How To Capture Beautiful Vibrant Equine Portraits (part 1.)

Many people have hobbies. Some may collect coins. Others follow baseball or car racing. But for some, owning a horse, riding him,  bathing & grooming him and loving this larger than life animal is their hobby…and their life!

The Equine Portrait client

We have equine portrait clients all over the west that ranged from your average work a day folks, to very affluent people with lots of disposable income to spend on their gorgeous equine friends.

Mother and daughter ride together for their photo-session, at a private horse barn in AZ.

In our experience, it was mostly women, and some couples who loved and adored their horses enough to hire us for a fancy photo session usually resulting in great income. We have also photographed a lot of children and their horses and have dedicated a second article to horses & kids (part 2) Read it here (Link coming soon!). These photo shoots often started in the early morning with the horses getting bathed and groomed head to toe… or should I say hoofs! Coat brushed to a shine, mane braided into fancy twirls, hooves smoothed and polished, nose wiped clean of any unpleasantness! The corners of eyes also cleaned. Every possible detail of the horse is prepared meticulously for the photo shoot!

The owner rider also agonized over their appearance, but never as much as the appearance of their noble steed!


Planning the shoot

All of this started way before the day of the shoot with the phone consultation or in person meeting at a local coffee house.

Does the owner want in addition to horse & rider, just the horse? Do they want to ride the horse for some photos as well as on the ground portraits? Does the owner have more than one horse they want photographed? Every owner is different.

Where did we meet this horse owner and how did we get them to book with us? Well that is another story/blog (coming soon!)

Back to the consultation. The first thing we talk about is location. Where to do the shoot.

The Horse Barn Location

Many horse owners don’t keep their horses at home. This usually means they board their horse at a horse barn where many other owners keep their horses as well. These private horse barns can range from small (stalls for 10 horses or so), medium, 25 or so horse and large, stalls for  25+ horses.

This owner’s newer horse gave her lots of kisses at a gorgeous horse barn in Colorado.

When working with a boarded horse, the beauty is the grounds we have access to. Most horse barns, even small ones have some dirt/land. This means a couple of different arenas, some riding trails and or  landscaped areas that offer some great backgrounds for your equine portrait. A word of advice, find out where the horse owner boards their horse and go and check it out in person, before setting up the shoot! Unfortunately a few horse barns are shabby and really ugly, not great for portraits. This only happened to us one time but the shoot was really tough and it was hard to find one decent background.. Was our worst ever sales…we didn’t do our research and are the only ones to blame here.

So, the location is going to be at their horse barn they board at and you have gone and checked it out before your planning meeting. You know about the beautiful landscaped gardens that you can use as a background. You also know about the covered arena that you could get shots of the horse running with no tack. The dressage arena in the back has lovely trees around it and some mountain views. You know all these things cause you physically went there and checked it out, taking note of where the sun is, which way the shadows are falling from the barn buildings etc. Now you can impress your horse owner and create more confidence that he or she is glad they are hiring you, and you are building excitement for the shoot, increasing your sales before you ever push the shutter release button on your camera! We have done many shoots with multiple horses and pets! You will need lots of help wrangling that many critters and people together. Plan to book an assistant and maybe a few barn volunteers. You will need to have everything pre-scouted and camera completely set up, light readings and exposure calculations done, before placing your subjects! The shoot with multiple animals should be lightning fast if you want to get that money shot! You have about 5 minutes if you are lucky before the dog runs off, the horses start fussing and laying their ears back and fidgeting, the owner no longer smiling…Be 100% ready, and SHOOT!!!!

One woman, three horses and a dog! You need all hands on deck to pull this off! Pre-planning is Key!

The Horse at Home

The horse owner may keep their horses at their own home. In our experience, these horse owners will not be as affluent and will most likely have to really stretch financially to afford your packages. That being said, they will undoubtedly appreciate your expertise in capturing the beauty of their equine friend and will be a pleasure to work with. Don’t ever discount a client because they probably won’t buy your largest package .this is a mistake in any business! We have lots of favorite and most enjoyable clients, and they came in all financial realms! 


If you are doing a horse at home, it’s equally important to do a pre-scout, even if it costs you  couple of hours of there and back, you need to see what you have to work with. Home horse properties may not have clear backgrounds, and you may have to ask if that old horse trailer or RV behind the arena can be moved. There may be garden hoses, shovels and garbage cans in and around your only landscaped or tree’d area for the portrait background. You may have to very tactfully as if you can move that stuff for the shoot. They are usually fine with it and will jump to move it. They just don’t see the way a photographer does. We know the camera sees ALL!

The home horse shoot can be very special to the owner as it is taken on their own property. A little preplanning can go a long way to make the home shoot successful. You may want to include an area of a neighboring property (say they have a lot more trees or views). Just make sure to ask permission and never let on to the owner that their property isn’t pretty enough. With depth of field settings and creative angles… you can make almost any location work for your portrait session…ALMOST!!!!

Trailering to another Location

Trailering the horse to another location, not the horse barn or home but a park or natural setting takes the most planning and work, but is definitely the most fun! You have so much creative control here, no barn rules, no other riders in the background and no unwanted background detractors…ie garden hoses, trailers, wood piles and other ranch junk!

This couple participated in the sport of Cowboy Mounted Shooting. So it was appropriate to go on location and get them with horses running, guns a blazing!

It takes a certain kind of client who will go for this, but we found the photo-sessions came out fantastic and the sales followed. Sometimes we had so much fun doing these shoots that we actually forgot we were getting paid! That being said, here’s a few things to keep in mind when going “On Location”.

First off, you must find out if horses are allowed where you want to go! Often state or national parks will have no horse areas AND specific areas dedicated to horses. This is the best scenario to look for. If there is nothing posted, best to call the park, state, city, county or national park and find out the rules. You don’t want to show up a the shoot with your client who has spent the better part of the day bathing and grooming themselves and their horses to have the shoot cancel because you don’t have a permit! Yes, some parks or natural areas require a permit to do a commercial photo-session. Sometimes there is s small fee, but many times it’s just about registering your plans. Do the research, make the calls and KNOW you are cool to do your photo-shoot!

Not to be a broken record here, but do take the time to pre-scout your off ranch location. Scout it as close to the shoot time as possible. What we do is choose 3-5 locations in an area that are totally horse friendly. Then we go in the AM and the PM, the best portrait light and temperature. Then we don’t have to go pre-scout everytime. We know these places, the angles, the direction of AM/PM light and where to park etc. In our packages we can offer those locations as well as the barn/ranch or at home options and the customer can decide what’s right for them and their horses.

What to bring to your Photo-shoot

My husband Flash and I are big believers of customer service. The more we can do for the client, the better the experience and it usually pays off for everyone in the end.

We know that the horse owner is fully focused on the details of the shoot, the horses grooming, their outfit and if it’s their home or ranch, their property. We know they are not really thinking of their own needs, only their horses!

We bring bottled water and a few power bars, just in case our horse owner didn’t eat breakfast or dinner! We have found this goes such a long way and costs little for the giant benefit it provides the client.

We also keep our horse kit bags full of essentials for both horse and human. In our little black horse kit bag, we keep human brushes & combs, hair pins (my mom calls them bobby pins), hair spray and lip balm (crusty lips are no bueno!) You can get all these items at the dollar store. We would simply give the client the brushes,  combs and hairpins if they used them. We keep a bag of 10 or so  sets on hand during the popular portrait seasons, (Spring and Fall).

We also have our horse kit for ears (squeaky toys, bags and a stick to get those ears up!) We keep a nice black lead rope Simple black lead rope with solid brass snap.  (just in case the owner shows up with an all clashing colored rope like fuschia pink or Chartreuse  green! wE like to have a simple horse brush so we can help with final touches and put the owner at ease (it’s all about that customer service!!!)

Of course we need our camera gear bag (backpack style is best) Lowe Pro backpack style bag, perfect for equine photography!

Camera body and portrait lens and reflector set & flash with charged batteries (we use nicads – rechargeable’s).

Westcott 5/1 Reflector set…buy it once!!!

Battery set with charger!

Don’t forget the Horse TREATS…Applezz & Oats…delicious!!!

For more info on equipment and other tools check out our Resource Pages here:

The Shoot! So much fun, you forget you are getting paid!

Equine portraits are by far our favorite thing to shoot! There’s just something about a freshly groomed horse and owner together. The excitement pulling up to the location… It’s very special and so fun for all involved! Lifestyle portraits of horse and rider have become very popular with horse owners as of late. Show the place they live and ride their horse and the close relationship most horse & riders have, especially those that will book an equine portrait session with you.

On location at a beautiful state park in AZ with two favorite clients! *notice there is room for cropping!

We like to EASE into the shoot. Nobody likes to dive off the deep end right away! You dip your toes, then go into your waist… get used to the temperature of the water, then eventually you do the high dive into the deep!

This is our philosophy for photo-shoots,  and it works pretty well. We arrive at the location and stand there an “BS” a bit with the clients. We tell them how great the horse looks (first!), then how great they look and compliment what they are wearing etc. Then they usually fuss a few more minutes with the horse, and if you have your own horse brush in your kit, maybe help them brush the mane or tail, just lending a helping hand. You most likely brought some approved horse treats, big juicy apple oat balls or, fresh apples slices or carrots from the store- usually approved and appreciated treats. Always ask if you can give the horse a treat!

The On the Ground Portrait

We usually start with this one, full length and close up. We get the horse and owner interacting, looking at each other, snuggling, walking together. These make beautiful wall portraits showing the horse and owner in a beautiful environment together. These will be your larger print sales where your close ups will be your 8×10 and under, gifts for parents or children and good for albums too.

If the rider wants to ride we do these next, after all the ground portraits are done. We do both full length shots and ¾ length shots of horse and rider. Especially on a location where there is lots of natural landscape. Watch your backgrounds making sure they are framing your subject, taking care trees, cactus or other backgrounds are not bisecting the image. Cactus make for beautiful subjects and backgrounds for your portraits, but can be difficult to include because of their funny shape, be careful you don’t have a cactus too close  behind your subject, or it will look like it’s coming out of their head!!!

Action Riding Shots with Horse & Owner

On this Montana location shoot, the rider gallops through an open field on a summer’s eve! This location was pre-scouted for horse/rider safety before running!

Off ranch, you will probably be in unfamiliar territory and will not run or even trot the horse. You can get many beautiful images of the horse/rider walking in that stunning spot you scouted before the shoot. However, if the photo-session is at the barn or home ranch and the rider wants to do their speciality such as dressage,  jumping or cattle sorting, the rider will be working hard like the horse and will work up a sweat and get their hair all matted down in a riding helmet etc. We always start with the ground portraits for this reason!

The Turn Out!

On location (off ranch) you most likely won’t turn the horse out to get shots of him without any tack. But at home or the horse barn, there is usually an arena or coral where you can take off all his tack and “turn him out” and let him run it all off! This is some of our favorite images after the portrait session is done, turning out the horse can make for some fun and exciting images! Usually the horse will let off some steam in the arena! Be ready for it and we suggest shooting outside the arena for these images and the horse is often really rambunctious and will buck and kick and rip around! It’s pretty hilarious to see this seemingly calm and quiet animal turn into a bucking roliking fool! See some of our favorite shots of horse turnouts below!

The Turn out! Favorite warmblood “Orca” gets some air with no tack after the portrait session!

Sample poses for horse/rider

As you do more and more horse/rider portraits, more posing ideas will come to you. I have posted some our  favorite poses below, but there are many many more you can do. Here’s just a few tips to keep in mind when posing a horse & rider.

Choose your orientation that fits the pose! If you are photographing a rider atop the horse and you are shooting from front on, go vertical so there’s not a ton of empty head room at the top of the image. If you are photographing a horse/rider full length in motion, your orientation is going to be horizontal to capture the length of the horse and height including the rider. Your orientation should always mimic the overall shape of your subjects!

Taking advantage of some flowers at the location  gave a dreamy, feminine feel to these portraits. This is the same horse (Orca) in the turn out above!

Tight shots of a horse interacting with the owner on the ground can be so touching and beautiful. Careful,  don’t shoot too tight! You always must consider formatting for prints that are not really relatable to the digital format. Standard print sizes like 4×5, 8×10,16×20, 20×24 are all cropped from the original digital image. Sizes like 4×6, 5×7, 8×12, 16×24 and 20×30 are what we call Full Frame sizes that don’t crop unless you choose to. You can always crop in on an image, but you can’t “crop out”, leave a little room for the different sizes and formats of the print to give your client the most choices at the sales table.

If you will notice, We angle the shoulder of the human, into the horse for a pleasing fit. This also puts the human at a slight angle, very flattering for any build. Tilting the head ever so slightly will also be flattering to most peoples face. make sure shoulders are down, weight on one leg so your human subjects don’t look too stiff! Lean them into their horse, they will relax and the horse will respond in a positive way as well!

Sometimes what the owner wears sets the tone for the shoot. Here a more elegant pose was appropriate at this Wyoming ranch in Fall.



The close interaction between horse and rider is so beautiful.









Horizontal orientation for this image, involving the length of the horse. The last light of the day made for a soft peaceful image for this bareback horse & rider.

A vertical orientation to fill the frame with horse & rider at a 3/4 angle. Fall colors make a stunning background for any horse/rider. Here there is room to crop as well!










Action Shots!

Action shots are a blast… but watch your composition! When shooting a horse running, cantering without rider, remember to keep his weight in the rear, light in the front and give him room to run in the frame. The same goes for a rider doing a trot or canter, light in the front and leave room for the horse to travel to in your image. Don’t cut off the horse and leave room in the image trailing behind the horse. This is poor composition which will not sell well for you.


This is a very favorite pose, especially with the younger women. It’s very intimate  and can be very striking. At the same time, it should be done with a good rider who has a close relationship with her horse. We can’t tell you how many times a rider promised us her horse would be good while she sat bareback to have her mount up and get thrown off! One woman actually broke her tailbone! Lucky for us, she wasn’t mad and laughed it off (ouch!) and still bought lots of photos! We knew she was a newer rider but let her talk us into photographing her bareback and well… it all came out ok, but we learned to be more firm on who we would and wouldn’t attempt this with. We came up with a policy that we save it for last so it didn’t cut the shoot short if it didn’t work out!

Most popular amongst young women and teens, the bareback pose. The variations are endless, this is one including the horse hug is always a winner.

Photo Products to offer for sale

Once you have done the shoot, you will need to professionally edit We use Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop Creative Cloud!  and then show and sell your images. You will need to choose what venue you want to do that in. We like the in person sale ie “Preview Session” *Read the how to article here: How to Make Amazing Sales with your Horse Photography/  but you can do it however you like. If you prefer to offer online sales,  there is a great web based platform called SmugMug 🙁 Link coming soon!) where you can have your website and put up your Photo-shoots online in a very organized manar. We started out with SmugMug and used it for three years before learning to build our own websites.

You will need to decide what products you want to offer and have a nice price sheet you can present at your in person Preview session or on your website. You can lock your prices and only allow access to your clients via a protected password. This prevents people from looking at your prices ahead of time and deciding your are to expensive before they even see their photos.

Decide what product print sizes you want to sell (make sure they look great at the largest size you offer!). Finish choices such as prints on metal or canvas, do you want to offer framing, calendars, note cards or albums? Research the plethora of products you can offer using your images and make a price sheet. Make sure you account for shipping and other extra charges such as time spent if you are designing a custom album. Do some research on what other photogs in your area are charging, then choose your prices and go for it!

Deposits and balances & time quotas

Once you have taken the customers order, create a copy for them, outlining what image numbers/sizes they ordered, color or b&w if you offer both. I created price sheets in Excel and then had them made into 8×10 sized pads with a yellow copy to give to the customer. You can get this done at most office supply places it it’s not expensive. You can add your logo to the top and look very organized and efficient. I would fill it out and leave their copy with them on the spot. Or you can email them later, but I liked doing both for the sake of clarity.  Make sure you give them a timeline for when it will all be ready! Communication is key and make sure you can “under promise and over deliver” with every customer! Keep holiday closures in mind when giving those Christmas time quotes! It’s up to you whether or not you take a deposit, but on a large order- say over $500 you may want to do 50% down and 50% on delivery (clearly noted on the receipt/order form). You will definitely want to be set up with a POS system like Paypal here or the like.

Again, it all comes down to great customer service from beginning to end! Make it easy for the customer to order and pay.  Don’t drop the ball at the end of the game! That’s likely all the customer will remember… sadly, that is just human nature!

This is my “bread and butter” classic full length pose, a winner every-time!

Wrap up….

So now you know, the equine portrait session takes lots of care and planning. It’s a fun and rewarding endeavor, often with fantastic results! The more you wow your customer, the more likely he or she will refer you to their horse owning friend and that’s what keeps the world going round! Such a big production seems intimidating at first, but once you have done a few, it will become relaxing and oh so fun and satisfying for all involved! Cheers and best of luck!














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