Driving along the foreshore, I was looking for sea stars and whelk shells as the tide was receding. The last thing I expected to find was horses out on the beach this mid day. Yet here were our original beach bums just hanging out down by the water.
It often confuses people when they see horses laying down like this, and folks are always asking whether or not the horses are sick or injured. Its a pretty well accepted myth that horses can not or do not lay down on the job. The fact of the matter though, is that they actually have to! The sleeping habits of a horse is actually pretty neat. When horses sleep standing up they can only enter into the lightest stages of REM sleep. Now horses do sleep standing up about 80% of the time. But if they can never reach a deep sleep in this state, than that means they must lay down to sleep at least 20% of the time in order to fully recharge their batteries. As a side note, think about this in terms of whales? How do they sleep if breathing is not an automatic response for them and they have to continuously work to keep themselves at the surface of the ocean? Answer: they sleep with on side of their brain at a time!
Going back to the concept of horses sleeping standing up, have you ever considered just how they are able to do this? As an experiment, pop a few Tylenol PMs and fall asleep standing up. I have a feeling you know what will happen in that you will fall flat on your face. So why don’t horses legs just go limp underneath them while they are sleeping? These animals are able to sleep in the standing position due to what is called a locking patella. Your patella is basically your knee cap. On a horse, the leg bone above the patella has notch missing from it that allows the horse to actually slip the patella into a locked position inside of what is basically their femur. By locking their patella into this notch, the horse effectively locks the skeletal structure of this legs in place and can then rest assured that he will not fall down while sleeping.
Now in terms of photography, I should disclaimer that I was photographing at mid day here – thus breaking a cardinal rule of nature photography. However, as you can see despite mid day overhead sun, the image worked out perfectly. For starters, this is a black stallion on light colored sand. Naturally this makes for a contrasty nightmare. The unique thing about sand however is that like snow, it is reflective and can therefore help to illuminate your subject matter. Before I ever even pulled my gear out of the back of my truck, I knew right off the bat that this was going to be a black and white conversion which would allow me to actually capitalize on the high contrast of the scene and use it to my advantage.
Upon setting up my gear, I metered directly off of the horse and exposed for the black tones of his coat. As for the the sand, I let it fall where it may as its brightness would only help to isolate my subject and allow the image to pop from the contrast. I should stress though once again, that this was made possible by the reflectivity of the sand around the stallion. It was like an army of assistants with giant reflectors bouncing light back up onto the horse for me. Not photographing during the harsh mid day sun is a good rule of thumb, but rules are meant to be broken. Its just you have to understand why the rules work they way they do so that when the opportunity presents itself, you can break them successfully.