It was spring in San Juan Capistrano, and cold, and we had left very early and in the dark to get to the show. When we pulled in to start our day, I saw a half dozen horses and riders in the warm up ring, all breathing steam like dragons as the sun crested the trees. I’d barely put the car in “park” before leaping out, grabbing a camera and dashing to the side of the ring. As Tobi Coate and Zorren transitioned to a walk break, the steam rose up from his body and enveloped them. Thank you, Tobi, for being a great model, and for being in the right place at the right time!
“Finding the Light” photo of Anna Buffini and Wilton II
I am delighted and honored that one of my favorite photos is one of 3 finalists for the Silver Camera, presented every year at CHIO Aachen.
Aachen is probably the biggest, coolest, best-run show on the planet. Between opening day and Sunday, it will run world class dressage, show jumping, combined driving, three day eventing and vaulting … more or less concurrently. Last year it drew over 360,000 spectators.
The Silver Camera is open only to press photographers who have been accredited for international events, so to say there is a bit of competition for this prize is probably the understatement of the year. Tune in after July 20 to find out who won!
In between photographing dressage and painting commissioned portraits, I’ve been working on a series of still life painting of bright, colorful horse show ribbons and shiny horsey things like bits and trophies. These paintings are all larger than life, hyper-realistic tromp l’oeil. This particular one is of lux ribbons won at a National Championship, complete with swanky fringe….. I placed them on polka dotted fabric just for fun! Scroll through the photos to see the intricate details.
Oil on canvas, 30″ x 30″
The buildings of Hof í Vatnsdal are neat and red and white, bright against the rich green fields. These lowlands on the north have long history of settlement and agriculture that traces back to the Vikings, and this has been a working farm since 895 AD. As we walk toward the river, we can feel the springiness of the good ancient ground here. This is a friendly place for horses.
Aline and her daughters appear on the road, each riding one horse and ponying another. They are good riders, and put on a display of their excellent horses’ specialized gaits. Icelandic horses have a walk, trot and canter plus two breed specific gaits, the tölt, which is a four-beat running walk, and the flying pace, for when you really need to cover ground. Once they have done all the figures we ask of them, they announce that they are going to ride through the river. The valley is flat, and the water runs over smooth river rock, but it comes directly from a glacier and it runs swiftly, so it has to be exceedingly cold. But in they go, with huge smiles on both horses and humans, and gallop full tilt through the shoulder deep water. These horses, I muse, are made of stern stuff that our sport horses have forgotten.
As is their dog. He’s a small, nearly white sheep dog, perhaps 20 inches high at the shoulder, and he too leaps into the water to join the party. He meet up with them all on the small island that splits the stream, and then jumps back into the swift moving water, well upstream of us, and we are a bit taken aback as the current rushes him toward, and then past us. But he’s obviously done this many times, his eyes fixed on a particular flat spot on the bank, where he bounds out, shakes himself off, smiles, and continues to follow his horses.
And then the riders dismount and proceed to unbridle one of the stallions that they had been leading, and let him go. They’ve set this shot up for us: they know that he’ll trot through the water and gallop on home, and give us a photographic treat on the way. We are impressed at how calmly he does this.
The next stop is a waterfall, a brook cascading over 40 feet of sheer rock face to a still pool before continuing down a rocky stream bed. Our riders head up the stream, picking their way between boulders, and plunge into the saddle-deep pool without hesitation. Riders are laughing, horses are smiling: they are in their element, doing what they are bred to do.
Off they go, tolting up the 45 degree slope as if it’s a gentle hill, to the top of the falls, where they pose as a group, people, horses and dog, rocks towering above them and shearing off below them, water roaring about them, in the center of their incredible world.
For more photos and to order prints, follow this link.
A mare can stand perfectly still and make you hear the words: Thou shalt not come closer.
It was our last location of the day, and there were several dozen mares in the pasture beside the lake. All the others were grazing and tolerating the buoyant shenanigans of foals. But a solitary mare stood off by herself at the edge of the field. We skirted her, our eyes downcast to avoid being confrontational or threatening. And when we were in a position to see why she stood so, we saw that there was a foal lying in the deep grass at her feet. It was very still, and we wondered if everything was okay with it. We waited, glancing at her sideways. And then slowly, luxuriously, with the naive trust of a foal born in a place with no predators, the baby awakened, lifted its head and stretched, then got to its feet and tottered off on new legs with its now relaxed mother.
We sat on grassy tussocks. We could have stayed there all afternoon, sheer cliffs to our left, snow covered mountains to our right, a fjord stretching off into the distance, mares and foals wandering congenially among us. But then they decided that there was either tastier grass elsewhere, or they’d grown weary of our presence, and they took their long-maned, multicolored selves down the road beyond the knoll at our backs and out of our view.
We were off to see another herd, this time youngsters, equine teenagers, actually, between 2 and 4 years old, barely touched by humans, brash and more outspoken than their elders, curious about us like children. They wanted to inspect our cameras and look in our pockets. Often we had to shoo them away to keep their exuberance and horse-to-horse conversations at an appropriate distance from us and our cameras. The ground here was all tussocks, little hills about 18 inches high, created where the near Arctic weather freezes and thaws the ground, over and over. It was difficult for us to walk on it ourselves, but these horses had been raised on this earth and they bounded from end to end of the field, fleet of foot and with unexpected grace.
We continued north, taking in the vast waterfall of Gullfoss, a massive torrent that could compete with Niagara Falls. We stopped at Thingvellier National Park, which encompasses the great Atlantic rift between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We strolled below the sheer stone cliff that has been forced upward a hundred feet, stared into a great dark crack in the earth where the man made path had ruptured and split. Further north, following the road as it tunneled under the Hvalfjörður Fjord – the first actual darkness that we had seen since we’d arrived. Northward, the roads becoming quieter still, and we turned north yet again off the Ring Road, past the town of Blönduós, further north, until all there was were green fields and rocks and the Greenland Sea. Even on this beautiful June day we imagined what the winters would be like on this windswept shore.
We waited for horses. We were assured that they were just over the rise, beyond the empty field. There were flocks of terns, and Eider ducks, and sandpipers, and grebes, amidst the rocks and indigo water.
And then there were horses of many colors. They came over the hill toward us, chestnuts and paints and bays and duns, mostly mares, a few with foals, picking their way over the broken lumpy ground and through streams, pausing before a textured old barn, then pushing past a rocking shoreline. As they circled us, they were in turns illuminated and outlined by the heavenly morning light, filtered through high clouds.
Somewhere to the northeast of Reykjavik, we crest a hill in the morning light and see a herd of about 70 horses in a pasture that is perhaps half a kilometer across. A dozen horses are at the fence beside the road, and of course we stop to take photos of them. The fence is wire, as are most fences in Iceland (remember there aren’t many trees) and flimsy by our horse-keeping standards, but it is fortified by a daunting ditch…. as are most fields.
We are all equestrian photographers. Between us, there is probably 100 years experience at getting horses’ attention. Several of us are well practiced in the art of whinnying. But we’ve never attempted to use these skills on Icelandic horses. What would have caused all ears to prick toward us in quarter horses, snorts and flaring nostrils and tossing heads in a group of Arabians, and abject terror in a herd of warmbloods, got a long, considered stare from the Icelandics. And then they all calmly turned and walked away.
Well! Now we were challenged. So we drove up the side road to the gate, because in our world, no horse can resist a human at a gate: humans at gates, especially those not carrying halters and lead ropes, generally mean treats. The horses were a long way away now. We could see the gang that we’d originally made contact with joining the larger herd in the far corner. They apparently had a conversation, because the entire long-maned, multicolored population of the pasture slowly began to make its way toward us. They came in a stream across the lower edge of the field, and then up the berm alongside the ditch.
The leaders addressed us calmly, assessing what we were about. Our entertainment factor was apparently not very high, and so they returned to grazing and meandering. These horses were just enough interested in us to come over and chat, but not in any way threatened by our presence. I remembered that there are no predators on Iceland, no wolves, no coyotes, no snakes … and very few dressage trainers. While they are genetically hard wired for flight like any other equine, it’s probably been a millennium since an Icelandic horse has seen anything that posed a threat to them. Except perhaps volcanic eruptions, of course. And even with our cameras we probably didn’t look as scary as that.
The lupines are in bloom. Everything, actually, seems to be a lupine at the moment, turning entire hillsides violet. It is considered an invasive species, introduced in the 1860s, but for the past 60 years has been used by the Icelandic Forestry Service for erosion control and for reclaiming soil.
An old Nordic joke: if you are lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up. Iceland was once 25 to 40% covered with forests, depending on who you talk to, and the Viking sagas describe forests “from the feet of the mountains to the seashore,” when they arrived sometime between 770 and 880 AD. They were perhaps not the best stewards of their forests, but the unforgiving climate didn’t help replace what they cut down, so within 200 years the island was just about treeless, leaving the light, fragile volcanic soil at the mercy of the wind and rain. By the time the Little Ice Age happened in the 14th Century, much of the island that wasn’t lava flow was tundra or desert.
Lupines have a propensity for returning nitrogen to the soil, so they do that recharging job well, but at this point there is worry that they will displace other native plants on the island. And they’re beautiful: that distinctive, vibrant violet/lavender/heliotrope is the perfect foil for chestnut, bay, sorrel, palomino or any other color horse. It’s a color that contrasts with the green fields of the south island, and pops out of the sere treeless hillsides further north. Photographers hunt them, drive out of their way for them, get down on their bellies in the midst of them…. They just have that effect on people. So our merry busload of photographers pointed our cameras out the windows as we whizzed by violet hills, but screeched with a delight that brought the vehicle to a halt when we saw three bored horses standing in a field of them.
To find a place where you can fit horses and lupines in the same shot? Priceless!
In one special place, the glacier Jökulsárlón runs all the way to the sea, and there it calves icebergs into a lagoon.
The icebergs are alive. They are pure white, yet intensely blue, striped by black ground lava. They melt and shift and flip and shape change their way to rejoining the wide ocean. One moment they take the form of a lion, the next they become dolphins. They jostle each other in the narrow channel like school children at 3:00. They pause on the black sand beach, as if taking in the view of their destination, clear jewels that refract the light as they transition from their solid glacial state. We pondered water molecules, frozen for thousands of years, suddenly released into liquid freedom, taking the water equivalent of an amusement park ride, down a rapids and over a cliff, whooping with joy.
There is also a feeling of loss, of something passing: these fragments of glaciers that have existed in their massive icy form for a millennium, disappearing from sight before our eyes, receding into the whole of the ocean the way flora and fauna disintegrate into dust. It seems important to walk among them and touch them as they stand on the beach, to register their current existence in pixels and memory.
The camera sees them in black and white and every shade of blue, from the softest pastel to the richest ultramarine, tinged by the shade of the light itself: cobalt and indigo at midday, teal and turquoise in the afternoon, and finally absorbing corals and golds as the sun sinks.
We stopped, briefly, for the night at the Hali Country Hotel, with a magical backdrop of ocean and sheep and birds. Briefly because we were so enamored of photographing our “ice cubes” in the endless near-Arctic evening that we didn’t get there until 10:00 pm, barely making it before the restaurant closed. Then of course none of us went to sleep because we were enthralled with downloading and cooing over our photos, and besides, it was still light out at midnight. And then it was morning, though who could tell because it had never been night, and back on the road we went, although none of us wanted to leave such a lovely spot. But other lovely spots beckoned!
All photos are available as prints. You’ll find them by clicking here.