First, this is a first! Having my fine art photography recognized in this way is such an honour. The subject matter, the skilled empathic people (in this case women) who work quietly in the background of the horse industry to keep the engine humming, is one near and dear to my heart. Partially because I’ve been there.
When I was interning for my national coaching certification at a hunter/jumper show barn/riding school years ago it was a hard slog, long hours and exhausting on every level. I was in my mid-thirties trying to figure out the next phase of my life, struggling with personal battles in the pursuit of a dream that was barely formulated. Good people with a passion for horses and working behind the scenes in various aspects of the equine industry have inspiring stories, too, and I want to tell them.
Second, how cool is it that Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry (see menu for YouTube link) has now been selected as a finalist for an EQUUS Film Festival WINNIE Award? I’m beyond speechless to have my work acknowledged in this way. We;ll find out Sunday evening if we’re bringing a little something special home.
Third, this is my first trip to New York City. Being a country girl now the thought of spending time in a large city for any length of time is a bit intimidating. I love the wide open spaces and the tranquility of rural life. Cities tend to overwhelm me. But I’m going to have fun and make the most of it. It’s my birthday weekend, too. I’ll be fine.
A year ago I submitted six photos for a Toronto exhibit and now they, and several more, are being acknowledged in a film festival in New York City. We never know where life is going to take us as long as we’re willing to dream.
In November 2017, I answered a call for submissions from the Urban Gallery in Toronto to participate in their “Women at Work” show lined up for the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival the following May. Since I live on a horse farm and women work tirelessly in the barn I felt it would be perfect to pay tribute by shadowing them for a day to see what moments stirred my creative spirit. My thanks to Eira Engzell, a manager and trainer at Santerre Show Stables, and Courtney Dunkeld, her able right hand at the time, for giving me permission to do so.
The truth is my photography is more intuitive than technical so I’m never quite sure what will happen. Light and shadow and colour dazzle me and it’s really about capturing their impact in a moment; the dramatic contrast created in a delicious melange of three tasty ingredients. I don’t process much, only enough to draw out what drew me in. I was pleased to see that some fine images emerged, so took a chance and submitted them to the gallery just before the deadline. As fate would have it Calvin Holbrook, Gallery Manager, and his partner Allen Shugar, the Curator, loved what they saw and told me immediately that my work was in. It was my first such exhibit and I was so excited.
That weekend (November 18 & 19) brought a lot of soul searching as I processed this wonderful news. Shakespeare (Bear), my heart horse for almost 12 years, and I spent some quality time as per my equine experiential learning training. I needed his gentle spirit to help ground and guide me. In that session his distinct message to me was, “Let go, and let be.” It didn’t register right away what it meant, but I felt it was about releasing old patterns of self-denial and embracing this new truth of acknowledgement and celebration in my life. After all, what was there not to be happy about? Bear had brought so much wisdom before and this was another one of those nuggets I could add to my treasure chest that would help move my life forward.
Two days later, and after four hours of agonizing torsion colic, my heart horse was gone. Words cannot adequately describe the devastation I felt, and yet his admonition to “Let go, and let be” seemed to take on a whole new meaning and even offer some comfort. It became my new mantra. Bless his big heart, Bear had imparted this wisdom and prepared me for his imminent departure all in five little words.
For a while it was difficult to accept Bear’s sudden death and enjoy my small creative victory, and yet somehow I knew that he had opened a way. I vowed to honour his memory by embracing this new chapter in my life and keeping vibrant everything he had been, and was, to me.
Of course, the show in May was an exciting step forward in my creative journey. To see six of my images gracing the walls of the intimate gallery in downtown Toronto, along with the photographs of three other distinguished artists, was a thrill to say the least. I received wonderful, supportive feedback and felt entirely good about the experience. When the show was over I brought all of the images home and set them up in my studio so they could continue to inspire me. That’s right, none of them sold, however it didn’t seem to matter. Somehow I knew it was important for the exhibit to remain intact for another time.
The show must go on …
Riding the wave of grief for some weeks, I began to prepare my exhibit for the show. I called it Barn Mavens. One of the images I selected (above) is the last ever taken of Bear, just four days before he died. He looked right at me and snorted as I captured the moment. He made me laugh. Oh, how he loved to ham for the camera. A warm, enduring memory.
In June I caught wind of the EQUUS Film Festival coming to the Hills of Headwaters, where I live, and through an acquaintance who had organized the event was connected to the founder of the festival, Lisa Diersen. I threw caution to the wind. Was there some way my images might find a platform through the festival? I knew nothing about anything. Putting my creative works out beyond blogs and websites was a new experience, but what the heck, my beautiful images are of no value to anyone hidden deep in my computer archive.
Lisa suggested I put together a video photo journal of my images, an emerging way for photographers to get some traction. I knew nothing (and I mean nothing!) about making video. iMovie existed on my computer, but I’d never brought it to life. Oh dear, what was I to do? Again, I threw caution to the wind and gave it a go. I had lots of images beyond the original six to play with. I consulted a friend who had some experience making video, and while I cursed and struggled I grew modestly in film making enlightenment and produced my first short, short video, complete with a soundtrack through www.bensound.com. When I was more or less happy with it, I re-named the project Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry to be more inclusive and, after spending hours figuring out how to upload it to YouTube, sent it on to Lisa. Her response was highly encouraging, and she suggested I submit it to the EQUUS Film Festival.
What? Really? After picking my jaw up off the floor, I threw caution to the wind again and got myself signed up on FilmFreeway, the online portal to film festivals everywhere. I made my submission to the category “Equestrian Photo Journal ~ English”; paid my fee and forgot all about it until I received word in October that Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry had been officially selected for EQUUS Film Festival 2018 in New York City.
And so, here we are. What happens next, I don’t know, but I’ll continue to throw caution out the door and live the moment as fully as I can. If there’s one thing Bear taught me it’s to be in the now. Let go of what no longer serves and let be that which comes in its place. There is a lesson to be learned in each experience; there’s a silver lining to every cloud. I never thought that part of mine would be seeing my fine art photography on a silver screen.
It’s been almost a year since Bear’s sudden departure. Memories are flooding back, but they don’t make me sad anymore. They make me wistful, and grateful. He was the horse that healed my heart and now I can only think of him with the joy that was our life for all those amazing years.
As the cycle of the first year comes to a close, I’ll be sharing some of my favourite images of him in the next few posts. I’ve also put together a Celebration of Life video that will be uploaded to YouTube soon and tagged to this blog. It’s all part of the closure.
Connected through heart and spirit, Bear’s last message to me was to “Let go and let be.” Two days later he was gone and 50 weeks on I am finally preparing to release his ashes and fully pour my heart into life again.
He will be forever in my heart; the heart he healed with his deep wisdom and his own incredibly loving heart.
When I was younger and bolder I used to enjoy the thrill of jumping a simple course of fences with a trusted, and trusting, equine partner.
It’s been about 15 years since a freak accident put an end to this pastime. Frankly, I don’t even care to work over ground poles anymore. Having said that, I can still remember and appreciate the precision, timing, coordination, balance, athleticism, and sheer joy of soaring over a jump. It is a unique and amazing feeling, indeed, to sit astride a horse who loves their work.
Horses, like people, are individuals with different characters, talents and enthusiasms. A skilled trainer can identify what makes a particular horse tick and create a training program that allows it to blossom in a discipline for which they demonstrate a clear talent and enjoyment. Training a horse to race when they clearly have no aptitude for it is like pressing a child to run a marathon when they’d rather throw javelin. They simply will not thrive in, or enjoy, the experience. So, like the attentive parent who thoughtfully nurtures a child’s obvious interest in, for instance, horses, a good trainer will notice when a horse demonstrates an obvious talent and enthusiasm for jumping or running and guide their development accordingly, being careful not to overwhelm mind, body and spirit in the process.
I once worked with a well-regarded trainer who, when asked a general question about horse training, always answered, “It depends on the horse.” What works for one horse, will not necessarily work for another. It depends on their history, temperament, talent. The ability to be sensitive to the needs of each individual horse is the mark of a good trainer. One-size-fits-all has no place in the training of horses.
My three-year journey with Sophi in the discipline of dressage has been slow. At the beginning we worked with a trainer who appeared to show no interest in moving us beyond first level, even though Sophi’s previous experience and training had been more advanced. Did this coach demonstrate a lack of belief in my ability to ride my dressage horse at a higher level? Yes. So, I let this coach go and enlisted another who came highly recommended and brought new eyes and understanding to our training. She immediately saw Sophi’s talent and acknowledged that with some polishing I had the skills to ride more advanced tests. Within six months Sophi and I were showing second level. This year we’ve nailed our third level movements and now we’re adding in more complex fourth level “tricks” that Sophi not only loves to do, but already does reasonably well. This is an exciting time for both us, and I’m so looking forward to watching her (and I) soar under the watchful eye of our amazing trainer.
We all need a chance to blossom and soar. Surrounding ourselves with appropriate, supportive people and being in an environment where we are encouraged to thrive and grow will give us, and our horses, the best chance to do this.
When we took possession of the farm three years ago we inherited a couple of old ducks. They’d been a fixture at the pond for many years, as I understand it, happily swimming, eating, snoozing, waddling and quacking.
Occasionally they liked to make a great escape by ducking under the fence or gate when no one was looking. Oh yes, they knew they were not supposed to leave their enclosure. I believe the white one, Huey, was the prime instigator as he was often the one in the lead as I tried to corral them back into their enclosure. I could almost hear him quacking marching orders to his accomplice as they scurried back to the pond with me in slow pursuit. Sometimes they would re-enter the way they got out and I could fill in that hole in the hopes that would be the end to their wanderings. Somehow they always found another way.
However, lately things had changed. They were escaping more often. The last time I saw it happen they squeezed between the slats at the bottom of the gate. (Shakes her head.) And, strangely, they stopped being able to find their way back in through their chosen escape route. So, lately there’s been a lot of “Keep your eyes on the ducks!” and hoping we could catch up to them before they got into trouble.
It seemed to me as I watched them one morning (they were usually waddling about early morning but lately any time of day was a concern) that they had a death wish. They were old. Perhaps, like the mother dog who instinctively smothers a sick newborn puppy, the ducks had an instinct that their time had come, for they would not be contained. If you search for death eventually it will find you. There are several packs of coyotes in the area, and raccoons and other menacing creatures. An escaped duck that cannot fly is a sitting duck.
So yesterday, while I was riding in the outdoor ring, my attention was caught by a glint of white just outside the pond. Feathers. My heart sank. I rode Sophi up to it and, sure enough, there lay Huey. Some time within the previous 18 hours he’d met his maker. As he lay there cushioned in soft down I wondered at his struggle. There was no blood. Whatever got him was not hungry. I felt angry and sad and … well, what can a person do but surrender to the process of nature?
And then I wondered about Lewey. What had happened to him? The two old boys were inseparable. They were a dynamic duck duo ~ Mutt and Jeff; Laurel and Hardy; Daffy and Donald. Had Lewey run off into the nearby woods in sheer terror? I examined the pond enclosure from where I sat and couldn’t see him. Only the three Muskovy ducks were there. Where was he?
I rode Sophi away and returned to the barn to cooled her down as it was a very hot, humid day. When I took her outside for a short hand graze I noticed on the other side of the driveway a patch of grass glinting in the sun. I knew immediately what it was. I put Sophi in the barn and went to check. Lewey lay there surrounded in a mass of green and grey Mallard feathers. Again, no blood. Just death. His location on the other side of the pond from his fallen brother. Somehow they had become separated. Divide and conquer. The predator’s play.
I walked back to the barn and grabbed the wheelbarrow and a pitch fork. As I gently scooped up each little body and its feather bed and placed them in the barrow the Muskovys watched, following me from one side of the pond to the other. They were curious and, perhaps, a little traumatized. They seemed to be talking it out as I spent a little time with them. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d witnessed the terrible event. I commiserated with them and assured them that as long as they stayed in the enclosure they would be safe. The poor things seemed quite confused.
The old boys were laid to rest at the back of the farm under a pile of manure where Mother Nature will nurture them to dust. The cycle of life.
The ducks went marching home. One way or another, it will happen to us all.
Women in the horse industry work very hard. I know because I’ve done it.
Each day is a grind of activity that wears you out and wears you down. You work in all weathers; under all conditions. For good owners, and bad. With well-mannered horses, and with demons (largely a reflection of their owners either way.) You don’t call in sick, and if you’ve broken something in the line of duty, you work around it.
You muck, you sweep, you clean tack, you feed hay (and grain), you scrub toilets, you pick the s**t out of paddocks, you groom, you ride, you de-cobweb the barn, you dust, you clean the kitchen, you do first aid. In many barns you do your best to manage uncomfortable feelings caused by the disdain of those who look down upon you while you’re doing all you can to ensure their horse(s) are happy and healthy.
You must be vigilant; resilient; detail-oriented; take initiative; be observant; empathetic (difficult for some); patient; skilled at what you do and be quick at it. You get back on the horse if you fall off. The horse always comes first.
“The Mane Tamer” on display at the Urban Gallery, May 2018, for the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival
At the end of the day you leave the barn filthy and saturated in Eau d’Equine. Exhausted and maybe even bruised or broken from an unfortunate altercation with one of your charges for which you are always to blame (always!). You stand in line at the grocery store to buy dinner, somewhat self-conscious of your malodorous presence, yet unable to motivate yourself to care too much because you don’t have the energy to go home and clean up first. Oh, and a social life outside of work? Good luck with that. Almost killed me to sing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir during concert weeks after a 10-hour day at the barn.
For most who follow this path it is a labour of love. There is no glamour and certainly no big money to be made. The best you can hope for is an environment where you and your work are appreciated; where you can find your niche and from there build your life.
When I was interning at a hunter/jumper show barn in my mid 30s I was at a crossroads in my life, trying to figure out what’s next. And for some that’s exactly what working in a barn constitutes. It’s a weigh station for figuring out the next step. Some choose to pursue the equestrian path; others give thanks the equestrian path led them somewhere else. Those who are fortunate enough to have built successful careers from the ground up in the equestrian world have slogged in barns aplenty. This does not include the (very) few who are born into money and have it all handed to them on a silver platter. Most in the business have done the grunt work, and have a few tales to tell because of it.
To celebrate the unsung heroines of the equestrian world, six equestrian-themed images from my new series Barn Mavens will be on display in May at the Urban Gallery in Toronto. The gallery is one of 200 official venues in Toronto during the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival.
The gallery theme for this exhibit is Women at Work, and in my showcase I’m pleased to feature two of the knowledgeable and hardworking horsewomen of Santerre Show Stables in Mono, Ontario.
The top images are not on show for this exhibit, but will feature in an expanded exhibit sometime in the future, or possibly even a photo book docu-tribute to women who work in the horse industry. In the meantime, it is an honour to have my work featured along with three other talented photographers at the Urban Gallery for this international event.
It was a mess of weather all over the place its seems this past weekend, and this is what we had in our neck of the woods. Unrelenting ice pellets and snow with a smack or two of freezing rain and high winds.
We were really fortunate not to have sustained any damage to trees and property. As well, the hydro stayed on throughout. Others in our area were not so lucky.
Still, we were isolated for a couple of days. Access to our highland area was almost impossible as the gravel roads were skating rinks (I’m told as I haven’t left the farm since last Wednesday.) I’m sure happy I didn’t need to go anywhere. (And we were going to remove our snow tires last week! Hahahahahahaha!!!)
We subsisted on homemade soup to use up stuff in the fridge in case the power went out. Fortunately we have a gas stove so heating up food was not going to be a problem. And it wasn’t. The beef barley soup with dumplings was de-lish!
Since no one was able to get to the farm Monday morning I helped Eira with barn chores. Mucking stalls, turnout … that sort of thing. Trudging through the heavy snow to get the horses in and out, and digging a path to the manure spreader required heavy exertion. Been a long time since I worked in such conditions, and I really enjoyed it. It’s challenging, physical labour and immensely satisfying. Not something I can do all the time, mind you. Issues with adrenal fatigue continue to dog me, so after that kind of exertion I’m pretty much useless the next day. I need recovery time. It’s my woman-of-a-certain-age challenge and I manage my life around it. Somewhat limiting, to be sure, but to do otherwise would push me back into a debilitating state I’m unwilling to re-visit any time soon. Today I can up the activity one more notch.
The horses were, for the most part, pretty cooperative. They spent all weekend inside and were happy to stretch their legs in the snow once we were finally able to give them some turnout on Monday. We’re hoping for lots of sunshine, over the next little while, to dry things up suitably so our equine friends can enjoy the spring grass when it finally arrives. Paddock management is crucial this time of year.
Now I’m looking forward to seeing things green up. The buds are on the trees; the tulips were just poking through the ground before the storm hit. Spring is awaiting its turn with baited breath.
Shakespeare, age four, comes homes … March 17, 2006
Twelve is a popular number in cycles.
The 12 months of the year.
The 12 signs of the Zodiac.
The 12-year cycle in Chinese astrology … and on.
Today marks the 12th anniversary of the day Shakespeare trotted into my life. This day does, I feel, mark the end of an important personal cycle. As I contemplate movement forward in my life I must make room and allow the past to be the past.
Shakespeare was a change agent. He was a catalyst for self-awareness and made me a better person because of it. Taught me to stand up and be counted. Taught me to open my heart. Taught me I had a voice and that I needed to use it.
He was my comic Shakespeare. My little leprechaun who even now teases my memory bringing laughter and tears and joy.
To mark the end of this 12-year cycle I have started to build a cairn in his memory at the highest point on the farm. My monument to him and his great spirit and everything he meant to me.
The ravages of time take their toll. We are weathered by the challenges we face; the people we encounter; the experiences we have, and the joys and troubles we share. For good or ill, life weathers us, and we either wear it well or we allow it to wear us down.
I know as an equestrian that while I still ride and love it, my limits are now set by the wear and tear on my body and a sense of my own mortality. Life has weathered me to a new level of self-awareness and taught me to respect my own boundaries. Just as I cannot expect an old performance horse to perform the strenuous tricks of his earlier career I, too, must cut myself some slack.
When it comes to our farm everything about it is weathered to one degree or another, and since landing here in autumn 2016, we’ve committed to sprucing it up a little at a time. Taking on a run-down 100-acre horse farm is no picnic and presents all kinds of challenges. Priorities must be set, and accepting the fact that some things are perfect in their imperfection is an important thing to bear in mind. Our schedule for improvements must not compromise the integrity of the farm’s character.
This old place has seen a lot during its 150-plus year history. To the extent that it’s possible I want to work with the local museum and archives to discover who put down roots here and how the property evolved and changed over time. Who had the vision; built the original buildings; planted the trees. We’re going to acknowledge those who pioneered here with an historic plaque and place it by the original hog barn (above), the weathered foundation of which was built with stone found on this property.
In 2017 we had a barn quilt created and installed as an initial tribute to the farm’s history. It adorns the front of the original bank barn which was modified to accommodate horses in 2000 as part of a major building project by the then owners. The pattern is called Hunter Star, and the colours we selected bear some meaning. The green represents the proliferation of trees on the farm. The blue is for the headwaters of several rivers that have their source in these rolling hills. The plum is for a previous name of this farm (Plum Tree Farm) which we discovered while going through the basement and finding a piece of folk art of the original farm house and the barns (pictured below). And the maple leaf, of course, is to commemorate Canada’s 150 years of confederation. For point of reference our farm, homesteaded some time in the 1840s, is older than Canada.
Of course, there are lessons to be learned on a more personal level as well. One of my greatest challenges is accepting that I, too, am perfect in my imperfection. Time and its ravages have indeed weathered me, but they’ve also helped me to identify my priorities. Good health. Good works. Healthy relationships. Experiencing and sharing joy. And creating and maintaining an environment here on the farm where horses and people can thrive on every level.
Some days I feel more weathered than others. Bear’s passing was a harsh excuse for the building of character. Still, even as I rebuild and repair from that unexpected blow I remind myself that I want to thrive on the other side of life’s storms, not end up a broken relic. Resilience is its own reward.
It’s been just over two months since Shakespeare departed and the Wednesday wave of grief continues to roll through. Each week its impact is less, still, I choose to be gentle with myself on this day when the waters are stirred once more.
Today my thoughts begin to turn away from loss to what may be found from its experience. The silver lining, I suppose.
Bear was a huge part of my life for a long time, and for the past two and a half years our journey was shared by a beautiful Hanoverian mare, Sophia Loren (Sophi). Now she is the full focus of my attention so, in the spirit of getting on with life, I would like to tell you about her.
This little mare is as larger-than-life as one might expect from one bearing the same name as a cinema icon. I didn’t name her. Like Shakespeare, she arrived in my life offering a challenge. Shakespeare, named for one of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, helped me to find my heart, and my voice, as a creative writer; Sophia Loren, named for one of the brightest shining stars in the firmament of Hollywood, is helping me to shine. I’m not going to get into all the complex ways this is meaningful to me. I believe, however, that my experience with these two horses rather underscores the idea that the Universe will send you what you need, when you need it. You just need to be open to recognizing and receiving it when it lands on your doorstep.
Sophi and I struggled, in the beginning. Not that we weren’t well suited. Not at all! Like Bear, she was only the fourth horse I looked at and we fit like a glove. No, our struggles came through outside influences. Finding our groove in that first year proved difficult as our coach, it seemed to me and for whatever reason, chose to dumb everything down. Sophi was training Third Level dressage when she passaged into my life, and our coach was keeping me stuck at First Level, a place from which I was determined to rise.
That coach and I parted company after a year for a variety of reasons. Four months later I was introduced to Nancy. A brilliant, accomplished coach whose only agenda was to help Sophi and I realize our potential. Within a couple of lessons she had us training Second Level movements. Six months later we were preparing for our first dressage show ~ my first time in the ring in 10 years! In such a short period, Sophi and I had risen together through the watchful eye and skillful teaching of a coach who truly cared and wanted us to succeed. No quick fixes. Everything I had learned over decades of training had been held within waiting for the right person to draw it out. It was a matter of trust.
Shoulder-in … Image: Victoria Sambleson
In July and August of last year Sophi and I participated in our first shows together. Three tests over three days at each show. I learned all the Second Level tests by memory and Sophi was an absolute star. Sure, I was nervous, and adrenal fatigue was a concern as always, but feeling Sophi’s confidence, and the encouragement and support of those around me helped to override that. Our scores improved from test to test and we ribboned in the top four in all six classes.
We had so much fun. I’m so grateful to all my friends who encouraged me to take that uncertain leap, and to my coach for showing me it was possible. I’m grateful for Victoria who groomed for me at the show, and JF who transported Sophi in the horse box, his journeyman show confidence underpinning the whole adventure (“Go get ’em, tiger!”) For Eira who did such a lovely job braiding Sophi’s mane; and Courtney for doing such a beautiful body clip on her. Sophi looked immaculate and so proud of herself. And, naturally, I’m so grateful to Nancy for working with what she saw in me, not with what someone told her to see.
Extension … Image: Victoria Sambleson
Sophi thrives in the show ring and this gives me confidence, and as we share in each other’s confidence we thrive together.
Now we’re training Third Level, starting to introduce all the fancy moves that Sophi already knows (lead changes, passage, etc.) and loves to pre-empt. (“Oh, I know what you want…” and gives it to me before I even ask.) She’s a very smart mare.
We’re planning to show next summer. We’re planning to shine.