Photographing horses


Let's start with the stuff that sounds easy, but isn't. Just a "standard" portrait of someone's horse. The first problem is that many people have a stereotype in mind - the "typical" horse portrait you would find in an auction catalog. In this type of picture, someone (usually out of picture) is holding the horse by a lead rein, the horse is photographed from the side and is supposed to have its ears pricked forward in the direction of the person holding it.

Some problems with this approach. It does not look natural, and the viewers eye will tend to follow the lead rope out of the picture. OK, so you can clone out the lead rope, but the experienced observer will see that something is amiss - a horse being held with a lead rope just looks different than a horse just standing around. In addition, if you want to show the horse without a halter (head stall) cloning that out will take significant effort. All in all it is more fun to photograph the horse without a halter and lead rope.

Your first alternative is to treat the horse like a wild animal and just shoot whatever is happening naturally - horse grazing, moving about paddock, interacting with other horses. A fairly long telephoto lens is useful here, so that your close presence will not affect the horses' natural behaviour. You'll get very natural shots, but that may not be what the horse's owner is after.


When moving around and grazing naturally a horse will often keep its head low. This is usually not the kind of photograph the owner wants.

In my experience owners are quite fixated on having the horse's ears pricked forward in every photo and horses hanging out in the paddock don't do that all that often - the natural set of the ears is more sideways, and the ears will only prick up if something has attracted the horse's attention. (Remember that in the feral state horse's are prey animals - anything unusual can be a predator. If they notice or hear something unusual the head will come up, they will look in that direction and prick their ears in that direction to localize the sound. If in doubt they will flee, if reassured they will continue grazing). Horses do spend a lot of time grazing, but they will tend to look around from time to time. This can be an opportunity for a nice photograph.


Foal running free. Unfortunately, this photograph also illustrates how easily distracting elements in the background can intrude.

But let's say you have limited time and do not want to use the "stalking around the paddock" method. When taking portraits of horses a basic knowledge of horses (or the assistance of someone who has) is very useful. A word of warning here. One would think that the horse's owner will make an excellent assistant, but this is not necessarily the case. Ideally you want someone with a calming influence on horses. Some owners can exercise relaxed control over their horses, others...

In the case of owners who compete in equine sports their presence may actually cause some tension in the horse, as the horse associates them with work, peak performance, the competition atmosphere, etc. This particularly applies to owners who only visit their horses when competing or training for competition. This does not apply to owners who also spend a lot of time with their horses when not training, e.g. taking them for outrides, etc.

There is another factor at work. The owner obviously wants the horse to look its best, and some of them can get quite tense about this. This tension will often transmit to the horse, which makes it difficult to get the horse to stand still, and things can escalate from there. Unfortuantely this is a factor you are unlikely to have full control over - usually you will not be in a position to tell the owner to sod off.

Now for some tips


This slightly unusual angle, coupled with the use of a wide-angle lens at close range accentuates the size of the nostrils!

Action/sport photography

Dressage

Apart from getting someone who knows the sport to advise you, the best advice is to take a lot of photos. Because you freeze the action there will often be photos where something just isn't right - and it may not even have been visible at normal speed. So take many - hopefully there will be at least one where horse and rider look perfect (or at least good, or if not good OK). The others can be used as training aids!

Showjumping

Because of the constraints at major shows, it may often be easier to shoot a training session. At a show you will often not be allowed inside the arena, the angles from which you can shoot and the jumps you can reasonably cover may be limited. Also you only have one chance per horse per jump. In a training session you can have the horse jump the same obstacle a number of times, and introduce yourself slowly (see below), experiment with angles, etc.

If you cover a show, don't be rooted to the same spot all day - you may surprised at the interesting photos possible from a place that did not look productive originally.

Generally in showjumping you would like some drama and action - in other words you want the jumps to look high. In this regard it helps to shoot from close to the ground so that the horse is above the viewer. The more the upward angle to the horse jumping the higher the jump looks.


Shooting from a low angle close to the jump added drama to this shot. Of course, the fact that it was quite a high jump also helped.


Note how this shot which was taken from further away and at a flatter angle looks much less impressive.

If possible and safe it helps to get close to the jump, as this gives a better angle. Low angles often add drama - that is why at many rodeos there is a special pit for photographers enabling them to photograph from a slit just above ground level. If you are going to photograph from close to a jump just make sure that the horse can see you on its way to the jump (if you suddenly appear from nowhere it may be startled) and stand fairly still (so as not to distract it from the job in hand). If you startle or distract the horse it may bungle the jump, or worse cause a fall.

So just be careful and introduce yourself and the camera noises slowly. Most horses are not overly worried about someone standing close to a jump, and most do not mind the noise of a shutter release. Still, it is better to move in slowly and if the horse looks bothered, retreat! You certainly don't want an incident which can include injuries to the rider or yourself, so don't approach too closely.

I have seen photos where people put a camera under a jump and trigger it by remote control as the horse jumps over it. I have not done this myself, but would caution that you should move the camera into position slowly and make sure that the horse is used to the noise at each new position. (Incidentally I think that horses find noises such as shutter releases more acceptable if it comes from a human standing around - they know that humans make noises - unexplained noises seems to worry them more.) But please don't take this as a suggestion to go and lie close to or under the jump!

Some of the images are available for purchase as stock photos. To see them (and others) click here. If you are only interested in showjumping photos enter the search term "showjumping" after following the link; if you would only like to see photos of horses enter the term "horse", and so forth. If you would like to purchase prints (up to A2 poster size) please send me a mail.


Text and images © Emile Wessels 2006