Lights! Camera! Action! The joys of the photo shoot.

by Janet Rising

For many years I taught riding. I also used to run riding school pony weeks – five full-on days of being responsible for up to 12 youngsters and ponies. This was a nerve-shattering responsibility, and I was constantly on the lookout for danger signals and opportunities for accidents in order to nip them in the bud.

At least knowing the school ponies well gave me an advantage. By Friday evening I felt like a piece of chewed string, the relief at getting to the end of the week with all 12 youngsters still intact and smiling overwhelming. Being responsible for other people’s children is exhausting and fraught with danger. Running a pony week without acting like a paranoid matron is even more so. And this was in the 80s, when H&S was but a twinkle in litigation’s eye.

When, in my capacity of editor, I organised photo shoots for Pony magazine, the responsibility was far greater for I knew neither the children nor their ponies, and therefore of what they were or were not capable. That we were careful about what we asked of them was an understatement. Booking shoots at yards where I knew the owners or yard managers at least gave me a fighting chance.

PONY Annual 2010

Sometime after the millennium, risk assessment became a thing – like we hadn’t been doing it for years. But now it had a name. Now it seemed more a threat than a precaution. Now we examined our shoots in a new light, with new nerves.

Assessing for risk at a stable yard is no small thing. The list of what might go wrong is extensive and exhaustive, causing me to question whether imagination is a blessing or a curse. Once you start looking for trouble, opportunity for it pops up everywhere, recklessly waving two fingers in your direction, and the list of how an accident might occur during our time at the yard would be long and varied. Let us count the ways:

The child could fall/be thrown off.

She could be dragged.

The child could receive a face full of pony’s neck and mane and suffer a broken nose/concussion/facial disfigurement.

She might be slammed into the school wall/fence by her pony, breaking several bones or knocking out her teeth.

She might cannon into another pony and rider. Or they into her.

Her pony might stamp on her, driving her into the ground like a tent peg. Or tread on another pony. Or attack it. Or they it.

The child could be allergic to the soap powder in which we washed our Pony wardrobe, and have some sort of nasty reaction.

She might not like what we ask her to do, and cry.

(Insert your own ideas/experiences here – God knows there are plenty even I haven’t thought of.)

Even just being on the yard or in a field throws up dangers. For example:

The child might fall in the water trough and catch a cold – which could go to her chest. Or she might swallow some water and contract cholera. Or drown.

She could trip up in a hay net. Or hang herself.

She could be bitten by a horsefly. And suffer anaphylactic shock.

She could slip on some manure and crack her head open on the yard.

She could get bitten.

She could get kicked.

She could get bitten and kicked. And worse.

She could cut her hand open on a curry comb. And get tetanus.

She could accidentally ingest/inhale some wormer/metal polish and be very, very ill indeed.

She could enthusiastically assure us she’s perfectly at home jumping huge courses, and that she and her pony are better than good to go over a pole two inches off the ground.

Then, when her pony comes to a determined and sudden stop in front of a miniscule jump wearing a facial expression which clearly reads, ‘What the bloody hell is this? You know I don’t jump, and neither do you!’ and the rider is projected over mutinous pony’s neck to land face down in the dirt, she could burst into tears and confess she’d lied (happened more than once – novice children seem convinced Fat Patch will morph into Big Star when there’s an audience and a camera to impress).

Her mother could tell you the pony is new/borrowed/insane and won’t trot or canter for love nor money – which was no problem, because we were always happy to take pictures of her walking, or even standing still as we considered it our solemn duty to include everyone if we could, if only to save our hearing.

The first thing we did whenever we went to a yard was to sternly impress upon our would-be models that nobody, but NOBODY, needed to do anything they didn’t want to, and that they were to make sure they did only that which they and their ponies were used to, and had done plenty of times before. We would, we assured them, get pictures of everyone – they didn’t have to impress us.

PONY, November 2014

Somehow, however, this seemed to get lost in translation. Everyone wanted to shine – even if they had never before attempted whatever it might be that they wanted to shine at.

Even the cover shots weren’t as easy as you might suppose. One pony head next to a smiling human head, that was all we needed. Piece of cake, you’d think. Only some ponies’ ears stayed back as though nailed there, despite the persuasion of squeaky toys. Other ponies dozed one minute, only to freak out like demented giraffes as soon as the toy was squeaked.

Keys were thrown in the air to encourage ponies to smile. People performed star jumps behind the photographer to galvanise sleepy ponies into pricking their ears. Then, when the ponies smiled the girls weren’t ready, or they had (understandably) gone dead-eyed from smiling too long.

Because they were facing the sun, equine eyes blinked at the wrong time, and the girls couldn’t help but squint. And we soon learned to abandon all ideas of pictures of cremellos in the sun, as they couldn’t help closing their blue eyes against the glare – which was fair enough.

Everyone was fabulously patient as our photographer snapped away. It isn’t until you go on these shoots that you realise how difficult (and exhausting) modelling must be. Oddly, the partnerships which looked the least promising often turned out to take the best photos. It’s true that the camera loves certain people – not to say ponies.

Sometimes, the tack might be a bit grubby, or the noseband too high or low. So images were doctored at the office. We even morphed the necessary forward-ears onto ponies whose best images showed ears in undesirable positions. Smiley ponies were necessary.

PONY, November 2014

And, just to prove that if something can happen, it will, at one yard, one docile pony, in a slack moment, turned its head to bite at its tummy, only to catch its teeth firmly in a stirrup. Panicking, it whirled around like a dog chasing its tail, sling-shotting into orbit the child who had been leading it as it continued to twirl. Fearing it might actually drive itself into the ground like some giant, pony screw, and taking a deep breath, I threw myself at it and managed to undo the girth, whereby everything stopped. Breaths held in fear were let out, and the pony stood dozing again as though nothing had happened.

Risk assess that!

On almost every shoot there would be a – not unreasonable – request from a parent holding the hand of a small child. Did we think Tammy’s little sister could be included?

Tammy’s little sister had obviously kicked up rough about big sis being in a magazine, and was demanding a piece of the action.

‘Of course!’ I would cry, my face set into what I hoped came across as friendly and encouraging, my voice peppered with exclamation marks. ‘No problem! Maybe she could help us with a feature about, oh I dunno, trotting…?’

‘Ah, well, she doesn’t actually ride, see.’

‘Ooookaaay. Well, perhaps she could groom a pony for us? We could certainly work up a feature about that!’

‘Er, probably…’ (apologetic smile) ‘…only she’s really more into ballet.’

‘Ah, I was wondering. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind just slipping this nice jacket on over that lovely pink tu-tu… and, um, lose the tiara? No, please don’t worry, I’m sure my designer will be able to PhotoShop out the glitter on her cheeks. Super! Well now, how about she tries those grooming shots for us?’

‘Well, I should explain that she’s actually quite scared of ponies…’

‘Ah. Is that why she’s using a broom at arms’ length instead of a dandy brush? Now, now come on, no need for tears! How about you fill up a water bucket for us? We always need stable management shots!’

‘Would you like to do that darling?’

‘That’s right, just stand by the bucket… no don’t look at the camera, look at the bucket… Super!’

‘Smile, darling!’

‘My fault, I should have explained – it’s probably better she doesn’t smile (it’s not a wedding and we’re not cooking with Nigella). No, no, look at the bucket… that’s it. Not the camera. Remember, no need to smile. That’s it! No, don’t look at the camera… Look. At. The. Bucket!

It wasn’t just glitter. We’d turn up to find children bedecked in jewellery (‘Can I just ask you to slip those seven earrings out of your ear? And the nose-ring? Fantastic!’). Gel nails in primary colours (‘Have you got any gloves? No? I think we have a spare pair! Fabulous!’), the ponies sprayed like rainbows, bows in their tails, plaited manes and sparkly hooves. Thank God for PhotoShop.

One day, two of us turned up at a riding school where an excited group of riders awaited us. Where, they asked breathlessly, was the camera crew? The lights? The tripods, make up, wardrobe?

Er, well it’s just us and a camera, we explained, acutely aware of deep disappointment reverberating around the yard putting us firmly in our place. Such is showbiz.

I once organised, with the help of a great PR agency, a Pony Club shoot with a very, very famous show jumper. I mean really famous – show jumping royalty, no less. A number of high-powered Pony Club riders were to have some lessons; we would get some fab, never-to-be-repeated pictures. I booked one of our professional photographers in order to get the maximum bang for our buck and, early one morning, delighted with the fine weather, we set off in the prof-photographer’s car brimming with cameras, notebooks and glorious anticipation.

Ninety minutes from home and half-way there, the (recently serviced) prof-photographer’s car started making alarming noises as we hurtled along the motorway. We pulled over and juddered to a stop; called the breakdown cover. Got the car onto a flatbed and to the nearest garage where the mechanics sucked in their cheeks and shook their heads. We were going nowhere for at least three hours.

I dreaded making the call. Our never-to-be-repeated photo shoot was dead in the water and a great number of people’s time was going to be wasted. Imagine the excitement of the riders and their families as they anticipated the shoot. Imagine how they had prepared themselves and their ponies – laundry, grooming, cleaning tack, transport.

I felt quite sick and considered jetting off abroad but the call had to be made, despite rising hyperventilation on my part. After all, I had the easy bit – the poor PR executive had to break it to the riders, the parents and, of course, the very, very famous show jumper. My toes are curling even as I type this.

Shit happens. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when it does.

NB: None of the terrible accidents described above occurred on our photo shoots. Well, hardly any of them…


Janet Rising refused to allow the fact that she was born in the suburbs, with no hope of ever owning a pony, to prevent her from making horses her life. Her equestrian career included teaching riding at various riding schools, working for a top class donkey stud, and 20 years as an equine journalist and editor of PONY, the magazine for young riders.

She is the author of My Horsy Life, The Adventures of Super Pony, and the Pony Whisperer series. She has also written (with Carl Hester) the Valegro series.


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