Being successful in the hyper-competitive world of professional photography where everyone with a smart phone thinks they’re a photographer these days… can be really tough. The key to success lies in finding small niche photography businesses, where work is plentiful and competition is slimmer. My wife River and I found such a niche in Equine Photography years ago and is has afforded us an exciting lifestyle, extensive travel and a full time living for over a decade. We have taken over 1 million photos of horses and riders in 8 states and have worked with every kind of rider from the 9 year old backyard quarter horse owner, to professional dressage riders with horses valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you love horses and the equine culture, western or english disciplines, you can create an adventurous and profitable career for yourself in Equestrian Photography! The best place to start out is with horse shows and then you can grow your business from there.
We’ll assume for the purposes of this article that you already have most, if not all of the the photo, computer and other things needed to set up a horse show photography operation. If your not there yet, check out our Resources Pages: Resource Pages covering all you will need to be an Equestrian Photographer for everything you need to know and have, to successfully work a horse show, equine portrait or other horse event!
What is Horse, Equine or Equestrian Photography?
Equestrian photography is the practice or profession of photographing horses with or without riders in a variety of activities or events. This can be a horse show that features horse jumping or dressage (horse dancing). Or it could be a breed show such as all arabian or quarter horses competing. Equestrian photography may be doing a portrait of an owner and their horse in a formal setting. OR it may be photographing running, rearing or peaceful horses to sell as fine art, at a show or art festival. In this article we will mainly focus on horse show photography, a great place to start, and the different types of shows you can get.
Important tips on Photographing a horse…
A very common mistake that even professional photographers make when new to shooting for horse owners, is that they treat the horse like a “prop” making the human the focus and the horse merely a decoration. NEVER do this!!! Horse people are very into their horses. They have invested countless hours of time, money and often a lot of heart and soul into their equine companions. Do not insult them by treating their horse as if it’s a chair or a bowl of fruit! You will find that when horse owners are reviewing their pictures they will almost always judge how the horse looks first and themselves second. Some riders don’t even really care what they look like as long as their horse looks spectacular!
Different breeds need to be photographed to highlight different areas of their physique. For instance quarter horses should have a big butt… yep, the bigger the booty the better! Alternatively, Arabians should appear to have a smaller rump, focusing more on a slim graceful neck and accentuating the distinct shape of their delicate face. There are a lot of breeds out there and no one expects you to know the specific traits of them all, so don’t be afraid to ask a horse owner about their horses particular breed standard and what they want to see in the photos. For more in depth detail on photographing horses read the blog: How to Get Amazing Images of the Horse!
Where do I Find a Horse Show?
The best way to find horse shows in your area is to simply do an internet search on the type of horse show you are interested in shooting. Look for calendars of events for local rodeo grounds and fairgrounds. Some cities have dedicated horse facilities that you may not even be aware of even though you’ve lived there for years. Scottsdale, AZ has a huge facility with a massive indoor arena called “Westworld”. Parker, CO just outside of Denver has a spectacular Hunter/Jumper showground called “The Colorado Horse Park”. In Temecula, CA northeast of San Diego there is “Galway Downs” which has an amazing Cross Country Course as well as Dressage and Jumping arenas. These are just a few examples and there are tens of thousands of small horse arenas both public and private across the country.
Where do I Find a Horse Show?
The best way to find horse shows in your area is to simply do an internet search on the type of horse show you are interested in shooting. Look for calendars of events for local rodeo grounds and fairgrounds. Some cities have dedicated horse facilities that you may not even be aware of even though you’ve lived there for years. Scottsdale, AZ has a huge facility with a massive indoor arena called Westworld. Parker, CO just outside of Denver has a spectacular Hunter/Jumper showground called The Colorado Horse Park. In Temecula, CA northeast of San Diego there is Galway Downs which has an amazing Cross Country Course as well as Dressage and Jumping arenas. These are just a few examples and there are tens of thousands of small horse arenas both public and private across the country.
Which Horse Shows Should I Work?
Not all horse shows are created equal. Here is a list of all the different types of horse events you may be interested in working and a brief description of each. Some types of horse events are more profitable than others and I have ranked them from 1-5, one being the least profitable and five being the most profitable ( in our experience). However, you can gain experience and practice at any horse show- profitable or not. Like anything, the more you practice, the better you will get!
Rodeo – 1
Cowboys, beer, fried foods, lots of loud music and a variety of events such as bronc riding, Steer wrestling etc. Lots of fun to shoot, but many cowboys tend to spend their disposable income on beer and not photos!
Team Penning – 3.5
A fast paced event where two participants on horses herd numbered calves from one pen into another in numerical order. Timed event.
Barrel Racing/Pole Bending – 2-3
Often in Rodeos but also held as standalone events. A timed event where the participant must get the best time racing around 3 barrels in an arena.
Gymkhana – 4.5
A fun and popular kids event that can include any combination of traditional and non-traditional events such as showing horses, obstacle courses, low jumping, barrel racing, etc. (there is also Adult Gymkhana- also good!)
4-H Events – 4.5
4-H club- a youth organization having different agriculture events, can offer a variety of shows including breed shows, jumping and Gymkhana to name a few. (you can’t go wrong with kids and horses!)
Roping – 1
Riders rope calves from horseback at high speeds. Timed event.
Bull riding – 1
Riders climb on the back of a 1500 lb animal to see if it will kill them today. (super fun to shoot!)
Bronc riding- 1
Riders climb aboard and animal that looks like a horse, but is actually demon from hell, bent on seeing the rider’s body piled in a broken heap in the dirt. (exciting and fun to photograph!)
Reining – 4.5
A performance event where the horse runs and slides to a stop(in deep footing) without use of the reins, showing exceptional training and horsemanship. Judged on skill & form.
Cowboy Mounted Shooting – 3-4
Timed event wherein riders complete a varying course of poles and barrels. The poles have balloons on them that are shot by the riders using .45 cal. revolvers firing black powder blanks. The blank fires a shower of sparks that pops the balloon. There are also rifle and shotgun classes. ( A blast to shoot!)
Wagon Races – 1
Just like it sounds. Wagons pulled by horses or mules at high speeds. Timed event. (very exciting!)
Dressage – 4.5
A performance event also known as “Horse Dancing”. Judged on performance, training and horsemanship.
Hunter/Jumpers – 4
Unlike straight height jumpers, Hunter/Jumpers wear traditional outfits and are judged on form and time.
Jumpers – 4.5
A less formal event where riders need only clear all jumps within the best time. The jumps tend to be higher than the Hunter classes.
Breed Shows – 4
These shows typically (but not always) happen on the ground, meaning the horse is not saddled or mounted. Handlers lead horses out into an arena for judges to inspect gait, form and confirmation. Not unlike a dog breed show.
Cross Country – 4.5
A timed horse jumping event that spans a very large course that usually includes many jumps, water hazards and mud. Kind of like racing your horse through a post-apocalyptic golf course.
Eventing – 4.5
Same as Cross Country with the addition of a Dressage and traditional Hunter/Jumper event.
Polo – 1
A fast paced team sport akin to hockey on horseback played on a football sized field. Very difficult to photograph without at least a 400mm lens.
Shows with children or shows that have a high cost in gear and horses are usually great money makers. Avoid any shows where there is another “professional” photographer or some really nice retired gent shooting everyone for free. No matter how bad his photos are, riders will ALWAYS opt for free over your stunning professional photos. I have a way around this issue that can turn an unprofitable horse show into a horse trough full of money in barn shoots! Check out our article on how to turn a small horse show into big money (Coming SOON)!
There will always be people at the shows photographing their friends and relatives, but horse people know that you are the only photographer with the skills and equipment to get the job done right. And… the only photographer allowed in the arena. Chances are your will always have the best photos (you better!!)
How do I Land a Horse Show?
I have procured hundreds of Western and English shows over the years, and in the world of cowboys, cowgirls and english riders, the old adage still holds true “You never get a second chance to make a first impression!” Dress the part! Jeans, boots and cowboy hat. Western wear is the uniform whether you are approaching a dyed in the wool, tobacco spittin’, 1985 Ford pickup driving cowboy or an affluent dressage rider wearing $500 English riding boots rolling up in her $150k Range Rover. Be clean, but not too put together, a little dirt on your boots and hat says that you’re not a stranger to life with horses. Have cards with your company name, phone and website. Have cards in your pocket so you don’t have to go digging for them when they ask. You will look like a pro when you pull a fresh card out of your shirt pocket or purse. We have used PS print for our online printing for at least ten years. Check them out here: PS Print- great online printing service!
Try to pick up the lingo. Horse people have a language all their own. You might hear someone say, “That horse is hot, she needs to get of of his mouth” This means that the horse is riled up, maybe frustrated or angry and the rider is being to rough with the reins, pulling too much and exacerbating the problem. If you haven’t spent a lot of time in the horse world, just listen to what people say and you’ll start picking up the lingo in no time. For more info on “Speaking Equestrian” read the blog: “Learn to Speak the Language of Equestrian” http://www.betterhorsephotography.com/learn-speak-language-equestrian/
Becoming the official photographer at a horse show is no great feat, it’s really just a matter of making a lot of phone calls and/or barn visits before the show season begins. Timing is probably the most crucial factor in landing a show. Calling too late will get you a “I’m sorry, but Jane Shmuckatelli already got the photographer spot for this show.” You should start calling about 2-3 months ahead of the show season, but you can pick up a lot of smaller shows throughout and during the season. Gymkhanas, 4-H club, Children’s Jumper and Dressage shows are often overlooked by photographers because they don’t think they are profitable… they couldn’t be more wrong! We have made thousands on these little shows and many more thousands on the private equine portrait jobs that come from them.
Working with Show Promoters
When you start making your calls to various horse shows, you will probably be speaking to the show promoter. This is the person who actually puts on/organizes the event. Show promoters can be very busy, sometimes stressy people, that are often very short and to the point. Don’t take this personally, their livelihoods live and die by the attendance at their shows. They don’t always show it, but show promoters LOVE professional photographers because it’s the only way they get great quality photos for their shows for advertising.
There are three things to remember when your talking and negotiating with the promoter;
- Make sure you will be the “Official Photographer”. This means that there is no one else allowed to photograph from inside the arena or sell photos at the show.
- Offer complimentary photos of the show to the promoter to use for their promotion. This is a nice way to say thank you for letting you set up and make money at their shows. After the show just put together some highlights from the events.
- Work out an area to set up your booth that has lots of traffic and access to electricity. High traffic areas good to set up near are food vendors and bathrooms. These areas are also near electricity. Sometimes you will get an arena that has no electricity available. I have a system that will allow you to set up a computer and monitor with power all day. See my article on No Power? No Problem (COMING SOON)!
What’s Expected of the Show Photographer?
Of course your primary objective for photographing a horse event is to make money, but keep in mind that you are operating on someone’s owned or rented property. Your customers are provided by paid advertising from the promoter, the announcers that are reading your ad over the loudspeakers and giving you shout outs are all paid for by the show promoters, so definitely show them some love! Show organizers will sometimes ask you to shoot the winners as they announce them at the end of the show. You are not obligated (nor should you) give winners photos for free, but you should include those photos in with the images you give to the promoter.
Riders will expect you to shoot them in every event they compete in. This is sometimes difficult, but doable if it’s a small show or you have a partner or hired contract photographers.
If you’re shooting inside the event arena, you will be expected to know where to be so as to not impede the competitors and not get run over yourself!
Do not ever become the reason why someone was not successful in their competition or spook a horse… especially in English events!!! This has only happened to my wife and I three times, in over 12 years… two of those times riders claimed that their horse spooked at the clicking of our cameras. Horse events are busy places. There are golf carts, hordes of people, cars, grooming tractors, other horses and dogs everywhere. If someone claims that the clicking of your camera spooked their horse… well they’re either full of you know what, or their horse is not desensitized enough to be competing. You will find that Western riders have a completely different reaction if one of their horses spooks or shys at something in the arena. They never blame the photographer, the dog that ran by or the kid screaming bloody murder at the fence rail. Typically, they are embarrassed that their horse didn’t have the training to ignore the distractions and focus on it’s event.
The third time we were accused of causing a distraction during a horse show was actually our fault… and it was bad. We were working a very big Eventing show (cross country jumpers) in southern California. We had hired two additional photographers and a dedicated photo editor to help cover the event. One of our photographer’s, a woman in her 60’s who’d claimed to have a lot of horse show photography experience was sitting on a jump in the middle of a water crossing as a rider approached to run through that part of the course! The rider had to stop their horse and start the water crossing over- ruining her time. We were thoroughly chewed out by the angry show promoter and I was mortified when the announcer called over the loudspeaker “Due to the photographer sitting on an obstacle on the course, the riders time is disqualified and the rider will have to re-run the course.” Don’t let this happen to you! Train your photographers in proper show etiquette and don’t take their word that they know what they’re doing!
Arenas – Indoor vs. Outdoor vs. Covered
There are 3 types of arenas you will be shooting horses in, the indoor arena, which is fully enclosed, the covered arena which is an arena with a roof but open on the sides like a pole barn and the outdoor arena, a fully open and exposed space.
Outdoor arenas are the most common and the easiest to photograph action in, in terms of available light. The tough part of outdoor arenas is that they’re outdoors, which means you are sometimes baking in the sun or getting drenched in the rain. My wife and I live in Montana and here the weather can range from a dry 80 degrees to hail, lighting and even snow in a single day. It is important to have the proper gear and clothing to adapt to changing weather conditions in your area. There’s nothing worse than kneeling in the mud all day while you and your camera are getting soaked because you forgot a simple rain jacket, lens wrap and a pad to kneel on.
Covered arenas are also fairly common, but are the most difficult to photograph in. They offer shade from the heat and shelter from the rain, but the light can be very difficult to deal with on bright days as the sun will blast in from the east in the morning, and the west in the evening. It is important when you’re setting up, to plan your positions in the arena to shoot away from the brightest wall opening throughout the day. Take lots of test photos between events to make sure your not over or under exposing your shots.
Indoor arenas are the most comfortable venues to shoot but invariably have the worst lighting. Even fancy, high end arenas are either dim or are filled with harsh fluorescent lights. In English shows, flashes are not an option. Warmbloods tend to be too high strung to deal with the distraction of a flash going off too close to them. In Western events you can fire away all you like. Most quality DSLR cameras have ISO settings now that will allow you to shoot in near darkness without a flash, so crack open the manual and learn about your ISO! You’ll be glad you did! The other downside to indoor arenas is that if the entire event is held indoors, your setup area options can be more limited and though electricity is usually readily available, getting that sweet high traffic spot can be difficult.
Photographing horses means you’ll be working outdoors 99% of the time in all kinds of weather and lighting conditions. Always be aware of where the sun is and where it’s going. Horse photography is action photography, embrace what you have to work with. Some of the most exciting shots I have were taken on my knees, being sprayed with mud as a barrel horse goes in shoulder deep through a tight turn, hair, mud and spit flying in every direction.
Be ready for anything the day might bring! Have boots, a raincoat, a wrap for your camera, a dry bag or large plastic baggies. These things can be really handy to have on hand if the weather turns nasty on you.
In hot places make sure you carry plenty of water. You could spend 6, 8, even 10 hours out in the blistering heat, running from arena to arena. Also, wear a good wide brimmed hat. I like to wear cowboy hats made of palm leaf. They’re reasonably priced, keep the sun off, keep the rain off are reshapeable and don’t feel heavy on your head.
The most important thing to remember about weather is the changing light. Know your settings and be aware of changing lighting conditions around you as you shoot. It’s easy to get caught up in the action and not notice that a big black cloud just rolled over the sun plunging everything into near darkness!
How do I Know What the Perfect Shot Looks Like?
This is a loaded question to which there is really no right answer. That said, there are desired or “Money Shots” for each type of horse competition. You can do any creative photos you want in the arena, but the Money Shots are the photos you need to get of every rider, for them to consider buying your photos. Even within the Money Shots there are varying degrees of perfection, which boils down to the personal preference of the rider.
We have a complete list with examples of Money Shots for each horse competition in our article titled “The Most Epic Examples Of The Money Shot In Equestrian Photography” or: Show me the Money!!!
Whether you want to work the occasional Gymkhana horse show, or go full time at Tripple or Double A shows, horse show photography is fun, interesting, exciting and rewarding work that is expandable far beyond the horse shows themselves. I hope this article was helpful! There is so much more information on this site to explore if you are interested in making a living as a professional Equine Photographer. Check out our other articles on how to make money in this exciting field.
Clay “Flash” Corbisier