Archive for November, 2009

My Mom the (digital) Photographer

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

In 1996 Susan was living in Virginia and had just bought her first Macintosh (a G3, I think). She had an Internet connection and email but no web site.

Being the computer geek that I was and wanting to do something for my mom in exchange for the thrilling ride she gave me as a child, I started putting together a web site for her. Not having much in the way of promotional materials I put on my marketing hat and whipped out this bio.

When we first published the web site I can distinctly remember her saying something like: “Horse people will never use the Internet, but if you think it’s a good idea, I’ll send you some pics to post on the site.” The site was an instant success since, back then, it was one of the only sites with more than a few pictures of horses and had very good ranking in the search engines of the day.

I don’t know how much time she spent scanning all those images, but I’m sure it was the better part of a day, maybe two days. At one point I suggested that some day digital cameras would replace film cameras and scanners. She laughed a hearty laugh and said, “I doubt it! I don’t think digital cameras will ever be able to mimic the high quality produced by a really good lens and fine grained film.”

Around 2001, when she moved back to Chicago from Virginia, she also bit the bullet and bought a digital camera. It nearly sunk her financially (and probably a lot of other photographers). She also told me that she wanted to get out of doing horse shows and sell her work through her web site. Chuckling to myself, I agreed that that was a great idea.

We tried and tried to get something going on her web site, but try as we may, it just never materialized, until about a year ago (6 years after buying the digital camera) when she finally started using a shopping cart to sell event pictures on

Over the years, whenever we’d talk about the site, or about digital photography, although sometimes she would get frustrated with the technology, she never gave up. It’s that stick-to-itivness and reluctance to give in to fear that I’ll always remember best about Mom and it’s in that spirit we present this web site.

Photography “In the Zone”

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

(This is an article written by Susan but never published, nor finished, that appears to be in answer to the question: “What is your favorite photo that you’ve taken?”. We aren’t sure exactly which photo she is talking about, probably several, but we do have this one whose name happens to include “Lagartijo” and seems to be the image she’s describing.)

A few of these pictures were taken in California (at the seaside), and one – the swinging mane – was taken at an Andalusian breeding farm in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 1985.

However, most of these pictures are of the Andalusian stallion Lagartijo, the model name of a type of Lamborghini. He lives at Rancho La Loma, and it’s been my privilege to have two photo sessions with him recently. His movement shows pizzazz, moxy, attitude, power and spirit. Then, too, he’s beautiful just standing and posing, showing off the high style of the vehicle he is. Although he’s looking very sweet in this picture, his whiskers grab the attention.

Lagartijo, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 1985

Lagartijo, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 1985

Horses express themselves with the arch of the neck, the flick of an ear and twists of the body. All the time he was moving, he was also asking, “How does this look? Do you like it? Am I perfect? Aren’t I magnificent?” A unique stallion, to say the least, and one I’m proud to know.

He also gave me ideas, new angles to shoot. I am usually squatting during the shoot, and he frequently ran up to me while I was low to the ground, stopped, sniffed the lens, then turned and ran away. He did this a number of times during the January shoot, as if saying, “Come on! Take this shot. It’s my best angle.”  Hence, the tail shots.

He loved tossing his head, so one of the pictures is of him tossing his head – twice in the same picture.

Lagartijo presented himself for an old time, somewhat fading photo, too. Moving around the ring, you can see that he still has his head turned towards me. He is quite vain. It’s natural; all stallions are, even those who live out in the wild.

Being saucy in the ring and tossing his head made his mane and forelock dance ahead of him. He looks very powerful here.

One morning, his mane was in dreadlocks. The curves in the wavy mane and in the solid neck speak of texture and diagonal movement, combined to create an interesting flow of lines.

Different treatments in the printing process create different moods. The grainy look makes the mood soft and tranquil, while a straight print shows us the way the stallion is, all power made up of well-defined bone and muscle.

Totally focused on me as he circles the ring, his expression is alert, intelligent and completely engaging. Just a hair’s breadth from smiling, even, and I’m loving every moment of it. We have bonded.

It’s not possible to state that one picture or another is my favorite, because it changes from one day to the next. However, the one that comes up as “favorite” the most frequently is the Stone Wall. The tousled mane, brilliant eye and flared nostrils come to life and demonstrate what I love about photographing horses.

Thank you, Lagartijo. It’s been a pleasure “shooting” you.

Recent Biographies

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Susan Sexton, Short Bio

Susan Sexton has been an equine photographer since 1977, shooting horses in all settings, disciplines and sports. She’s very involved with all aspects of photography, from taking pictures for a vast range of clientele and to teaching all aspects of photography, film to digital, computers and Photoshop.

Over the last thirty-plus years, Susan has specialized in and established a reputation for excellence in shooting classical dressage. Her work has been admired by clients and peers, alike, and has been used extensively within the equine industry.

Her pictures have appeared in many horse magazines in print and online, in books, calendars and in brochures and catalogues advertising all items related to horses, from clothing to tack and horse shoes.  Dover Saddlery, Stateline, Pfizer, Ariat, Continental Airlines, and Purina and many more companies have used her pictures in their advertising over the years.

Top breeding farms and stallion owners in the US hire her to do their stallion photography and design their ads.

Going beyond the field of shooting, she also gives clinics for those who want to learn about photographing horses, she critiques portfolios, gives online courses about photographing the horse, and judges print and online competitions.

Susan currently lives in Cave Creek, AZ.

By Mom’s friend Kimmery:

Susan Sexton’s photographic career spans more than thirty years, while her love of horses spans nearly seventy.  Combining horses and photography was as natural a step as walking, and has been proven over and over again to be an ideal merger.

But this is better said in her words….

A major part of my career – which includes being the official photographer at the 1996 Olympics – has been devoted to photographing stallions. It’s a thrill to have a horse in front of my camera, every single time and in any one venue. They differ from each other, but none are so different as the stallions.  They are prideful, and full of themselves. They know it, and they show it.

When they’re at liberty in the ring with me, they are in tune with what I’m doing, and it becomes a very special event. It’s not that they know what a photo is, but they do know that they are the center of attention, and they turn up the heat. They consider themselves kings of the hills, anyway, and being asked to show off just makes them sparkle even more.

When I’m holding the camera up to my face, almost all of them are looking right down the lens at me as they’re running around the ring.  It’s a little unnerving, but thrilling at the same time. It makes for a very strong contact.

See Lagartijo for an example.

An Introduction to Shooting the Principles of Dressage

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

All Gaits and Movements

Can you explain word by word what a good dressage picture looks like? How about what a good frame and good rider position look like?

There’s been a lot of concentration and emphasis put on capturing the right moment in the stride, as well as plenty of discussion about the best lens and the correct angle, but I almost never see any discussion about the horse’s frame.

The way the horse actually moves demonstrates in the best way, whether or not he’s accomplishing the goals and purposes of dressage: self-carriage, suppleness and willingness.

Capturing a predescribed moment in the stride of any one of the gaits enhances the illusion of balance, or the fact of it, but it does nothing for showing us how well the horse is actually executing dressage.

To shamelessly quote Wikipedia’s purpose of dressage:

“Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse”

And here’s the link for more information: I also have to point out that the picture they use of the extended trot is taken at the “wrong” moment, but it still exhibits the ideal frame.

I’ll be discussing the walk, trot, canter, lateral work, halt, and advanced movements such as the pirouette, the piaffe and passage. An indepth study of the horse’s frame; how to recognize it, what it tells us and how to shoot it will also be part of the discussions.

We will cover the horse’s frame and learn how to identify and recognize when it’s being done correctly. Same thing with the rider’s position. When these are understood, everyone’s shooting will improve. It’s so much more than knowing the /\/\ moment at the trot, for instance, and relying on the degree of vertical in the horse’s face.

The Walk

The best angle and moment. All strides have an option, so you don’t have to stick with just one thing. Different angles and moments flatter or hide some of the faults in a horse and/or rider.

The Trot

Again, the best moment and angle. There’s more to shooting dressage than learning which is the best moment in the stride, the best lens, the best angle. More importantly, you have to learn when the horse is demonstrating his strength, suppleness and willingness. It is obvious to see, once you learn what you’re looking at.

The Canter

Moments and angles. Balance, scope and correctness that demonstrate the ideals and goals of dressage.

Lateral Work

Do you know why the horses have to learn lateral movements? When are they correct and being corrective to the way the horse carries himself? How does the rider’s position affect the horse’s way of going?

The Collected Gaits: walk, trot and canter. Discuss how each one looks different and why they’re performed in tests. What difference does it make to how the horse moves, in the long run?

The Piaffe and Passage: do they serve a purpose?

They’ll learn to critique their own pictures and subsequently improve the pictures on their web sites.

This is complex and will require six weeks to understand the principles and change the way we’re shooting.

(Ed: Unfortunately, Susan never finished this course. This is all we have :-( )

Photographing the Walk

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

It seems to be a simple enough gait, but it tells us a lot about how the horse moves.

What you see first off is stiffness. If the horse does not have a pure, fourbeat walk, he’s stiff in the barrel on one side or the other. The stride has to be even and balanced from front to back and side to side. We’ ve all seen horses who stride shorter in one hind leg than the other, particularly at the race track. Striding short on the left hind, for instance, tells us that the horse isn’t comfortable stretching out on the right side of the barrel. This then restricts how far forward he can reach with the left hind leg.

When shooting dressage, the more you know about the mechanics of the gait, the better you get at shooting it.  It is more than having a special formula for comparing the angles of the front and back legs, for instance, or capturing the most ideal split-second of the trot, canter or walk, the passage, piaffe and pirouette.

If you learn why they move the way they do, your pictures will be very much improved.

All these are correct measurments, but not the end of your knowledge. Same for knowing the correct lens and angle to use. All these items are important and useful in shooting horses doing dressage, but there’s more, and to become really good, you need to learn what the “more” is.

If you can explain to the rider why one picture is better than another, you’ll earn their respect. You’ll become the one they ask to do a farm call because they’ll know that you really understand what you’re seeing, the right and wrong, the good and bad, and above all the WHY.

It’s more than angles, backgrounds, equipment and popular knowledge. More than lighting and loving horses. It’s about how they move and how well they achieve the goals of dressage. It’s about understanding the structure of the horse, his muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons. Noooo, this is not turning into a biology test.  :o)  You don’t have to know everything about the horse’s body. You don’t even have to know everything about dressage. But you do have to know about the principles and goals, and how the success of reaching them is achieved.

No horse has three perfect gaits or perfect conformation, yet they can get marvelous scores at the beginning levels, all the way up to the world-class levels. It’s because they are consistent, moving forward all the time in a regular rhythm, through the transitions and corners.

The smarter and more well-informed you are on all levels, the more you’ll beat out the competition who’s standing ringside, shooting YOUR show! Poachers can be such a pain! But you can beat them. You just have to know more than they do.

My favorite saying is, “The best picture wins.” I said it first in 1977 to someone who was shooting the same show I was; I have maintained that all along. She was never able to make it shooting dressage. You can make sure that you have the best pictures, too. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Do you know why horses have to do certain movements, such as the leg-yield, the half-pass and others? Do you now why they are introduced at the levels they are?

As the horse moves through the levels, he becomes more supple and better balanced. Dressage is similar to yoga for horses. They learn strength, balance, suppleness and smooth transitions from one movement to another without losing their balance and impulsion.

Printing at 11

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

My childhood with Susan (a.k.a. Mom) was, to say the least, unconventional, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I have many fond memories of life as a photographer’s son but perhaps one of my favorites was the night I realized that maybe I could follow in my mom’s footsteps.

Susan started shooting horses at two-day events in the Phoenix area when I was about 11 or 12. She would shoot on Saturdays, process all night (frequently not sleeping), and then sell/shoot on Sundays. On one occasion, we attended a show in Tucson, AZ, about a 3-hour drive from our home in Phoenix. Since it was too far to go in one day, Mom packed her camera and darkroom equipment into the car and headed off, 3 kids in tow, to Tucson.

The car broke down about half way to Tucson. The garage it was towed to said it needed a new engine (and they probably weren’t lying). Running late for the show at a used car dealership on the outskirts of Tucson, Susan managed to buy a new (used) car, somehow convincing the right people she qualified for the loan.

We arrived at the show grounds and Susan started shooting immediately while my sisters and I tooled around the show grounds looking at the horses and people. When the show ended for the day, we all went to the nearest hotel and started unpacking the car and setting up the darkroom. Being a father myself, I suspect that sentence should read: “we all went to the nearest hotel and Mom started unpacking the car and setting up the darkroom while my sisters and I fought over who got which bed.”

Some time around 11 PM, she finished processing the negatives and woke me up so I could start printing. Now, before you think, “OMG, that’s child slavery!”, besides the fact that in most states it’s legal to make your kids work for the company, I WANTED to do the printing and knew what it meant (staying up most of the night). I liked the solitude of the darkroom, the challenge of producing a perfectly printed image. As a young boy it did a lot for my self-esteem…

The first hour or two went fine but somewhere around 1 AM I started getting really tired and wondered if there wasn’t a faster way to get all these pictures printed. Knowing that my mom was technically a good photographer and looking at the excellent exposure of the negatives, I tried just guessing what the exposure times should be for each (rather than running a test, which nearly doubled the work). After a few tried, I realized I could, in fact, guess what the exposure time under the enlarger should be for her images and finished the job an hour or two later.

When she woke up in the morning and found all the pictures printed, she asked what time I went to bed. When I told her that I guessed on exposure times and got to bed early, she congratulated me with a big smile (a chip off the old block?) and off we went to reap our rewards.

My interest in photography continues to this day, but there was something about that moment, about that smile of hers, that will stick with me as one of the high points of my own photography path. For what it’s worth, although we continued to have a darkroom in our bathroom for much of my adolescence and I continued to guess exposure times, the pictures never turned out quite as good as at that show. Must have been the photographer…

The English Trot with Susan Sexton

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

This tutorial was first published as part of a course on EPNet ( in late 2006. The majority of the course consisted of critiques written by Susan of photos that were submitted by members. The course is still available in the Forum but this version has been reduced to only include Susan’s original content.

Here are four pictures of the same horse during a test, each successive stride. How would YOU critique these? Just for fun, of course, and to bone up on what’s to come.

Be bold, be brave, be daring, but above all, be careful.


The rider is very savvy, as you’ll see, with one exception.

This is the medium trot down the long side in the PSG test, and the horse is just 1-2 strides from the corner in the last picture.

To explain the sequence:

  1. This picture shows good push from behind. Yes, he’s overbent, but that’s a very popular teaching tool and training technique: keep the horse behind the bit so you have something left to drive him into, once it’s needed. Not that the whole test is done this way, but you can see the advantage of using that technique for a stride here and there.

    Photographically speaking, this would not be the best picture to show to the rider. This is because of the head set. Not that it’s wrong during the test, but because it looks not so good in a single photo.He’s in a poor frame for a double bridle, to tell you the truth, but that’s the rider’s problem, not ours. I’d expect to see more collection in a horse in a double bridle, even though she’s asking for more of a trot. A bit tighter frame, in other words.

  2. She’s steadying him while pushing him. The lengthened stride is not really supposed to be shown until all is ready, when a savvy rider is aboard. You don’t just get going and hit the gas, so to speak. He has to first be informed that somethig extra is going to be asked of him. (Picture #1) Then he has to be balanced and prepared, and this is why his head came up in this picture.

    I wonder as I look at these pictures, if the stride in #2 would equal the length of the stride in #1 if it hd been taken a little later.

  3. A pretty nice frame and the best moment of the four pictures. The rider only has to show 2-3 steps of the medium trot in order to show that it’s distinguishable from the working trot and the extended trot. He doesn’t need to be tracking up, in other words, but he does have to show the difference in frame and extension between the working and extended trots.
  4. She’s asking him to return to the working trot, and here’s where he shows his weaknesses. Ideally, the horse will change his frame and the length of the stride, but maintain the forward and upness of the movement. This horse has fallen apart. The head came up, the jaw tightened, looks like the mouth opened, the back went hollow, and subsequently, the toe flipped in the left front leg. He’s still showing a lengthened stride, though. He was not prepared for the change of pace.

    Did the rider apply the half-halt? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t look like it, and the horse looks caught off guard. Or maybe the rider forgot herself, being determined to get a strong medium stride in there somewhere.

The Poll

There might be some misunderstanding about where/what the poll is on the horse. Here’s the scoop:

The poll is a name of the part of the horse’s head, right between the ears. Specifically, this refers to the occipital protrusion at the back of the skull, but many horsemen incorrectly refer to the joint between the atlas and skull as “the poll.”

The poll is especially important in riding, as correct flexion is a sign that the horse is on the bit. Over-flexion, with the poll lowered, is usually a sign that the horse is either evading contact or that the rider is trying to pull the horse onto the bit, rather than correctly ride him up and through from behind. In classical dressage, the poll should always be the highest point on the horse when the horse is on the bit. When, for example, the third vertebrae is the highest point on the neck, rather than the poll, it is a clear sign of incorrect work.

Taking this a step further, I always wonder if the horse’s crest tricks people. It might make the horse look as if he’s not bent at the poll, but at some place farther down the neck simply because the crest sticks up higher.

Some horses grow a lot of crest, particularly stallions, and particularly as they age.

These three pictures of Bergamon, a Hanoverian stallion, focus on a normal neck and head carriage. In the first one, the horse is just standing there. In the other two pictures (the same picture), one’s cropped to show just the neck and crest, and the other shows the whole horse with a red line demonstrating the verticality of the face.

The crest line

Bergamon's crest. The neckline is the lower red line. There's a lot of crest!

The trot, showing the neck, etc. Is this neck bent at the right place?

Horse at the Trot

The top red line shows the crest. The red line below it shows where the poll is. I notice that it goes right through the elbow.

This last picture is a close up of the head and neck, same picture as above.

Crest line 2

The thin red line shows the neck with the crest above it.