In fact, if it hadn't been for one of those friends - a high school friend, no less - I would never have had this experience to begin with. When we bought our cottage four years ago on Rice Lake, I reconnected with Liz George, a classmate of mine from way back in the young old days. Liz had, over her life, developed a passion for horses and now, with her partner, Doug Mileham, runs Mileham Show Horses in Norwood, Ontario, only 15 minutes from the cottage!
This year’s show was the first I attended where the weather held up nicely throughout both days. Not too hot, lots of sun and blue sky.
Saddlewood Equestrian Centre is nestled in the rolling hills of Bethany, Ontario, near Devils Elbow Ski Resort. Only 35 minutes from the cottage, it’s an easy drive back and forth at the beginning and end of the day.
My shooting style for this event has definitely evolved. Thanks to feedback from Doug and Liz as well as research on YouTube, I've learned better camera placement and angles for photographing the Equine Conformation segment of the event.
Conformation is where the horse is exactly positioned so judges can evaluate a horse's bone structure, musculature, and its body proportions in relation to each other. Thank you, Wikipedia.
These full-length profile photos are all from the Conformation round.
Exact placement of the legs, forward-pointing ears are important for the photo. A horse-belly level camera height, with a position just a little closer to the the hindquarters (but not too much!) is the ideal camera location.
During a live event like this one, with multiple horses in the ring at one time, the stars don't neatly align every single time - but I do my best.
Getting the right shot of the horse sometimes meant that the rider was obscured. Aesthetically, this really bothered me, but it was important to me this time around that I focused (pardon the pun) more on the horses, and a little less on the people, during the Conformation segment, at least. This was based on feedback from last year, and I wanted to be sure I put that information into action.
Lighting plays a huge role in these photographs, as well. The quality, direction and angle of the light during this segment of the event all conspired together to create powerful visuals, especially early in the morning.
Once the Conformation segment was complete, things got busy! A lot more action occurred in the ring; rider-led (halter in hand), Western and English riding and jumping.
Later in the afternoon of Day 1 (and for the entirety of Day 2) are The Games. Slalom, barrel racing, timed racing and the like. A lot of action, and a lot of challenges for a photographer trying to capture that action!
I had another element going against me this year, too; the weather. Oh, it was beautiful both days, but the lack of rain made for a very dusty ring when the horses really got moving. Sometimes, this added to the action, sometimes, it almost obscured the competitor and even played hell with my autofocus from time to time.
The final event of the the day was a bittersweet one, in memory of Jan Smith, wife of Jim Smith and co-owner of Saddlewood. The Versatility challenge was open to any competitor. As its name suggests, Versatility competitions reward a well-rounded horse and rider, who compete in a range of classes. Riders had to change outfits and tack (where necessary) and "get back in the saddle" within two minutes.
In this competition, Down and Back, Western Pleasure and Hunter Under Saddle were the classes. A memorial trophy and prizes are awarded to the winner of the event.
Trail Competition and Games
Day 2 was another early start at 8am, and would run until about 2pm that afternoon. We had another beautiful day ahead of us in terms of weather, and lots of excitement with the various events, include trail ride competitions, where the riders guide their horses through a series of low obstacles and dexterity exercises, and some fast-paced racing later in the day. The main thing I gleaned from the trail ride event was the incredible bond and deep sense of trust there is (or needs to be) between rider and animal.
Perhaps the most exciting segment of the show are the games and racing. Strong horses, with riders of many ages, showcasing the power and speed of their steeds, and the control they have in a fast-moving set of events.
Let's Talk about Dust...
The dry conditions, combined with a stiff breeze, were all too noticeable once the horses went faster than a walk. I was very thankful for the weather and dust sealing built into my Nikon D750. And fortunately, my Nikon 28-300mm zoom lens was all I needed for the entire event. That lens is my go-to lens for the majority of my shooting, and in this case as well, it never came off the camera.
How much dust got kicked up, you ask? Well, I didn’t include too many of the heavy dust shots, but with the few I did, I used Lightroom’s Dehaze function to reduce the appearance of dust. It work remarkably well, as the before/after example below shows.
The Other Side of the Show
I mentioned that I put more focus on the horses this time around, but that doesn’t mean I was oblivious to what was going on around me, often behind the scenes and on the other side of “the rails”.
The members of the KRAHC are a small, tight knit group. They love their horses and share a kinship that only owners and caregivers of these magnificent animals can share. In closing this story, I leave you images of those people.
All photography by Jim Babbage. No commercial use without prior written consent.