Hi there, show committee.

At the time of this post, many horse show circuits are winding down for the year. Although exhibitors may be getting ready to enjoy a break before the next season starts, the work hasn't ended for show committees.

Planning a horse show can be an exhausting and daunting task. That doesn't always seem to be the case from an outside perspective, but rest assured there are many cogs in the wheel of a successful horse show. As a horse show photographer that has worked at both breed shows (AQHA, APHA, PHBA), local open shows, the South Carolina State Fair, the North American Saddle Mule and Donkey Association National Championship, and hunter/jumper and eventing shows in North Carolina and South Carolina, I get to see the "other" side of horse show life on a regular basis.

Seeing a show weekend through the eyes of those who coordinate and execute it has really given me a clearer picture of just how much value what I do adds to the event. Horse show photographers are an asset to any show, big or small. If you don't currently have an official photographer for your show series, read on to learn why you should consider adding one! I'll also offer some advice on choosing a horse show photographer that's the best fit for your organization.

Palomino reining horse performs sliding stop in Camden, South Carolina.

SCQHA-SC Equine Park, Camden, South Carolina

Boost visibility & credibility with a dedicated show photographer

Think about some of the large horse shows and show venues we all know and love. Places and shows like WEC, Tryon International Equestrian Center, the All American Quarter Horse Congress, and various world and regional championships. What do they all have in common? They retain phenomenal professional horse show photographers.

Having a show photographer at your event is an easy way to add a dash of prestige. Not all of us have the opportunity to show at these larger shows and venues (or we haven't yet, anyway!), but when we attend a show that has a great photographer the experience just feels a little more elevated. Plus, no more having frazzled show staff grab cell phone shots of things like hunter derby and high point check winners! You'll have professional quality photos without adding to the hefty workload of your staff.

An experienced horse show photographer knows how to capture every horse and rider in the most flattering light. When I photograph a horse show, I strive to provide images that make exhibitors feel GOOD about themselves. Even if they had a bad ride, they will view their photos in the gallery and see only the amazing moments instead. Guess what? When those riders see photos that make them feel good about themselves, they naturally feel more positive overall about your horse show. Happy exhibitors are exhibitors that will come back-and that's crucial to the success of your circuit!

A sorrel cutting horse goes head-to-head with a cow at a cutting horse show. Photography by Camden equine photographer.

Carolinas Cutting Horse Association, May 2024. Show held at SC Equine Park in Camden, South Carolina.

An easy marketing tool

What do those happy exhibitors do with the fabulous photos they've purchased from your official horse show photographer? They share them!

Web sized digitals are one of the top sellers in my horse show galleries. Riders LOVE to show off their photos on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and almost every one of those shares is a free plug for your show or venue. On top of exhibitors sharing their professional show photos, most horse show photographers like myself make numerous posts during and after a show for our own marketing efforts. I tag the club/show circuit and venue in these posts, which are then shared across social media by those who attended.

As an added bonus, horse show photographers that also have ties to equine media submit candids and purchased images to publications like The Equine Chronicle to be shared on social media and/or in print. I've found that exhibitors at my breed shows are SO excited to see themselves featured by publications like the Chronicle, and these posts also show equestrians across the country how great your show is. It's an easy way to get your club or circuit in front of the eyes of a broader audience and hopefully entice some new faces to join in the fun at future shows.

Another way I personally help the clubs and circuits that I serve as the official photographer for market themselves is by offering free images to be used for promotional pieces and websites. The monetary value of these images is often quite high, but I feel it's a small way to give back to those who support me throughout the year. Many other professional horse show photographers have similar agreements with those they work for. Side note-I also serve as a sponsor in some capacity at most shows I photograph. None of the clubs or shows I work for require me to do so, but again, I like to support my exhibitors.

Palmetto Paint Horse Club-SC Equine Park, Camden, SC

Palmetto Paint Horse Club

Carolina Paint Horse Club- 5K Arena, Bladenboro, North Carolina

Finding your "right fit" horse show photographer

Having an official photographer at your show has benefits you'd never even thought of, right? If I've convinced you to hire a photographer for your event, let's talk about some things to look for when choosing one.

  • First and foremost, ensure that the individual's business is properly insured. In a perfect world this is something that will never need to be utilized, but we all know that anything can happen when working with horses. I, along with many other professional horse show photographers, carry $2 million in coverage as a reference point.
  • To piggyback on this, feel out your prospective photographer to make absolutely certain that safety is a priority for them when shooting. A good horse show photographer is savvy enough to recognize when a horse seems particularly "up" or looky and will adjust how he/she shoots accordingly. Professionals also understand the importance of positioning themselves and their equipment in a way that minimizes the risk of spooking a horse. A special note-make clear ahead of time what your stance is on using artificial lighting if your breed is one that generally does so, such as barrel racing, cutting, or breed shows.
  • Look for a photographer that has a solid understanding of your event's breed/discipline. Take a look at their portfolio. Do their images seem to be in line with industry standard (barring creative shots of course)? This knowledge also adds an extra layer to the safety piece. For example, a photographer that has shot cow horses exclusively thus far may not understand how particular riders or trainers in the hunter ring can be about distractions or potential spook hazards.
  • Don't be afraid to go into some aspects of hiring a horse show photographer like a job interview. This individual and their employees will be representing your club or event. Do they maintain professionalism in how they present themselves, both in terms of appearance and behavior? Does it appear that they will treat your staff and exhibitors with respect?
  • Be understanding if a photographer doesn't feel that they are a good fit for your event. The reality of the matter is, often exhibitors at smaller shows can't (or won't) pay the prices that a top horse show photographer charges. That's not to say these photographers don't shoot smaller events-they can, and they sometimes do for causes that are near to their heart. Understand, however, that a horse show photographer in high demand may not be willing to give up what may otherwise be a precious weekend off to shoot an event that isn't likely to be profitable. A newer photographer, or one with a lower price point, may be a better choice in these cases. Keep in mind that new or lower-priced does not always mean untalented!
  • Outline your expectations from the first point of contact. Do you expect the photographer to provide backdrop photos, do you ask that they pay a vendor fee, etc. Likewise, ask if they have any requests as well. Will they expect you to pay for lodging and meals during the show day? Do they ask that an exclusivity contract be enforced? Is there any sort of charge for the event, or do they work on image sales alone? Find out as much of this information as possible when speaking with a prospective horse show photographer to determine if they are the right fit for your budget and show "culture."
  • Understand that event size plays a large part in how much/what type of coverage a photographer can afford to provide from a business standpoint. Hiring multiple photographers, employing separate staff to man a backdrop setup, and putting staff in place to run a full-service booth at the event are all very costly; and the expense doesn't stop at just the staff's day rates. To be quite frank, it's nearly impossible for a photographer to turn any sort of profit off of the average weekend show while employing a full staff. Know that most photographers are trying their best to keep costs low (and not incur further expense for the club/show itself), so sometimes it's necessary to scale operations to match event size. Although we love what we do, nobody in the horse show business is doing so with the intention of operating in the red-and photographers shouldn't be expected to do so either. This is especially important for photographers who shoot "on spec," which means that their income is based on their sales alone rather than charging the event or club a fee to be there.

Enjoy the benefits of having an official horse show photographer!

Hopefully this helped provide some insight on adding a horse show photographer to your event roster. Look for a future post on how to maximize the relationship with said photographer once you've found the right fit!

Jessica O'Connor, of Jessica O'Connor Equine Imagery, is the official horse show photographer of the Palmetto Paint Horse Club, Carolina Paint Horse Club, South Carolina Quarter Horse Association, North American Saddle Mule and Donkey Assocation National Championship, North Carolina Quarter Horse Association Tar Heel Summer and Fall Classics, and Carolinas Cutting Horse Association. She has also worked for the in-house photography team at Tryon International Equestrian Center and shot for Liz Crawley Photography, Tyler Graham Photography, and Christine Quinn Photography. Visit her website here to learn more or to book her for your show!