In Part 1 of this series of articles, the perception of market value was discussed and how the photo impacts what a buyer thinks the horse is worth. It made thousands of dollars of difference in what survey takers thought a horse was worth between a poorly groomed horse and a well posed and turned out horse. So the question is – what makes a good photo? The answer is simple! It’s all about grooming, equipment, position, background, and quality.
1. Don’t forget to groom!
Ah, the horse owner’s nightmare: a muddy horse. It is quite inevitable that one will deal this kind of mud at one point or another. It is the bane of a sales horse photo. To the viewer, it can be considered laziness on the seller’s part. The horse should be spotless, sleek and white socks should be white, not a cappuccino color as seen in the back foot on this gelding who clearly enjoyed his spa day in the mud.
There are a myriad of books that illustrate how to groom a horse and provide tips for getting that show ring shine on the coat. Here are a few basics to help.
2. Bathe the horse beforehand, and make sure it dries completely.
If the weather is warm enough, make sure to take the time to bathe the horse, including shampooing the mane and tail and conditioning it, and then let it dry adequately. Taking photos of a wet or nearly dry horse is just as bad as taking photos of a muddy horse. It can look like an attempt to misrepresent a horse by making a color darker than it seems, or to show spots and color that hide on a gray horse, for example. One mare on the farm was a gray tobiano who had a neat pattern when wet, but when dry it disappeared completely. Trying to show that she had visible spots would be misleading.
If it is too cold to bathe a horse, or it’s in the winter months, consider hot toweling instead. That is the process of bringing out buckets of warm to hot water and dipping a towel in the water, wringing out the excess, and currying the horse with the towel. It is important to change the water frequently, and depending on the temperature, using a fleece or wool cooler to keep the wet parts of the horse from chilling. It is important to use common sense if it is far too cold and not put the horse at risk, but this can be an option. There are also waterless shampoos out there – but make sure to try before hand instead of the day of the photo shoot. If it is too cold for those things, make sure to just groom the horse as thoroughly as possible.
3. Clip or trim as necessary.
If your horse tolerates clipping, it is best to at least trim the hairs on the outside of the ears, along the jawline, and the bridlepath. This can make the difference between a horse looking like a fuzzy yak and a show horse. It is a personal decision whether to clip the muzzle or the eyelashes around the eyes – a lot of people opt to leave those for protective reasons, while others prefer to clip it. In most cases in a photo, those hairs will not show.
Make sure to follow proper protocol for your breed. Some prefer not to have short or no bridle paths, and others such as the Arabian have longer bridle paths to accent the neck.
This is especially true to follow breed protocol when looking at manes and tails. If trying to sell a hunter or a western pleasure horse, a long mane typically isn’t going to cut it. When a buyer is looking for a particular type of horse, they typically don’t want to imagine what that horse will look like after the mane is pulled, or the horse is clipped. They want to see the horse finished and ready. Pulled is better than left long, but braided or banded depending on discipline is best. The braids need to look neat and tidy – an uneven or poorly braided mane is worse than no braids at all.
4. Brush, Brush, Brush.
Besides proper nutrition, there is no other way to get a good shine on a horse than to brush them. It’s why those who prep for Thoroughbred sales curry and brush the yearlings daily, to help get that show ring shine. Once the shine starts showing through, there are some wonderful sprays and conditioners that help enhance it and really make the horse sparkle.
5. Use Proper Equipment.
Nothing speaks louder in a photo than properly fitted and good quality equipment. It can make a wonderful horse look terrible. Here we see a saint of a gelding, seen in the previous article, who put up with a terrible fitting synthetic saddle and a pad designed for an entirely different discipline. The halter underneath is too big and is falling back on the neck of the horse, and the mismatched colors really stand out.
Now, that is not saying you have to go out and spend $5,000 on a custom saddle. While nice, it is not necessary. If on a budget, look for nice used tack. It is quite feasible to buy a good used saddle and bridle for between $700 and $1000, and have something to use in the future as well.
In the second photo, the horse does have a custom saddle, but the important thing is the bridle fits, the saddle fits and the pad is not garish and fits the saddle as well. It is important to note that this would not be appropriate for a hunter show. The horse should be braided and present a better picture with a fitted fleece pad and a hunter bridle, rather than a figure eight.
Not only is it important to have proper, well fitting tack when the horse is under saddle or in harness, but it is also important when showing conformation shots. Pay attention to what discipline that the horse is being presented as – for instance a hunter or jumper is typically presented in a bridle, a western horse in a show halter with silver accents, a gaited horse can go in a Saddleseat show halter or a Arabian style halter. Seeing a thoroughbred shown in an Arabian style halter may look a little off. When in doubt or if finances are an issue, a clean well fitting leather halter can be substituted. Make sure the leadrope is clean, not brightly colored, and fits with the style halter. A silver western show halter should have a leather lead, with or without chain. It would not go well with a bright pink nylon leadrope. When in doubt remember: make sure it is clean and fits well.
6. Timing is everything.
Whether it is a conformation shot or an under saddle photo, position of the horse makes all the difference. For instance, look at the two photos to the left. The first one shows a horse that is off “sequence”, where the hind leg is stepping forward and the front leg is beginning to raise. The horse is in the proper gait, but is at the wrong timing in his footfall, which makes it look awkward.
The second photo shows just a few shutter clicks later in the photo sequence. The front leg is now at the height of its lift and the back leg has set down, presenting a nice photo. It’s quite frequently said to get one good photo, one has to take a thousand, and it can certainly be true! This particular photo shoot involved about thirty minutes and well over a hundred photos, only taken by a basic iPhone. A nice camera would make the photo clearer and brighter, but it gets the basic needs across. The best thing to capture a horse in motion is the multiple shot option – new phones thankfully offer this as well.
Conformation photos can be the bane of any horse owner’s existence as well. If one thing was said time and again in the survey given in the last article, it was that potential buyers wanted both under saddle and conformation photos. Some horses, such as the foal shown in the second photo, have no setting but “cute” when it comes to taking photos. Others, like the foal in the photo to the left, like to be a little more difficult. They cock a leg, swish a tail and kick at flies, or have a dour appearance and refuse to put ears up. In the end, the handler looks like a clown trying to shake something or jumping up and down.
7. Practice makes perfect.
Few horses come with picture perfect conformation stance as a natural option – most of them need some help to stand them properly. That’s not saying they are conformationally deficient, it is saying they may want to cock a leg or move. So before photo time, make sure that the horse reliably and consistently stands in a breed appropriate stance, whether it is standing square such as with a western horse, parking out with a gaited horse, or where one can see all four legs. Spend time patiently setting the horse up and get some test shots to see what shows the horse off the best.
8. It takes a village – have several people!
Taking a photo with just one person is nearly impossible. Unless the horse stands stock still for minutes at a time, it ends up a frustrating venture to try and keep the horse’s head up, legs squared, and ears up. Tying a horse is minutely better but typically it is difficult to achieve the right position and angle on the horse. The best option is to have one person holding the horse, one photographing it, and a person using some sort of noisemaking material or object to get the horse’s ears up.
9. Make sure the horse is on flat ground.
There is nothing more frustrating than taking shots and seeing the horse is standing in a hole in the front, making them look downhill. Standing uphill can be deceiving as well. It is best to find flat ground, which is not easy in the rolling foothills of Kentucky, but it is certainly possible! Also make sure that the grass is not knee high. Buyers want to see the hoof and pastern angle and see how it relates to the shoulder and hip angles.
10. Choose the right background.
Imagine the photo of a horse for sale is similar to selling a house. Which would gather more interest – a clean, uncluttered house or one that has garbage strewn about and dirty clothes? The background of that conformation shot is the same. For instance, the mare in this photo is nicely conditioned, groomed and clipped, but the background is cluttered and distracting. The pink leg wraps draw the eye away from the horse, and the lighting is off making the horse darker and out of focus.
Compare to this photo. The lighting is good, and the background is clean with no debris strewn about to draw attention away from the horse. Her hind legs could be squared up just a bit more, and she is in better condition in the first photo, but overall the image is more pleasing than the darker photo taken in the barn.
11. Quality is important.
The photo to the left is the exact opposite of nearly every bullet above. The horse looks bored and stands against a cluttered background. He is also standing downhill with his shoulder closer to the photographer and front legs are not , making his proportions off. In addition to the clutter there is a plastic bag in the forefront where the handler was futilely attempting to catch the horse’s attention. Finally, the photo is so dark it is difficult to discern any features on the horse besides a lovely light colored mane and tail.
Compare to the photo on the right, a professional photo of a gorgeous stallion. It illustrates the proper way to execute a 3/4 shot of the horse and is an overall better quality photo. He shines from proper grooming and shows off the champion ribbon he earned.
There is no one perfect way to make sure the horse catches the buyer’s attention in a thumbnail in a list of horses on an equine marketing website, but the tips above will help even the playing field. By making sure to properly bathe the horse, clip or trim the horse to look appropriate for its discipline and brushing them thoroughly, it will make the horse look its best in the photo. It’s then time to enlist help of others to hold the horse or get the ears up through something that makes noise, make sure the horse has the proper equipment, and position it correctly. The overall quality of the photo can make the difference between a buyer clicking on the ad, and the buyer passing up the horse. After that, it’s up to the ad itself to help convince the buyer to email or call the seller, and that’s where part three comes in!