Rhinestones and Blue Ribbons

We had our community celebration here a couple of weeks ago, and the new newspaper that’s covering our area published a bunch of pictures from the event.

And, at the risk of sounding like a sour-grapes snob (I used to run the newspaper here), their pictures were terrible.

When I was publishing our paper, I coveted expensive camera rigs. I resented having to make do with the upper-amateur cameras from Nikon–stuff regular people buy at Costco for $60o.  There was no way we could afford the gargantuan telephoto lenses that make great nature or football shots.  I saw parents running around at school events with cameras that were three times as expensive as ours, and we took pictures to earn a living.

But the reason the new paper’s pictures are crummy isn’t simply due to their equipment–it’s due to what my engineer dad would call “operator error.”

Good candid photographers develop a kind of “surrounding awareness” that other people don’t have. When you become really good at it, it’s almost like you’ve developed a sixth sense.

It’s not predicting the future, it’s more like being ready for the future.

Sounds a lot like working with horses, doesn’t it? Horses demand our constant anticipation and awareness–everything from knowing that your horse is getting nervous about that trash can you’re trying to ride past to noticing a sudden subtle change in demeanor that can mean colic or laminitis.

I took some pictures of a girl getting her gelding ready for a local show last year. I’d looked forward to photographing the event–I didn’t get to do stuff like this when I was a kid, and I figured I’d have a great time.

I found a girl getting her young sorrel gelding ready.  The gelding was done up like a racehorse–tail-bagged, neck-sweated, blanketed–and the girl had her hands full “undressing” him. Whenever she saw me pointing the camera at her, she kissed and fawned over her gelding, which was fine with me–I kiss and fawn over my own horses, and I was getting some cute shots. All the while, the girl’s mother kept up a running nagathon about how the girl needed to change into her show clothes and fix her hair, etc.

What do YOU see in this picture?

But then the girl said she wanted to longe the gelding to “warm him up.”  I suspected it was mainly for my benefit, but that was OK with me too–I understood how a young woman would want to show off her handsome young horse.

When this horse stepped into the round pen and jerked into a trot, though, I was shocked. He could barely use one of his back legs.

“What happened to his leg?” I asked the mother, before I could stop myself (ignoring the cardinal rule of You Never Point  Out Someone Else’s Horse’s Faults).

“Oh, he cut his tendon on the fence,” the mom said airily. “We let him have a few weeks off, but he’s just not up to 100% yet.”

I looked at the gelding again. This happened to be the same family who had raised my first mare, and I chided myself for my immediate harsh judgement. These were folks who’d bred and raised dozens of horses for decades, after all, and I’d only been working with horses for a few years.

Maybe he just needed to warm up, like the girl had said. But I found myself almost in tears after a few minutes of watching the gelding hop around in a bizarre three-legged lope. He kept asking to slow down, but the girl kept demanding he keep the gait. He didn’t toss his head, wring his tail, or show any other signs of irritation. He just kept trucking around like a broken wind-up toy. That was what bothered me the most, I think…the fact that this was obviously such a good gelding who was trying his best to please.

So whenever I look at that photo of the two of them together now, I see something completely different than a touching moment. I see a family that treated an injured horse no differently than they’d treat a four-wheeler or dirt bike that they’d get around to fixing… some day.

I don’t see love. I see a girl who was posing for a newspaper photographer.

Now I realize that not being able to afford all that expensive camera gear actually did me a huge favor.  I had to develop the ability to be in the right place at the right time, which meant I had to develop my external awareness early on. I learned it was far better to have my run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot with me at all times than it was to be an “official” photographer with the heavy gear bag full of lenses.

A couple of years ago when I was shooting our community celebration, I got a great shot. There is always a contest where prizes are handed out–kids bring marked balls to a table and find out if they’ve won. The only place for me to sit if I wanted to catch a kid’s reaction was in the broiling sun (it was noon, and it was close to a hundred degrees that day).  I waited a half-hour as kids went by the booth. I was dripping sweat, and I was getting more and more pissed off because I had no way of knowing if I was totally wasting my time.  I was just about to give up when a kid finally came up with the winning ball, and I got the shot.

The folks who were printing our paper at the time urged me to enter that photo in a statewide competition. I was flattered, but when you’re a professional, it’s your job to make the excellent look effortless–and then do it all over again the next day. What mattered to me wasn’t the fact the photo might win an award–it was the memory of what I’d worked through in order to get it.

Horses don’t care about accolades either.  They care about the time we spend with them and how we treat them, and thanks to that, they give us the chance to live in the present. They help us reach a kind of awareness that helps us release our trivial worries and focus on what it means to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

And we earn those moments of partnership with them through hard work and sweat, not through rhinestones and blue ribbons.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Rhinestones and Blue Ribbons

  1. The story about the girl and her horse is so very sad. What are her parents teaching her? Bad things and it makes my heart sick. That gelding is a saint. I can only hope that she wasn’t pinned at all in the show and that a judge said something to them about how wrong it is to show a lame horse.

    Our horses (and all our animals) are gifts. Expensive gifts. Gifts that require a lot of work and money and sacrifice, but they are so worth it for what they give us in return, which is that sense of accomplishment when they trust you, when they respond to your patient training, those moments of effortlessness that the two of you really are one and it’s so much fun.

    • Thanks CFS–that means a lot coming from you. And Kathleen, I totally agree. I know it can be heartbreaking to put a ton of work into a horse and then not be able to show/ride them due to an injury, but horses are not machines. I wound up not using the photo (even though I thought it was probably the best one I took that morning) because I was so disgusted with the family.

  2. I’m so glad you said that about the photo- I could only see how unhappy that horse looked 😦

    I was sitting in the stands at a show a few months ago and this (bratty) little kid was saying all kinds of awful things about her horse. Somebody picked up a camera and she pulled her horse’s head to her and smiled broadly- while the horse had his ears pinned back and the saddest look on his face. The kid had no clue, I hope she gets one someday.

    One of the members of my photography club spends thousands of dollars on equipment and can’t take a decent picture to save his life. Money can’t buy you talent.

  3. I tried to comment last night, but my cell phone (I don’t own a computer) was being a pain in the tush :-/
    I love LOVE this post. Your photography analogy of the effort put forth in getting a good photo and the sort of effort our horses must put forth (for us, not them) was so spot on!
    I showed a bit as a kid myself and even a few times in the first few years I had Grif — but I can’t really say I ever got hooked on it…. I have friends that show and I do support them when I can (and they are good people who take good care of their horses), but sometimes I don’t really like showing. Admittedly, I’m on the fence about it in a lot of situations.
    I sometimes have a hard time understanding why people work so hard to make their horses fit an “ideal” mold (determined by judges/other people) and perform movements that really have no other purpose than to impress others. …maybe I sound selfish in saying this, but I don’t want other people’s rules or judgements to determine how I spend my time with my horse. When Griffin and I are together, that is OUR time. We do what we collectively want to do — not what someone else thinks we should be doing.

    It gets to the point with some people where it’s all about being “able” to do these fancy movements and patterns… and in the midst of it all, the actual relationship with the horse becomes strained – even sacrificed……

    To me, a ribbon or the admiration of others just isn’t worth that.
    When I go out to the paddock with a halter and Grif nickers and is happy to see me — and willingly thrusts his head into the halter loop…THAT makes me feel GREAT. There isn’t a million ribbons in the world that would make me trade that feeling 🙂

  4. Great post. Riding breeches and boots don’t make you a horseman or a rider. I think it’s disgusting how that family treated that horse and didn’t give him the time to heal. What’s more offensive to me is how she was posing for the camera to get her picture in the paper (maybe to advertise their place and sell some horses). I could never abide phonies. Glad you didn’t bother with publishing the photo in the paper, they didn’t deserve it.

  5. Authenticity is more rare now than ever.

    I take photos for our crew at work, and those moments are there, no matter what the price of the lense. My predecessor couldn’t take a decent shot, I have dozens that are routinely used national.

    Same camera. It’s a bit of a twist on the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

    What a miserable little child. Hopefully life will give her the lessons she needs since her family was clearly I’ll suited to the task.

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