Thoroughbred Logic: Conformation Photo Critique

“Conformation photos are hard. But they are also so ridiculously important. Put bluntly, a good conformation photo can sell a horse… But just as easily, a poor conformation photo can cause folks to skip over your horse, your sales, and your farm.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on the value of good conformation photos.

Yesterday, Alanah — my assistant/working student — asked, “Have you written a Thoroughbred Logic on conformation photos yet? Cause you should.” She asked that when we were walking the third horse out of the barn to get photographed on the driveway, after probably an hour of lining up legs, crumpling mint wrappers and strategically tossing grass or pebbles (away from the horse of course).

Study Habits getting squared up in the right position. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Conformation photos are hard. But they are also so ridiculously important. Put bluntly, a good conformation photo can sell a horse. It can reach further audiences. It can show off your work as a trainer. But just as easily, a poor conformation photo can cause folks to skip over your horse, your sales, and your farm. So with the Retired Racehorse Project’s final entries and horse photos quickly becoming due for the 2023 Makeover candidates, I suppose it is time to write that conformation photo article. (They have a good one too, find it here).

A pretty good shot of Q (Quality Step) from this past winter (Yes he is usually a tad over at the knee). Photo by the Kivu Team.

So here’s where it gets fun for me. My PhD is in Cultural Anthropology, with a specialization in visual anthropology. I used that skill to examine the production of humanitarian photos in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps surprisingly, the horse world is not that different. Sure, it contains vastly different subject matter from aid photography, but the same visual theory applies and my Anthro brain doesn’t ever really get to turn off.

Within the equine community, just like in the aid communities, we know what makes a “good photo,” even if the rules are not fully codified. With horses, there’s the right point over the jump where the bascule is perfect and the knees are up; the right nanosecond when trotting where the perfect triangles appear between the horse’s legs and they track up into their own hoof prints. There’s the right point of the turn in barrels, the right expression of utter attention in cutting and the right shoulder lift and foreleg extension in dressage. But all of that is when moving.

Study Habits making all the right shapes and expressions for his first under saddle ride here. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Collectively, we have also somehow agreed on what is attractive and correct for our four legged friends when standing still. Out of all their movements and positions, we have prioritized a few shapes and poses that stand to show off their worth. Even more fascinating and niche, these desired standing images are slightly discipline specific. Western disciplines are looking for a *slightly* lower stance and head carriage in a conformation photo than a show hunter. A show hunter is often looking for a longer more neutral neck position than most eventers. Knowing what audience you’re marketing the horse to changes how you stand them up and shoot the photograph in the first place. And that to my can’t-stop-won’t-stop Anthro brain is fascinating.

Curry (Curlin Lane) showing off his fancy pants conformation. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

So it is probably no surprise that I actually have come to like conformation photo days. I have a good team, and we have a system down. One or two of my photo-inclined interns usually man the camera. Over the years, each has respectively developed an eye for what will be attractive and help show off a horse as well. We can usually assembly line the things: one person bathes the horse, one cleans up the bridle, one brushes out the tail, one pulls off the bell boots. And despite the fact that I have spent a lot of my life behind a camera professionally, they always man the camera and I man the horse (I’ll get to why in a minute).

Like working with someone to back a trailer, conformation photos will test how well you work with your partner. Oh and inevitably they’ll test the patience you have for your horse too. That, honestly, is why I hold the horse. It’s a nearly zen thing that you have to find funny to do well, lest you let creating these images ruin your and your horse’s day.

It takes a minute to get these right. This image shows Curry (and Littles the dog) a few moments before we got the photo above. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Never done this before? It is like this on repeat for five minutes if not far more:

Line the horse up so the photographer can take images of his body from the side. One step forward, literally… got it. Nope, he’s cocking his hind leg… two steps back, haunches ended up creating a shadow, move forward again… horse now looks like it is balancing on a circus ball… do a small circle. Good, we can see all the legs and he’s bearing weight evenly. Hop a few times to get the shoulder up and his attention… he looks like a mule… toss grass, crinkle a water bottle or mint aim for ears up… got it, wait, no, the hind leg is cocked again. F&$@, pause, start over. A few steps back… dogs, get out of the picture!… yep… repeat repeat repeat.

Sometimes the horse’s patience runs out before mine and we have to call it a day and work with what we have got. Sometimes, the dogs, or flies, or shadows are confounding factors. Sometimes, I go back to edit them and realize we missed a grooming spot, or in the case of recent photos, I missed the remnant of a dog-chewed bell boot (see above photo) in the driveway a few feet from their hooves. It is tough and specific, but when you nail it, it sure helps.

Sometimes tossing grass helps. Sometimes you just call it a day. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

So here’s a short list of things, in no specific order to make the photos match the industry standard of “good conformation photos” and get the horse the attention you desire.

1. Tidy horse, tidy human, tidy background

This is important, but sometimes overlooked. It is hard to price a horse for top dollar when they have stains on them, their white legs are peach-colored (gotta love the South), or their tails are knotted. A good bath, some shine spray, a brushed out tail and oiled hooves make a horse look like it is worth what you are asking. Add only a nice bridle or proper-fitting halter to complete the image. Avoid leaving bell boots on or adding brushing boots, a saddle or other tack. In fact those things tend to flag up the “what are they hiding?” questions. Saddle pads can cover otherwise obvious ribs, boots and bell boots obscure tendons and hoof angles… so we leave them off.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) on his race farm in December, 2021. Photo by Laura Newell. (They were trying to show me what he looked like, not stand him up for sale… I could see through the fuzz and long mane to the fancy event horse in there, but I encounter a lot of photos like this trying to sell nice horses, so it makes a good example).

But just as importantly, the human holding the horse — if they are going to possibly be in the image — ought to look professional. I’m not saying take these images in a ball gown, but I am saying that muck boots, oversized shorts and a t-shirt downgrade the horse. Smart, discipline specific schooling garb keeps it all in line with the desired market. Look at me sounding like my parents at dinner (sit up, don’t lean on your elbows, switch the fork into the right hand to eat…).

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) stood up for his RRP Makeover images in the summer of 2022. Photo by the Kivu Team.

And then choose a location that is not going to distract from the horse and puts them on flat ground and in good lighting. Many folks use their barn doors (closed), which makes a pretty effect and focuses the image on the horse. Others use a clean barn wall or stand them near a tidy fence line. I prefer images not in a sand arena as I find it is harder to see hoof angles. I don’t have good visual access to the side of my barn and it’s not the prettiest so we use the pebble driveway. There’s a lot about it I’d change if I could for the photos, but it is clean and pretty enough.

Add to this whole “tidy” thing that you don’t want any other junk in the photo. Piles of manure, stacks of stuff, nosey neighbor horses, or bits of bell boots ought to be moved out of the way.

I was asked to grab quick photos of Tackle the other day. These go against all the rules and show how crappy it can look when you don’t make the effort to clean them up, stand them up, and go to the right location. Photo by author.

2. Know how the horse needs to stand

Do your research. If this is the first time photographing for Eventing, Fox Hunting, Show Jumpers, Roping, Trail, Cutting, Barrels etc., look up expensive horses in that field and see how they are stood up. Then mimic that. Make sure you can see all of the legs and that they look balanced and are bearing weight evenly. A tipped hoof will often signal lameness even if it is not present, so all four legs with even weight is critical. Oh, and make sure that if you are manning the horse, that you review this with your photographer before getting out there. That way they know what they’re looking for too.

When working to get the ears up and the head, neck, and shoulders where you need them, I tend to use the following: jumping up and down gently, scuffling feet and having my photographer do the same thing, pulling out an umbrella (only works with the spookier horses), crinkling treat bags or water bottles, squeezing dog toys, and finally if I can’t get any attention and they look lazy and too laid back for the image, I’ll pull up the internet and find a soundtrack of a horse whinnying on repeat. That usually gets their attention.

The umbrella didn’t impress Q (Quality Step), so we ended up with this cute photo instead of a good conformation image. Photo by the Kivu Team.

3. Photograph well, wide and often

The photographer is best suited to create these images with a “real” camera. I love my cell phone for day-to-day images, but it just doesn’t cut it when I need to get a horse to look like the stunning beast they are (see crap photo of Tackle above). If you don’t have a good camera for this, find a horsey friend who does. And then shoot at 90-degrees to the horse’s shoulder so you can see their whole side. When doing that, leave room around the horse for one to crop and straighten the image or cut the human out, etc. Leaving a little extra space around the horse also ensures that the photographer doesn’t accidentally lop off their feet.

Then take way more photographs than you think you need. I think we average around 100 photos per horse for conformation images. In the end, I probably select around two to three to represent them in my ads. Even if you think you nailed it the first time, keep shooting to make sure, their ears are up, they didn’t blink, the human (if you can’t crop them out) isn’t making a ridiculous face, the tail is quiet, etc. etc. etc.

A decent shot of Amelia’s Map from this past winter. We took probably 75 photos of her to get three I was happy using. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

4. Finally, edit well but not too much

Conformation photos, in my opinion, ought to be edited. This means that the contrast can be deepened, the horse’s true color can be brought out, and the light can be managed. I use Adobe Lightroom to lightly enhance the images, but importantly, I don’t use it to alter them. Ribs never get brushed out, scrapes and knicks and big ankles are all there to be seen. At the end of the day, a good conformation photo is an honest photo. And while I love artistic images and think the blacked out backgrounds can be striking if done well, I tend to want to see a horse in their environment for these. Too much saturation or enhancement and I start looking at the editing not the horse.

Lottie (Hatch Gate) really was this shiny, but gentle editing brought out the richness of her coat and highlighted the quality of the mare. Photo by the Kivu Team.

So at the end of the day, this genre of photography is specific and ridiculously picky. But if you have the patience and know how to both stand the horse up and take the good photo, you can make your quality horse look like it is actually worth those million bucks.

Happy photography, then go ride or call it a day and have a drink. Conformation photos’ll do that to you…