Over the last two hours the competition has been narrowed down to four teams. Months of practice and conditioning weigh on the next few minutes and the suspense, like the warm humid air heavy with dust from the arena, is thick enough to cut with a knife. A dozen teams of gentle giants wait patiently under the glaring floodlights, unable to leave until the event has finished. They stand at the rail quietly, tails swatting, harnesses softly jingling. Penance for not placing.
The drivers of the remaining teams watch their competition with steely looks of resolve, their grim determination etched upon their face. Each man knows their team’s physical limits and how far they can push them, but can they judge their heart on any given night? Can they measure their horse’s will, their desire to put everything they have into the task they’re going to be asked to do? Man and beast must strive to work together, become a team of three at that moment. For it’s not always the best driver or the strongest horses that win the contest, but the team that’s willing to transcend human and equine limits to work together for a common goal.
That Song About the Midway by Bonnie Raitt from Streetlights
I’m not sure what started my love affair with country fairs. It probably came from visiting the county fair when I was a kid, or maybe it’s just the Gypsy in me that draws me to them? I’m not even sure if I could describe what I like most about them. The colors? The sights? The sounds? The smells? I don’t know. Certainly the horse and pony pulls are a big part of the attraction, and the animals in general. But it’s more than that. It’s a feel … like that giddy, excited, Christmas morning feeling I used to get when I was a child. I still get that feeling when I’m going to a fair.
But fairs have changed dramatically since the days of my youth. There’s a considerable amount of emphasis on commercial sales of goods and byproducts now, and a lot less focus on exhibits, games and rides. The midway used to be the hub of any fair, with it’s noisy rows of brightly-lit booths packed with colorful stuffed toys and trinkets waiting to be won by young men and women who’d eagerly present their prize to their aptly impressed date. Some fairs even had race tracks for harness racing, demolition derby and a variety of other events. And you could always count on finding several rows of barns chocked full of bleating sheep, softly mooing cows, crowing roosters and clucking chickens. But many of these common fair sights are gone, replaced by a handful of miserable critters in a “petting zoo” and an abundance of booths that want to sell you everything from real estate to religion.
I miss the old-time fairs with their pulsating, vibrant midways. But that won’t keep me from going. No, I’ll still be there “with my ticket stubs and my blues.”
I haven’t, for one reason or another, been to any fairs yet this summer. I’d like to attend at least one, just so I can get a few photos of the horse or pony pulls. There’s only a few more fairs left before we move into the fall, at which point I’ll have to wait until next year for the chance to shoot a pull.
In previous blogs I’ve talked about how horse and pony pulls tap into some of my favorite childhood memories. That was one of the reasons why I made a point of getting out last summer to photograph some pulling events. But horse and pony pulls also let me practice shooting an activity I know and enjoy, and as a novice, I think it’s easier to shoot an event when you know what to expect. Sometimes the frustration comes from not knowing where the best vantage point might be or how best to capture the shot you’re hoping to get. Other times you arrive at a venue only to discover the only view you’ll have has been obstructed. Such was the case with the photo above.
In years past, this event was held in a small corner of a large country fairground. There were wooden bleachers for the audience and little else between the viewers and the action. Typically, the pulls were always on Friday and started with ponies in late afternoon and were followed by the horses, which often ran late into the night. In fact, the horse classes usually ran long after the main part of the fair had closed for the night, leaving just a handful of diehards who always stayed until the battle finally ended. I remember going to work Saturday morning with little more than a scant few hours of sleep under my belt. Good times!
Back then there wasn’t a chain link fence around the pulling pit. I guess this was before everyone became ridiculously lawsuit happy and therefore, we got to enjoy this high octane event without having to peer through the metal diamond of a fence. I’m not saying this sport doesn’t run the risk of being dangerous …. heck, just waking around a fair can be dangerous! In fact, I was at a fair once when a team of horses snapped the hitch just as they lunged into their first pull. They broke away from the driver, ran around the pit, then right out the entrance and directly back to their trailer where they stood waiting for help. Hugely scary and dangerous? Yes! But all they really needed to do to prevent this sort of thing was put a functioning gate at the entry of the arena. Duh! Sort of a no-brainer for anyone who owns a horse!
I was sorely disappointed when after a long absence, I arrived at this fairground only to discover the entire pulling pit had been fenced off with ten foot (high) chain link fencing. Huh? So much for taking pictures! Metal risers replaced the old worn wooden bleachers and I carefully scaled them hoping that the highest row might grant me a view over the top of the fence. I was able to get some pictures without the fence blocking my view, but my pictures clearly show the obstructed view on the opposite side. Some of the best photos I took were of the teams waiting at the rail, yet most of those were ruined by the encroaching fence.
Sadly, I probably won’t go back there this fall. I’ll keep searching for venues that in an effort to be safe, haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
Sept 11, 2010. 3:19 PM EST.
Canon EOS 7D
ISO: 100, 93mm, 1/1000 sec, f/2.8
Lens: Tamron 70-200mm
I’ve started to look at horses and I admit, it hasn’t been an easy transition. I can’t help thinking that it ought to be a whole lot more “fun” than it’s actually turning out to be. I’m still feeling quite raw over the loss of Tia. I mean, I can usually go through my normal, routine day without breaking into tears. Most of my thoughts about her are focused on so many happy memories. But trying to explain to a seller what I’m hoping to replace can start to get a little iffy. I can write about Tia and be pretty much OK, but talking about her seems to stop me in my tracks. And that always takes me by surprise. I’m used to talking about Tia … I’m just not used to using the past tense. I find myself having flashbacks, then my voice wavers, trails off into mumbles and (I HATE this) I start to get teary. Or my nose runs. Christ. I didn’t carry on this much or this long when my parents died. Overall, everyone I have talked to or dealt with has been very sympathetic and I know I should try to use this experience as a way to learn how to accept the empathy of strangers with grace. But gosh it feels awkward.
And touching a new prospect and then riding one? Well that brings a whole new meaning to the word weird. I keep asking my heart if I’ll know. Will I know when I see the right horse? Will I know when I touch them that they’ll be the horse I’m meant to have? Will I know it, will I feel it? Will the ground shift under my feet, will the sun break through the clouds and stream down on us? How will I know? Well, in all fairness, I didn’t know Tia was going to be my heart horse until I’d had her a few years. Yeah, it took that long for the bond to develop. So I’m probably being an idiot for even letting myself wade into that pond of mixed emotions right now.
The test ride part is hard too. First off, I can’t STAND an audience. I’m not comfortable having two or three people stand around and watch me test drive a horse I’ve only met ten or fifteen minutes prior. Sheesh. I really have to zone to get past my discomfort with that. Second, I’m so used to riding a horse that fits me like a glove. I could honestly count on both hands the number of times I’ve ridden any other horse since I got Tia 22 years ago. So that’s a big hurdle to get over. I wish I was one of those people who enjoys riding all sorts of different horses, but I’m not. I like what I like and I tend to stick with it.
And last but not least, I’m feeling some spousal weirdness. I’ll call it lack of support for now, because I honestly don’t know what signals I’m getting there. So on top of everything else, I need to do the sit down and talk thing with him. He’s not supporting my endeavors in a way that makes me feel good about my search. He’s usually not a critical person, but for some odd reason he seems to think he knows it all when it comes to what I want or need in a horse. I don’t find that amusing one bit, given that I’ve supported him through the purchase and resale of three different horses over the past ten years. Hell, I don’t even LIKE the horse he rides now, but I supported him when he decided that was what he wanted. It’s called teamwork. So yeah, the vibes I’m getting need to be addressed.
Well, time to giddy up and go do a test drive. Wish me luck!
Aug 21, 2010. 2:59 PM EST.
Canon EOS 7D
ISO 125, 135mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8
Lens: Tamron 70-200mm
Lightroom3: Brightness/contrast adj.
When I was at the Equine Affair I wandered around a bit and took a few pictures of the things going on behind the scenes. Most of the pictures I tried to take were too cluttered to be much good. Just before I happened upon this scene I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get many ‘keepers.” I was pondering this as I leaned in the doorway of one of big barns, when I noticed this young woman waiting to load a horse onto an immense, multiple horse trailer. The sun was sinking and as she circled her horse they moved in and out of the one little patch of daylight that partially lit the alley. The woman and horse both looked exhausted. I’m sure they had been up since long before dawn and the day was probably far from over. The horse was covered with a warm wool cooler, but the sparsely dressed woman shivered in the cold brisk wind. Five minutes passed, then ten as they waited their turn to load. In the last few moments before they stepped into the trailer I caught them in this fading patch of sunlight.
Nov. 11, 2010. 4:44 PM EST.
Canon EOS 7D
ISO: 400, 85mm, 1/160, f/11
Lens: Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6
Taken at the Equine Affair. There were so many beautiful horses, but so much ‘stuff’ going on in the background that it was very challenging to get a good shot of anything, especially outdoors. I’m so used to taking pictures of things where the setting is predominantly clean and uncluttered that this kind of flustered me. Every time I tried to capture a picture something moved into the frame or there was something I didn’t want in the background or foreground. For example, there were large green and blue dumpsters everywhere you looked. Obviously, a huge four-day event like this needs a lot of dumpsters, but they make a lousy backdrop for a picture. So I did my best, but I didn’t come home with nearly as many photos as I thought I might. I fired off a few more pictures of this man leading his horse, but they’ll have to wait until I figure out how to clean up the background. I found someone in my area who teaches PS5 & Lightroom. I have my first lesson on Monday and I can’t wait to get started!
It’s still pitch black out, but I’m up and at ’em early today because I’m going on a shoot for an Ed Heaton seminar. Hopefully, I’ll shoot something good and you’ll get to see it here! Meanwhile, here’s a photo I took at the Lebanon Fair. I like horse pulls, but I love pony pulls even more! Ponies have so much personality and pluck!
Someone forgot to tell the Pointer this class was for distance, not height! Great job on both, though!
Two very serious dogs: a Malinois and a Black Lab. Both were very focused on the job at hand.
The next competitor (Yellow Lab) was somewhat of a surprise. He was short legged and a bit overweight, but he put everything he had into it. Turns out, he actually did better than I thought he would! Which just goes to show, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The series of pictures I have of him are very cute, as he had a tendency to look like he was running in midair!
This Belgian Tervuren had a rather unique approach that the announcer said he uses every time. He gets fantastic distance and often wins, but he does so by traveling in an almost vertical position. This picture shows his takeoff, just before he starts to go vertical. No other competitor seemed to use that technique and I suspect that’s just the way he rolls!
This senior competitor (age 9) was “visually impaired” (cross-eyed) but he still had a blast. He required a little more support at the launch, but he jumped just fine and had fun doing it!
A younger model from the same handler! Love the ears!
No, it’s not Michelle Pfeiffer or Rutger Hauer. It’s birds of prey and the husband/wife team who handle them. Unfortunately, the woman seemed play more to the audience on the opposite side of the arena. I considered moving, but that would have me shooting directly into a very bright 2 PM sun. So I settled for what I could get from the spot I picked. Which wasn’t bad, but wasn’t exactly great either.
The husband actually seemed (IMO) to have a better rapport with the birds. Or maybe his approach was just “different”? For one, he was QUIET while the wife never shut up. (I can hear the “whoosh” of all the male heads nodding …) She was wired for sound, but her voice bounced off the surrounding trees and outbuildings and just echoed around the arena. Nobody understand a word she said. But she rambled on. I understand wanting to educate the public. Heck, I wanted to know more myself! But I found her monologue enormously distracting, then irritating as I strained to hear what she said she was going to do next. Having that information might have helped capture better pictures, but her voice was so muffled that all I could do was guess.
Yes, she looked a “tad” nutty, but her garb was actually very functional! Her bait bag looks like she’s feeding Godzilla!
At this point she stood near the center of the riding ring and her husband stood at the end. She held one bird, he held the other, then released it. They did this several times. In the picture above and below, the bird had just flown to her and landed.
I was very impressed with how beautifully these birds worked with both handlers. It’s obvious they put an enormous amount of time and energy into the care and training of them. The woman did tell the ages of each bird and although I don’t recall the specifics, I do remember her saying they ranged in age from young (a year or so old) to their mid “teens.”
A redtail hawk! I was pretty wowed by this bird which unfortunately, at this point of my learning curve, meant that I struggled between watching and paying attention to what I was shooting. I’m finding that I take much better pictures when I can “divorce” myself from what I’m shooting. If I’m trying to photograph something I’m really interested in seeing, I don’t get as many quality pictures. If I’m shooting something I’m already familiar with or not involved in the outcome, the pictures turn out much better. This makes me wonder how parents take pictures of their kids playing high contact sports?
I didn’t get as many “keeper” photos of this bird as I hoped and what I did get could have been better. Why is it that we fumble so when something we REALLY want to photograph comes along? Ug!
So regal and wise!
When they moved to the free flight part of the program, the woman warned spectators that the birds might decided to land very close, either on the fence railing or some other spot. She warned us not to move suddenly or try to touch them. I watched them fly off into nearby trees and one landed on the roof of the small announcer’s booth that I was standing next to. Each time a bird took off, I quickly lost sight of it. Again, I cursed my location. Suddenly, one of the hawks swooped over and landed right on the desk of the announcement booth! In two quick steps and I was up the stairs and into the booth, and only a few feet away from the inquisitive bird!
I apologize for the quality of these photos, but this happened so suddenly! There were several young children and adults standing in the booth when the hawk few in. I had a huge zoom lens on my camera and the camera was set for bright outdoor lighting. When I went into the booth it was very dark and the children were a bit startled. I had all I could do to find a spot to shoot through as I frantically worked to refocus my lens. This all took place in a matter of seconds, and I only managed to get a few shots. Not an ideal situation, but it was quite thrilling for me!
In the blink of an eye, she was off and back to her handler.
I have more photos of the different birds they brought, but I think that’s enough for today!
(Note: If you click on the pictures it might enlarge them. It does for me … I don’t know if it will for you!)