My NUMBER ONE Piece of Advice, if You Want to Photograph Horses & What I Learnt From Toothy the Llama

equine photography advice

I get quite a few emails and messages asking if I have any advice for somebody wanting to get into equine photography. So I felt that a blog was necessary. The one thing I always ask, before going any further, is whether or not they are familiar with horses.

By no means am I saying that if you are not ‘horsey’, you can’t photograph horses. Not at all! But I do think that it is extremely beneficial for you to understand the animal in front of your lens, if you are to get the best out of them. After all, you want to portray their character in your images, not just their appearance. And how can you do that if you don’t understand their character?

A couple of months back, I photographed a llama. I didn’t go to the shoot with the intention of photographing a llama. I was booked to photograph a lovely lady and her four ponies. But at her home, she also had this gorgeous chap, who her family had rescued from near death and she asked me to take a few snaps of him whilst I was there. His name is Toothy. Can you guess why?

equine photographer essex

The point to my llama story is this… When asked, I was more than happy to photograph him. We wandered up to his field and in we went. Suddenly, I was totally unsure.

Toothy wandered over and I felt my nerves creep up on me. It wasn’t debilitating and I was laughing about it, but it was simply because I’d never been up close and personal with a llama before. I just had no idea how he was going to react to me. I couldn’t read his behaviour, I didn’t know what to expect from him and I had no idea what llamas were like to be around. Was he going to leap on me? Spit at me? Be afraid of me?

Put me in a field with a 17hh stallion and I’d be perfectly fine. In the time I’ve been doing this job I’ve been run at, bitten, squished, almost kicked, reared at, bulldozed, head butted, leapt on by foals, had horses put their ears flat back at me… Not to mention all the equine encounters I’ve experienced outside of my job. And I rarely bat an eyelid. Because I understand horses and I know how to predict their movements. It’s part of the job. An occupational hazard. I’ve been around horses since I was three years old and reading them comes second nature, as I’m sure many of you can identify with. I don’t even have to think about it.

But I suddenly realised, as I walked into Toothy’s field, that I had no idea whether he was going to be terrified of me or decide he wanted to be rather more friendly than I was comfortable with. As it turned out, he was even more wary of me than I was of him and I quickly learnt that a little hand feeding is the way to a llama’s heart.

equine photographer essex

So, my point is this… If you want to photograph horses, and you want to get the best results possible, and do it safely, and you don’t already have a whole lot of equestrian experience, my advice would be for you to learn about horses!

Spend time with them. Book a riding lesson. Find a friend who will let you go to the yard with them. Turn their horse out in the field, watch them interact with other horses, watch them being ridden, watch them at feed time, handle them, watch their owners handle them, go to a horse show. Learn their behavioural patterns, their triggers, their fears, their body language, what makes the happy, what relaxes them, what stresses them out… And then, throw all of it away and remember that they are all completely different!

As an example of something that you’d need to know to do my job, non horsey people are often baffled that any importance is placed on the horses’ ears in a photograph. “Their ears?” someone once said to me, completely shocked. “Why do their ears matter?” Yet horsey people would be mortified if their horse’s ears are back in a picture!

Ears forward = Smiley pony.

equine photographer essex

I mentioned safety, earlier, too; Both your safety and that of your client.

Back in the summer, I was photographing a lovely lady and her horse. As she climbed aboard, bareback, her horse took off and threw in some pretty athletic bucks. I don’t know why he did it, but we all know that horses can be unpredictable. It might have been a bird; perhaps he was bitten; but most likely, he just decided he didn’t want to be ridden bareback on that particular day. But whatever the reason, her bum had barely rested on his back and he was off. And kudos to her, she stayed on and I have to say, there were a few times when I really thought she was toast.

I kept completely calm (on the outside, anyway) and continued to talk to my client as she tried to stay aboard her bucking bronco. And then as the horse came full circle back past me, I walked slowly towards him, talking to him quietly. He slowed down, watching me until I reached him, took hold of his rein gently and started stroking his neck. Eventually, he settled.

equine photographer essex

Once the owner had her breath back, she told me that she was so grateful I’d reacted the way I did. Talking to her had stopped her from panicking and her horse had reacted well to me calming him from the ground.

She said that in the split second her horse had taken off, her first thoughts were that I might a) laugh or b) be scared and worry her horse even more. To be honest, I’ve seen so many ponies misbehave, before I ever became an equine photographer; I’ve backed youngsters; I’ve helped others with difficult horses from the ground, etc. that it was a totally ingrained, natural reaction, that didn’t require a second thought. And now that I look back, I do wonder how the situation would have gone if I had been a less horsey photographer and had either just stood watching, open mouthed, or panicked myself.

Again, I’m not saying that if you aren’t horsey, you can’t photograph horses. I just think it’s important to know your subjects as well as possible. This is one of the main reasons that I no longer photograph weddings and avoid baby photography, other than for friends. I’ve never been married and I don’t have kids, so the whole situation feels totally alien to me. If I manoeuvre a baby into a particular position, will I hurt them or make them cry? If I ask a bride for too much of her time, will it ruin her big day?

Maybe I’ll feel different one day, when I have more experience of either weddings or children. Maybe I’ll just always prefer photographing horses.

equine photographer essex

So, if you’re thinking about delving into the world of equine photography, get out there in the equine community and spend time with horses. There really is no substitute for experience. And I’m assuming that if you are wanting to photograph horses, you have already have some interest in them, so prepare to be totally hooked!

If you have any questions about equine photography, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at sophiecallahanphotography@gmail.com, message me on my Facebook page or simply leave a comment on this blog post. I’m always looking for blog post ideas, so I’m happy to answer any questions you have.

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3 Responses to My NUMBER ONE Piece of Advice, if You Want to Photograph Horses & What I Learnt From Toothy the Llama

  1. Colleen says:

    That is the best advice on horse photography I ever read. I agree with you 100%.

  2. Pingback: Happy First Blogging Birthday To Me! | Sophie Callahan Photography

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