented the process of attitudes and feelings taking shape after a flood of experiences. The materials and images were to suggest that the horses were both figure and ground, merging external world with the subject."[3]