Tag Archives: mustang

Swimming Horses

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Along the coast of North Carolina, there is a population of wild horses thought to be the oldest in North America. It was here where Western Civilization first crashed into mainland North America, and these horses are thought to be the result of these very first attempts and exploration and colonization.

This breed is known officially as the Banker horse, and unlike those wild herds of the west, the two populations of these mustangs are federally protected due to their historical significance.

For the last 400 years, these horses have adapted to a world of sand and salt, of hurricanes and nor’easters. Surviving on salt marsh grass such as spartina, and digging their own wells in the by pawing down to through the sand in low areas known as swales, these horses have survived countless calamities – including the shipwrecks for which some the original stock of horses are believed to have washed ashore form.

On one particular island, many of the individuals swim out along the edge of an inlet, through a bull shark nursery, fighting tidal rips, and risking drowning, to access tiny marsh islets where they will feed until the tide begins to drop again and they swim with the current back to their island home.

I created this image from my skiff – a flat bottom boat specifically designed for running in and navigating the treacherous shoal water around these islands. I have spent countless hours on these islands photographing the horses that eke out a living there. And this is a particular shot that I have spent several years trying to capture.

Part of the problem in the past, was that I was attempting to photograph these horses while they were actually swimming. Seeing a herd of these animals sweep past you with the current is an incredible experience, but it is definitely one that is best captured with video not still photography. What it finally took, was realizing that, from a still photography perspective, capturing the horses just before they officially kicked free of Terra firma was the moment that made the photograph.

Let the horses swim and you have a distinctly awkward horse head that looked like a furry alligator’s head sticking above the water. I still have ideas floating around in my brain for a shot that will work with the actual swimming, but I will need an underwater housing and a 9 inch dome port to make that happen.

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Horses in the Snow

Believe it or not, it does in fact actually snow here on the Outer Banks. Now, this doesn’t happen very often, maybe once a year, but snow we get none the less. Well this weekend weather systems lined up just right to dump about 5 inches of the powdery white stuff across our barrier islands. The further north you went on the island the deeper the snow was of course, and so I headed straight for Carova to photograph the horses.

My original idea was to photograph the horses in falling snow. This is something I have done with other large mammals – bison, elk, deer – with great results, but had not yet captured what I was looking for in this regard with the horses. I wasn’t the only one who was drooling over the idea either. As the storm began to line up and it became obvious that we were going to get snow, my phone started ringing. Richard Bernabe and Jerry Greer were doing a workshop on the Outer Banks this weekend and wanted me to take them and their group up to see the horses as well. Unfortunately we weren’t able to work this out do to vehicle issues.

At the same time, I also had Doug Gardner on the phone Friday looking to turn around and come all the way back to the beach just for some horses in the snow. Now this guy had just spent the last 2 weeks away from his wife and kids shooting and leading workshops out here and had returned home just the night before. Wouldn’t you know it, the very next day he’s down in South Carolina sweet talking his wife to try and convince her to let him come right back. He had a birthday while he was up here and so his family and friends were to throw him a party that night. Well despite all of this, Doug left just as soon as the party was over. How he convinced he wife to let him do this, I have no idea. I think he should give workshops on that!

Leaving out at around 8:30 he was due in to my house around 2 am. Well as the snow continued to fall and conditions in North Carolina deteriorated as the night drew on, 2 am turned into 5 am as he pushed on through a virtual blizzard. Talk about dedicated! Despite waking me up at 3 am, 4 am, and then finally 5 am I was feeling generous and let him crash on the couch for a full 2 hours before I woke him up to go shoot. Since things had fallen through with taking Richard and Jerry’s group up to photograph, I ended up with the whole day to shoot with Doug.

Shortly after finding horses however, the snow tapered off and turned to sleet and the typical Southeastern wintry mix of crap. No worries though, by then we had around 5 inches and I knew once the funk stopped falling from the sky, things had the potential of getting good. Well the mix continued all day finally turning back to snow that night – too dark to shoot of course. The following day however, gale force winds prevailed off of the ocean dropping temperatures down into the low teens and freezing the previous days snow into a hardened sheet of white across the landscape. Food was scarce now for the horses. With the powder, they could easily manage to paw down through the snow. However, with the snow iced over, their food was locked beneath. Therefore activity was practically non existent as the horses tucked up into the thickets and forest waiting out the deadly cold winds.

Not to be beaten by changing weather patters, uncooperative horses, and a failure to obtain my original goals, I simply switched tactics. When the horses tuck in, its simply time for a more intimate approach – as is the case with any large mammal. With the snow blanketing the sand dunes I also wanted to create environmental portraits as well. However, all of these photos turned out looking like they were made in Wyoming! The top one is an example of this. Funny how with a little bit of snow, groundsel bushes suddenly take on the appearance of big sagebrush.

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When Everything Comes Together

Its good when a plan comes together. Actually, its fantastic. Just the other night I was on the phone with a client who wanted photographs of wild horses for use in both print advertisement as well as his companies website. Throughout the conversation he stressed that he was specifically interested in photographs of horses in the dunes. Well, the following day we were finishing up the last day of a photography workshop and we had be photographing a band of horses grazing waste deep in a wet meadow near the sand dunes. After an hour or so of working these horses we made the decision to move on to the backside of the island and wade out into the marsh to photograph horses grazing there.

As we began to load up, I turned around and spotted yet another band of horses about a half mile away as they were beginning to make their way up the primary dunes. Knowing that the sea oats and American beach grass that grows on top of the dunes had long lost its nutritional value and therefore situations like these would not last long this time of year, I had everyone just jump into the truck as is donning neoprene waders and just holding onto their lenses and tripods.

Hurriedly making our way to the other horses, we sent waves of water into the air as we dashed through holes a couple feet deep in collected rain water. Carefully situating our selves along the southwestern side of the horses so as to optimize our light, we clamored out and began to make our way through the dune field. At first the situation was rather placid with horses grazing upon what scarce food was to be found while two young foals reared back in play with each other.

Suddenly, one of the participants spotted the stallion of the last group charging full force through the dunes. At full gallop he was kicking up a cloud of sand in his wake as his closed the gap between himself and the stallion in front of us. Knowing that this could pan out to be an epic photographic situation, and because we now had a stallion bearing down on us at 35 mph, we all charged up the side of a 20 foot dune to ready for the action.

The stallion that was grazing in front of us immediately positioned himself in between the attacking stallion and his mares and braced himself for the impact and battle royal. Within an instant the opposing stallion was upon him and they both reared back onto their hind legs. With hoofs as weapons they thrust their front legs and at each others body while attempting to sink their teeth into the others necks. Round and round they went like two evenly matched heavy weight boxers locked in battle, the dance of survival at hand, the outcome dubious at best.

At last, the defending stallion turned and began to run is girls away from the challenger who by this point was beginning to make advances to separate the harem stallion from his mares. The horses once again turned and headed straight towards us. Just when we thought they were going to come right up our sand dune the lead mare changed direction and instead pulled around the base of the sand dune. With the stallion bringing up the rear and the challenger on his heals, once again he turned to meet his pursuer. The challenger dug his hoofs into the sand to stop, not sure of what to make of this bold move.

The defending stallion defecated as a means of marking his territory, essentially drawing a line in the sand. The other stallion called his bluff however and once again charged in and reared back with teeth gnashing and hoofs flailing.

In the end, the defending challenger and his mares were driven out of the area by the other stallion. Still full of piss and vinegar however, he soon turned his attention on us. We had begun to make our way back over the the truck when he suddenly came towards us full tilt. You should have seen everyone grabbing tripods and cameras desperately trying to jump behind the truck. Fortunately he veered around us and continued at full gallop back over to his own harem of females.

One of the participants turned around and said he needed a beer and a cigarette after that! I guess that means another happy customer.

Talk about a fantastic day! I came away with some of the best fight shots Ive made, the participants were stoked, and I have one very happy client who is purchasing several of the photos for his advertisements. Just another day at the office.

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Wild Horses of the Carolina Coast workshop

 

Yesterday I led another wild horse photography workshop up on Carova Beach. As the cold front came through the night before, temperatures went from a high of 76 to a high of only 44 the following day. These sort of weather changes can be both good and bad for photographing the wild horses, as they tend to get the animals up and moving – sometimes out in the open for warmth, other times deep into the maritime forest for protection.

Typically what I find is that on a cold, but sunny day with little to no wind, the horses will move out into the sun early in the morning to warm up. This can often times bring these guys right out onto the beach where the mornings first rays begin to warm up the landscape. Often times these horses will simply be laying down right up against a dune as they soak up the warmth and minimize the heat loss from being directly in the wind.

Yesterday morning, horses were feeding in the inter-dune habitat and along the areas of overwash first thing in the morning. The wind however began to pick up throughout the day and the horses began to move into the shrub thickets. Most of the afternoon was spent cruising the backcountry looking to make closeup intimate portraits of the horses as we waiting for conditions to change and some horses to move back out into the open.

As the sun sank lower along the horizon, alas this mare and her 2-year-old filly came wandering out over the dunes and right out onto the beach. This is not a normal situation. Typically, there are no single females as competition is so great on the island between the stallions and bachelor groups of young males. However this girl often manages to stray from her stallion for a while and has learned to use the beach for means of travel.

Except for in the late Spring horses are typically absent from the beach with only the occasional appearance a couple times a week. For this reason, any horse that utilizes the beach to travel can do so in relative peace and security. On Carova, this is not common. However down on Shackleford Banks, this is a daily occurence to and from watering holes. Traversing the inland parts of the island force horses to move through other dominant harem stallion’s territories and risk potentially being injured in fights or losing females to a more powerful stallion or aggressive group of bachelors. The beach in this regards becomes a neutral territory.

Back to Carova, we find this to be true as well in terms of the neutrality of the beach. In the Spring, when millions of biting flies will drive the horses in mass out onto the beach in times of strong winds to escape their torment, you may find as many as a hundred horses out by the surfline. The more horses that gather together, the more of a dilution effect in regards to the flies. Meaning, if there are X number of flies, than being around 40 other horses will limit the number of them that will be on you. The winds keep the majority of flies off the beach, but there are those that will brave the elements as well as the black flies who only occupy the beach.

The result can often times be a giant wreathing mass of horses, brushing constantly up against one another, twisting and turning, pushing and swatting. This is when times are desperate for the horses. You might even see a couple horses lined up nose to tail so that way each others tails can help swat the flies from the others face. This is when the stallions will tend to call a truce. Tempers still flare, and fights still occur, but typically they are just outlets of nervous energy and mares do not swap hands in the process.

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Mother and Son – mustangs on the beach

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Its spring time again! Not only does this mean the sun is shining and life is returning to the barrier islands, but also the biting flies are starting to hatch and feed on our blood. Regarding the biology of wild horses on barrier islands, there are a few weeks out of the year that the horses will actually come out to the beach. If you think about it, there’s really very few reasons they would ever have to come out there. Its a virtual desert! There is no fresh water, no food, no shade, no protection, and there are trucks driving past all day long. Therefore certain extenuating environmental circumstances have to happen in order to drive these animals onto the beach front.

The number one reason that they make thier way out here, plain and simple, are the biting flies. A recent university study found that the stallions of these horses could have as many as 200 biting flies on them during the peak of fly season. Imagine now for a moment if YOU had 200 biting flies swarming and pestering you! This of course would dictate every single thought that went through your mind and would therefore obviously influence your behavioral patterns. Thus is why the horses come to the beach. When the wind is strong and the sand is blowing, the flies cannot hold themselves in the stiff breeze that blows unhindered across the beach front. Horses will come out in mass sometimes to find some sort of reprise from the torment of these biting flies.

One our our harems of horses this year has two new born foals. This is a great situation as most harems do not have foals this year and those that do, typically only have one. Realizing the winds would be howling out of the west, blowing sand across the beach and filling in the surf, I knew that this would be the day for horses and so I set out looking for this family. As luck would have it, this harem had indeed made it to the beach by afternoon.

Photographing foals can sometimes be difficult as the mother and the harem in general likes to keep them close. Thus finding idealic compositions can be a bit trying at times. When I cam across this group, I walked around to where the sun was over my shoulder and simply laid right down in the sand. I wanted to pick up the highlights of the foals new fur which always has a beautiful sheen – thus is why I shot with the sun at my back.

The reason I chose to lay down  for this shot was a matter of perspective. The mothers are quite large, and the foals quite small. I did not want the mare here to completely dominate the photograph and so I dropped to the ground in order to bring the foal into a much more dominant element in the composition. The mother still towers above her new born son, but the colt takes a much more prominant role in the composition. This allowed for the foal to come in as the main compositional element while also brining its own size relative to its mother into perspective as well.

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