The breeding industry makes the racing world turn. In October, The Jockey Club released statistics indicating that 1,552 stallions covered 31,198 mares in North America in 2019.
The stallion business is a competitive one and in order to attract the best mares, farms reach out to expert photographers to provide conformation photos of their stallions to offer prospective clients the perfect visual of a stallion’s conformation.
Canadian Hall of Fame photographer Dave Landry is a seven-time Sovereign Award winner as well as an Eclipse Award winner. Landry also boasts a number of distinctions on the standardbred side.
A graduate of Ryerson University, Landry credits his development to his formative years shooting at famed Windfields Farm and an inquisitive nature that led to a friendship with legendary photographer Tony Leonard.
“Tony Leonard was the king of conformation and he was so good to me for years, offering me all kinds of information,” said Landry. “We only met once in person, but we spoke a number of times on the phone and I would ask him about his technique.”
Leonard shot conformation photos for Windfields Farm, including the great Northern Dancer, and it was there that Landry was given a chance to learn the skillset, while working with the Windfields team of Alan Kerr, Bernard McCormack, Simon Cassidy and Dave Whitford, who since 2003 has served as the broodmare and stallion manager at Sam-Son Farm in Milton, ON.
Whitford, who credits Landry as one of the top photographers in the game, said a conformation photo is important for business.
“The frame has to show your horse to the best of his attributes. A poor photo can be very unflattering,” said Whitford.
For Landry, a good conformation photo can be even more spectacular than nailing a photo finish in a stakes race.
“It looks like the simplest thing in the world, but it’s very difficult to get it right,” said Landry. “I’ve won an Eclipse and a lot of awards, but when I think about it, something I’m most proud of is nailing one of these conformation shots. An owner will have lots of race shots but that perfect conformation shot would look grand over a fireplace.”
Boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Greatness is making difficult look easy.”
So, with that mantra in mind, let’s walk through the steps of creating a knockout conformation shot.
The little details matter. A stallion being prepared for a photo shoot has to be well-groomed, his hooves gleaming and his mane combed right.
Whitford advises that the timing of when you shoot is important.
“Ideally, you want to do it in the summer time when they have their summer coats and are beautiful naturally,” said Whitford. “With the braiding, you want the mane sitting on the right side so there’s no mane flipped over in the photo.”
Landry said he prefers a mature stallion for his subject.
“I’ve said ‘no’ to doing shoots with horses recently retired when they haven’t filled out and let down,” said Landry. “If you wait for that second year and do it right you won’t have to do it again.”
No bell boots, please. And make sure the lone piece of tack required is shiny and new.
“A properly fit halter is important. It can’t be long and droopy,” said Landry.
Landry said he prefers extra help at photo shoots, including the stallion manager, the handler [the person holding the lead for the stallion] and at least one or two assistants.
Regardless of how many people are involved, Landry said they all must bring a gentle nature to the shoot.
“You need people to be calm around the horse. You can’t have someone there with anxious energy,” said Landry. “Animals will sense that and you don’t want an anxious person around the horse. Everyone must be patient and calm.”
Landry said the handler is arguably the most important person at the shoot.
“The horse has to respect the handler,” said Landry. “It’s better if there is a relationship between horse and handler. If he can’t get the horse there, you’re euchred.
“I always tell the handler don’t worry about my time. I’m patient. Don’t feel rushed.”
As for the extra help, Landry said he prefers the handler stay focused on the horse and to have an assistant in charge of dealing with flies, stray hairs, clutter and even helping with re-positioning the horse.
“I don’t like the guy holding the horse to move the front leg because the horse usually moves with him,” said Landry. “The best thing is to have one person extra so when they’re square on the left, they can quietly go in and move the right front and potentially the back depending on the horse.”
“You put the focus where the money is – the horse. When people put a horse right against the barn, that’s too close. It’s too in focus and it fights with the horse. I say take a beautiful background and put it as far back as you can.”
A quality conformation shot should focus on the stallion.
“You want to keep it pretty simple on the background,” said Whitford. “You don’t want to take away from the horse. A simple background with nice colors and not too busy with a pasture and maybe some tree line.”
Landry echoed those sentiments and added that the subject needs to be front and centre with plenty of space behind them.
“You put the focus where the money is – the horse,” said Landry. “When people put a horse right against the barn, that’s too close. It’s too in focus and it fights with the horse. I say take a beautiful background and put it as far back as you can.
“Whether it’s a rock wall or beautiful stone wall in Kentucky, one thing I see is that people put the background too close,” continued Landry. “I like to shoot on a longer lens. I like a longer telephoto shoot. It compresses the shot and drops the focus quicker than a wider lens.”
Landry said when done correctly, a photograph can become a work of art.
“You have to carry the focus through to make sure everything is sharp, but I want it to drop off as quick as possible so it looks more like a painting in the background. It softens the focus,” said Landry.
An added note is that firm footing will make for a better shoot.
“You need level ground,” said Landry. “If on grass, cut it short and make sure it’s firm or he will sink and you won’t see his feet. Some do it on gravel or pavement. I prefer grass.”
Landry said modern cameras and editing technology make lighting an easier task than it used to be, but noted that certain conditions can combine to provide a natural light box.
“The best light you could ask for is a bright overcast day. That’s a bonus from heaven. It’s like a big soft box,” said Landry. “You still get the glint in the eye and if they have dapples, you see it.”
So, how do you know if the overcast day is bright enough?
“If you can see a slight shadow, then it is,” said Landry. “You get saturated colors but you get enough depth and sharpness.”
If the heavens refuse to align, Landry offers the following lighting tips:
“A midday light is usually overhead and the shadows are harder,” said Landry. “In the early morning, the sun isn’t as strong, same as late afternoon which has a warmer tone to it and the shadows are softer. In this light, there’s no blown out highlights or shadows under the belly and tail with no detail.
“I like early morning light. Cameras are getting better with dynamic range from highlight to shadow, but you don’t want it too contrasted.”
Shadows are a factor in most any photo shoot.
“I’ve photographed with light coming in at a 45 [degree angle] from the front of the horse where the shadow casts behind,” said Landry. “But, I’ve also had it coming slightly from the back at an angle and where the shadow casts in front.”
The classic thoroughbred stallion conformation photo is a left-sided profile with a slightly offset pose for the legs.
“I think you want to see the legs and having the legs offset it gives you the opportunity to see a nice, clean leg,” said Whitford.
Finding that correct position takes trial and error.
“The main thing is to get the horse square,” said Landry. “I like the handler to rock the horse back and forth until he’s placed the hind left leg where he’s square. You’re not going to move that one and it pivots the back end which is facing you as a photographer.”
It sounds easy enough, but Landry warns that to get the line of the body correct it takes patience.
“Most horses will place that leg facing you, but you don’t want it too far out back and you don’t want it under him,” said Landry. “You want it balanced and straight and not turned out or in. Usually, if the handler rocks him back and forth, he can get reasonably square on the left hind leg and then the front isn’t far off either. Then you just need the far side to line up. It’s important for the back end to look right.”
Landry notes that some horses will shift their weight and it requires an assistant, in addition to the handler, to secure the proper position.
“A lot of horses get their leg in the right spot, but depending how their weight is distributed their butt turns away so you lose that roundness on the back end,” said Landry. “Sometimes, you have to grab that tail and pull the butt back towards camera.
“Most horses wont overextend on the front left. Some might underextend and you can pick that leg up and move it two inches to square them up.”
With regard to leg spacing, Landry said it often comes down to preference of the client.
“Some like the horse a little closer, others a little further apart,” said Landry. “If the angle is similar in the legs going down to the ground with space in between, the right front you would want inside of that square front left, but not too far back. Some like that space to be a little less, and there’s also length. The spacing could be correct but if the horse is a little long on the hind left, it’s not squared up.”
Whitford noted that a bright, intelligent eye and a balanced neck is an important aspect of a good conformation photo.
“The eye is very important. You want them to have a nice bright eye,” said Whitford. “If they’re looking off into the distance, as long as you get the eye you’re good. The shape of the neck doesn’t want to be too low or too high, it needs a nice balance. Turning the head on an angle can give you a better balance.”
Landry said he prefers a slight turn of the head towards the camera.
“At Windfields, Bernard always liked a slight turn of the head towards camera so you can just see the ridge of the second eye,” said Landry. “It’s not a big turn. You get that beautiful glint in the eye.”
To create what Landry refers to as the ‘grand pose’ is a process that can take up to two hours under perfect conditions.
“What makes it so difficult is that it’s not a true natural position and maybe that’s why it’s so hard to do,” said Landry.
Tricks of the trade
If you’ve made it this far, often the most difficult part of the shoot is having the horse look alert with their ears forward and that all-important bright eye.
To engage the horse, Landry arrives with two different types of recorders full of animal sounds.
“It’s like a football play,” said Landry, with a laugh. “Once we’re all set, everybody has to hold still and then we try and draw the horse’s head on an angle. I’ve used elephant sounds, chicken sounds, goats, but some horses are so smart it stops working and they ignore it.”
At that point, it might not be uncommon to see a small team of lifelong horsemen trying to engage a million-dollar horse in the same manner a parent might try to amuse a newborn baby.
“Sometimes, you jingle a set of keys. I’ve had people make monkey sounds,” said Landry. “You want those ears up for that nice alert look. Once he’s set, you don’t have him for long. If it’s not working, then switch.”
Putting the horse in the right position can become something of a Goldilocks moment.
“A danger is if you make a sound he may lift his neck too high. You don’t want that head too high up or too low,” said Landry. “With a body line for a thoroughbred you want that head and neck carriage lower than what it would be for other breeds.”
If you’re having trouble getting the horse set, the handler and assistant can be of great service.
“Sometimes, [the stallion] starts to lean forward and then it looks like they’re under themselves,” said Landry. “So, the handler instead of pushing back can put downward pressure on the shank an it will straighten him right back up.”
If a horse is having trouble getting properly set, try a little light encouragement.
“I’ve seen people use a standardbred whip and bring it slowly along the ground and tickle under the ankle,” started Landry. “The horse will feel it and he’ll lift the foot and place it again.”
And, of course, sometimes a stallion can get to feeling studdish.
“If they drop…we used to take a hockey water bottle with cold water and give it a squirt to force it back in,” said Landry with a laugh. “Now, we have Photoshop.”
Ultimately, acquiring that perfectly ‘simple’ looking shot is the result of a lot of coordinating and a little bit of hard-earned luck.
“You’re shooting 10 frames a second, but it’s harder to get than an action shot,” said Landry. “You wait and wait and then let it rip before the glint goes out of his eye or his tail goes to get a fly or he moves a foot.
“Sometimes, you get three legs set and his right hind has too much space, but if you wait it out he may re-place that hoof and you have to be ready to go. I can give away lots of tips, but you still have to be ready to execute.”