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The Rundown: Adventures in Photography

Horses are not always the easiest subjects for photographers.

By Tara Matsler
The American Quarter Horse Journal
May 29, 2013

Maddyson Matsler and Lenas Fillynic

This beauty of a photo was captured right around the time my husband, Cody, came to the rescue as the designated horse-and-child attention-getter. (Tara Matsler photo) BELOW: Professional photographer K.C. Montgomery gives tips to help you get the best photo of your horse.

Three years ago, someone had the bright idea to put a very expensive camera in my hands.

The sensation I felt right then was akin to hyperventilation. The mild panic attack was spurred on by the fact that not only was the camera worth more than I would make that summer during my AQHA Publications internship, but I had absolutely no idea what to do with that Canon 40D.

Truthfully, I was fine: The camera survived, and so did I. The photos turned out just fine, namely because I had it set on automatic (we jokingly called it the “dummy” setting) to compensate for my ignorance.

In the time since then, I’ve become more and more comfortable with digital cameras, and I even get a certain joy out of fiddling with settings, filters and such. But folks, I’m no photography whiz.

I get the most miles out of the Journal’s Canon 7D when I’m working at AQHA world championship shows. The Journal crew snaps a lot of pics out in the barns, at special events and in the arenas to feature in our Journal at the World slide shows. And then there’s class coverage, where we shoot the class’ entire finals, then the awards presentation, right on up to the crowning of a new world champion.

Shooting a class in action presents its own set of challenges, especially for classes like cutting and working hunter, where timing is crucial. Add in the temperamental overhead lights (which, if you’re in Oklahoma City, reside up in the catwalk at eye-level with the jumbo screen), and you’ve got a real juggling act on your hands.

Truthfully, I find awards presentations to be the toughest thing to shoot. The key to a good awards shot is a horse, squared up and attentively looking at the camera; you also want the exhibitor and any awards presenters to be attentive as well (and the competitor particularly joyful over his or her win). You also need to have enough light, provided by the flash, to light up the exhibitor’s face under his or her cowboy hat, but you need to be cognizant that you aren’t going to “blow” the photo out with too much light.

Folks, there’s almost as much to remember with this photography stuff as there is with showing a horse! Heels down, toes up, shoulders back, stomach in, chin up, elbows in, breathe. Lens cap off, camera on, reformat card, check shutter speed, reset ISO, adjust aperture, turn on overhead flash, inspect transmitter, zoom, focus, click.

Like I said, the awards shots are the toughest for me. What I’ve found is that horses, after they’ve given it their all out in the show pen, aren’t so apt to prick their ears for the photographer. What this situation requires is a handy assistant, one not afraid to squat down in the dirt and throw sand (although not in the rider’s or horse’s eyes – I’ve learned they don’t appreciate that very much); the assistant may even be called to rattle a fake tree, if one’s handy; and/or pretty much do anything to create a spectacle worthy of the horse’s attention.

For a situation such as this, an assistant is essential. “Getting ears” is what we call the assistant’s job.

One of my last blogs, “The Horse for Me,” will be featured in the July America’s Horse magazine. Alas, Holly Clanahan, our America’s Horse editor, requested a photo to accompany the story, preferably one of my mare, Lenas Fillynic, and my niece, Maddyson. Easy enough for a seasoned photographer, right?

A few weeks ago, my husband, Cody, was washing our truck in front of the house, so Maddy and I ventured over to the barn to saddle up “Nikki” for the 9-year-old cowgirl’s weekly riding lesson, plus an impromptu photo shoot. We spiffed up Nikki, laying on the face grease and shine-me-up spray – the cow horse was looking nicer than she ever does for a show.

I directed Maddy, horseback by this point, to square Nikki up for the camera. The pipe fence and green weeds added a rustic touch, I told myself. Pillowy clouds hung on the endless horizon. It was a gorgeous evening by Texas Panhandle standards.

Slipping off the lens cap, my fingers flew along as they made adjustments to the camera’s settings, searching for the perfect set-up given the conditions at-hand. Finally, I reached a point where I was ready to get serious.

I stared blankly at the kid and horse. Where was my assistant? Not wanting to waste the fading light, I decided I could be two people at once: photographer and attention-getter.

My first medium would be dirt – we have an endless supply of that in the Panhandle. I zoomed in to where I wanted my shot, held the trigger for the auto-focus, then squatted down to scoop up a handful of West Texas dirt. I stood back up, looked into my view finder once more, just to be certain everything was peachy and threw in one more auto-focus. Taking a deep breath, I peered through the view finder, finger hovering over the trigger as I tossed the dirt out to where I wanted Nikki’s attention. Her ears pricked, and I snapped.

Always aiming for the perfect shot, I couldn’t help myself, so I repeated the above process over and over again, until my little mare said, “Dirt? Is that the best you’ve got?” She promptly began ignoring me.

I thought to throw the dirt right in front of the horse, an act that failed. A good aunt should never throw dirt in their niece’s eyes, even if it’s on accident.

Still not thrilled with all that I had gotten, I pondered on what to do next to attract Nikki’s attention. Light bulb! I ran to my trailer, pulled out a ridiculously long longe whip, thinking this tool would wield fine results.

What I learned is that it’s quite tricky to balance a longe whip and a big camera, one in each hand, at the same time. I figured if I could get my camera exactly set, the process might go a little smoother. Needing two hands, I placed the longe whip between my knees. Nikki found such a stance to be quite ridiculous, so she gave me her full attention. Thinking this was my ticket, I squatted, keeping my knees clenched on the whip, then focused my camera. I twisted my knees back and forth, raking the longe whip across the ground, snapping pics as Nikki pricked her ears and Maddy beamed on. This maneuver needs to be added to an exercise class at the gym, I thought.

Finally, even the longe whip became old news to Nikki.

Timing is everything, or so they say. Right as I was getting ready to throw in the towel, my knight in shining armor, aka Cody, arrived via vehicle, the car’s tires crunching down the dirt road. In Nikki’s language, that sound is akin to “dinner time.” Snap, snap, snap, I went again, as Nikki’s ears stayed pricked.

I’ve decided this tactic is one I’ll add to my photography arsenal at the AQHA World Show: A Ford Escape driving through the Jim Norick Arena. I say anything goes for the sake of a good photo.  

Think anyone will have a problem with that?

Enjoy more horse-showing quips, quotes and anecdotes from AQHA Internet Editor Tara Matsler by visiting The Rundown archives at www.aqha.com/therundown.