Tag Archives: wild horses

Swimming Horses


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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Back on the Beach

Action on the beach here picked up pretty much on cue for the horses. Late April brought the hatching of biting flies here on the island and subsequently horses out to the beach. Of course, this is also both breeding and foaling season for these horses. The culmination of these three major events in the horses lives offers the photographer some of the years best opportunities for making photographs of these creatures.

I had the pleasure of taking the stock holders of the Great American Photography Workshops out to photograph these horses the other day. We had horses on the beach, fights in the dunes between stallions, and a newborn foal. I would say that was a successful shoot!

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Wild Horse Photography Workshops

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Back in January over the course of our Wild Horses and Waterfowl workshops, Doug Gardner shot this footage. Something of a teaser for whats to come. . .

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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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