Photographing the Dusty Trail from Horseback!

So, your interest in equine photography has inspired you to get to spend some more time around horses! That’s great!  You have booked a horseback ride at the best outfit in your area/vacation by doing a bit of research first, making sure they are a reputable company and they treat their horses well. Good for you! Now you don’t want to miss a thing and you will want to have your camera with you. Here are some tips & techniques for you on what to bring, how to deal with photographing from the back of a horse and what you might see along the way!

Equipment on the trail

You are most likely going to be bringing a DSLR with additional lenses and will need to know how best to carry that equipment via horseback. Some outfits won’t allow camera backpacks on the ride. If the ride goes through heavily forested areas, the pack can get hung up on branches and can be a hazard for you and your horse. There are a few options if you can’t wear your pack.

One is to be prepared to wear your DSLR around your neck/shoulder. If you go this route I would recommend getting a lens cap with some sort of string attachment (you can make it yourself) or to cover your lens with a lens wrap: Domke Wraps to protect your Lenses!  It doesn’t take much to knock off your lens cap- (good luck finding a dropped cap on the forest floor!) and then your lens is exposed to scratches from branches etc you may go through on the trail. Another option is to bring a small shoulder bag. You can at least put your extra lenses and cards etc in there and if the camera gets too heavy,  you can store the lens and just cover the body with a body cap, especially when you are on your way back and the weight is getting uncomfortable on your neck. Still, the uneven weight of a shoulder bag may not be ideal for a couple hour ride.  Another idea is wear your camera and get a nicer harness style camera strap that will help absorb the weight. Get one with a little stretch like this one: Comfortable Harness for DSLR!

If you have booked a group ride, I highly recommend you choose one medium zoom lens and just leave that on for the duration of the ride. Changing lenses from horseback can be precarious! Something like a 24-120mm is a nice range. Plenty wide to do some of the beautiful vistas your guides will lead you to and still a little zoom for the big smiles beaming from your kids or friends you came with.

Keep in mind, no matter what camera you bring; you should never let go of the reins, especially while moving!!! When you let go of the reins, you risk your horse making the decisions on where to go next, and it may not be where the group is going! If you need to change lenses, do it while the whole group is stopped, or simply ask your guide and they will hold your horse for you. If you are doing a private ride (highly recommended for photography) then asking the guide to stop off and on is no problem, and you can definitely get better images. You can bring that longer lens and use it if you see wildlife or something that needs a little extra reach. If you are on a group ride, choose the medium zoom and just get what you get with it.

Ranch owner Rex Portman and sis Toni, are outfitted for a nice long day-ride. Horn bag, Saddle bags, rope, gloves, hats, they are ready to GO!

You can also use a saddle bag to put your extra camera gear in. This is the best case scenario as it is designed to fit over the horse, and falls on each side of the horse for comfort and balance. You can ask the outfit if they have a saddle bag you can reserve rent or borrow. If they don’t, you may consider buying an inexpensive nylon saddle bag Simple Saddlebag for Camera Gear for your gear. If you are on vacation and riding somewhere very special, this may be totally worth the $30+ dollars or so. If you are going to be at a dude ranch for a week, you may want to buy a little nicer saddle bag to use all week: Fancy Saddle bags, great for camera gear! Your extra gear will be at arm’s length, easy to get to. Still, don’t try and change lenses or media cards while you are moving! This is a great way to come off the horse (not fun!).

Another useful tool that many outfits may provide for your use is a horn bag. This is a small bag that goes over the saddle horn (aka the oh crap handle!). I love the horn bag in addition to my saddle bag as I can put a water bottle, sunscreen and bug spray, all right there at my fingertips. Do not forget your water! You will be on the horse for a couple of hours for most rides. You may climb in elevation or be riding through the desert. It is most important to hydrate yourself! You should also bring a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt is good to have with you on the trail,  even if it’s warm out! There are two handy little leather straps on the back of a western saddle that are designed to tie a jacket or blankets to. Bring it cause if you don’t, you will want it!  If you do decide to take your jacket/sweatshirt on or off during the ride, ask  your guide! Some horses are extremely spooky when there is movement behind them. Your jacket flapping in the wind may be scarier than a charging grizzly bear to a horse! It’s just good riding advice to be very gentle and subtle when you are moving around in the saddle and avoid sudden movements while on your horse.

In and around the ranch

This cowboy/wrangler leads the ride up the trail!

Depending on what outfit you ride with, there is usually a short riding demo and you can say hello to the horses in the corral waiting to be saddled.  Each horse has his or her own personality. It’s fun to watch them interacting. A couple of tips on horse etiquette, you should always mount and dismount from the left side of the horse. This is the way horses are trained and deciding you are going to change that may not have a pleasant ending! Listen to the riding demo and be calm and relaxed once you are mounted. Don’t yank on the horses reins! Be clear and firm about what you want him to do, but you don’t need to yank or unnecessarily kick. Pull back on the horse until he stops, then release the pressure. Kick to go and then stop kicking. These are cues to communicate with your horse and giving endless constant cues will just confuse him. Learn the language and speak it clearly and calmly. Most trail horses know the trail and the gig and you will have to do little to get your horse to go and stop. That being said, your horse isn’t stupid and will know if you are up there not paying attention, fussing with your camera. This can end in tears! Tell your guide if you need to put on a jacket or get off the horse for some reason. Keep some weight in the stirrups and keep your head in the ride. Remember, you are on a live, thinking, breathing & feeling animal who is carrying your weight across a sandy beach, desert or up a rocky mountain trail!

Riding the Dusty trail

When you get into the wilderness, you never know what you may see! In the mountains there are elk, deer, coyote, fox, wolves, black bear and , just to name a few! In the desert you may see gorgeous birds of prey, reptiles and smaller mammals. Most likely when you see an animal it will be far off. Animals tend to hide or avoid groups of laughing chattering tourists having fun on horseback! You may also see hawks, eagles, owls, song birds etc so keep your eyes open! Your guides, aka wranglers, will try and point out anything really cool for you to see. As wonderful as it is to get great close ups with your zoom lens of wildlife, the back of a horse is not the best place to do it. Save those shots for days you are hiking or doing a photo-safari from your car and can get out to shoot. You can learn more about photographing wildlife in the Yellowstone Region here: https://www.thewildwildlife.com. On the trail you can get some great scenery and a few fun candid friends & family shots from your noble steed.

Shooting while riding…

It’s difficult to take photos with one hand (the other will be holding the reins at all times!). Try to brace your arm (holding the camera) against your body (point & shoot & smaller DSLR). The closer your camera is to your body, the less chance of camera shake. If you have a DSLR, defiantly use a lens shade- the sun can cause flare rendering your images unusable! With the shade you will have better color and clarity. A polarizing filter is good for open fields, deserts and mountain shots, but will be difficult to use in the woods. You may have a lot of underexposed images if you don’t account for the darker filter.  

Flash shot this cattle round up via horseback in Texas.

Camera angles are tough on horseback. You are generally shooting down on everything, and this isn’t the best or most flattering angle for scenery or horses. Try to look for opportunities where there is depth in the scene. For instance, a rider has turned to go up a switchback and you can get a nice angle showing horse and rider from above you. If the group stops for a quick break and it’s a pretty scene, ask your guide to help you get down and grab some shots from the ground of horses and scenery. Don’t be embarrassed to have your guide help you back up. Some horses are two stories tall! It’s best to find a log or rock to use as a mounting aid, especially when you are wearing a 5 pound necklace, your DSLR! The classic shot of horses & riders “backs” through your horse’s ears is fun for a couple of images and then gets old quick! Be creative with your angles and you can come back with some unique images of your ride.

There are many beautiful scenes, and you will enjoy the different parts of the ride. Try to take some nice shots but not spend your whole ride in your camera. You will miss meeting others, chatting with your super cool guides and meeting other travelers! Take advantage of the lunch stop or break in the middle of your ride. Some of my favorite horse riding images were taken during lunch time as I ran around on the ground and got shots of beautiful vistas, horses tied off and other guests.

To really enjoy your ride with or without your camera, be prepared with water, jacket, sunglasses and bug spray (if you are in the woods). Make sure you have all you need for your camera gear, extra batteries, memory card, whether protection like lens wraps or even large plastic baggies. Then relax and enjoy the ride, knowing you are ready for anything that comes!

Happy trails!

~River~

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