An Argument for Private Horse Show Photography

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

BY SARA SHIER

I realize photography is near the bottom of the list of requirements competitors need when they are heading to a horse show. It is a luxury item, and there are thousands of options when it comes to deciding who you choose to photograph you. However, when it comes to horse shows most competitors are required to use only one—and it is whoever management chooses. 

I grew up as an all-around gymkhana and schooling show jumper rider. Like many kids, I had dreams to go to the Olympics and religiously watched Spruce Meadows every single year. I cried when Hickstead died, and fangirled seeing Beezee Madden ride in real life for the first time. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

Being competitive in the English world at any level was not in cards for me, and I quickly made the leap and found my passion for western performance horses. The never-ending joke between my clients and I is hearing my boots and spurs walking down their barn aisles. I’m the barrel racer that photographs some of the top hunter/jumper horses on the west coast. 

I went full time with my photography business in 2017. When I did, I promised myself that I would never get into horse show photography. Yet here I am 3 years later with 10 contracts a year as an Official Photographer. In addition. I’m helping lead the charge for shows to drop the exclusivity rule when it comes to photographers at A-circuit horse shows. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

In my profession, dropping exclusivity is a very taboo topic. Many competitors get extremely confused by my answers when they ask me these frequent questions: 

  • Why can’t you photograph me at this show? 
  • You don’t get paid by management when you’re the official photographer? 
  • Why does anyone care if I’m paying for someone else to photograph me?
  • But they don’t cover all the rings and I never seem to get pictures? 
  • Why is there so much drama with photographers? 
Photo © Sara Shier Photography

The answers are complicated. For a rider’s entire show career, their mom’s, uncle’s, and barn mates’ likely have equipment as good, if not better than mine, and have been able to freely photograph them. Photographers can get press passes from magazines, and vendors can get approval for their own photographers as well. This means the horse show is bustling with photographers.

But even still, a competitor isn’t allowed to request hiring their own photographer. A professional photographer willing to pay to be a vendor at the show, provide insurance, and a client list is not allowed to photograph at the show. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

It took the last two years of being an Official Photographer myself to really understand and see the never-ending issues first hand. I went through the struggles of trying to hire other photographers so we could cover all the rings, of other professionals claiming to be there for press but we’re really taking on their own clients, shooting next to the sea of kids with cameras photographing for followers on Instagram, and losing tons of sales because of either the lack of staff or photographers giving away images. I used to get extremely upset about it after the shows until I realized I was fighting a war that was so far lost. 

The ultimate problem is the times have completely changed from the old days. The photography world is trying very hard to keep it from doing just that. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I understand the importance of a horse show having an Official Photographer. The horse show needs content like any other business to market, brand, and promote their show. Owners need images of their horses, trainers need images of their riders, and not every single person out there can afford to hire a private photographer. 

But for the competitors who seek out something different, whether a more personal experience, a different style, or guaranteed coverage of their horse show… why is it not allowed? Why is there such gridlock and monopoly on one service in particular at the horse show? Are there not multiple vendors? Are there not multiple braiders? Multiple farriers? Multiple saddle companies? Why is photography such an exclusive service? 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

The most similar analogy I could think of is if you went to a wedding venue and they told you “you’re only allowed to hire this photographer.” If you didn’t like their work at all, you probably wouldn’t want to get married there anymore would you? 

I believe there is a simple way for official and private photographers to exist together. With any management company I’ve had a discussion with about private photographers, I’ve always promoted that private photographers should have to pay a vendor fee with a portion of that going to the official photographer for loss of business. They should have to provide their insurance policy, have a visible pass, and provide exactly who their clients are so the OP doesn’t waste their effort on photographing them. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

Competing in the western discipline, I understand that the service of being a private photographer is pretty unnecessary. There’s only one arena usually running, lights and high dollar insurance policies are required and you have to be inside the arena. But for the hunter/jumper shows that are continuously running multiple rings where there are multiple fence options to photograph from outside the ring, exclusivity on a horse show doesn’t add up. 

Official Photographers, even with a large staff at every ring, can’t be everywhere. They can’t be with you while you’re getting tacked up, in the warm-up ring, or following you out after you had the round of your life. These are the moments that tell the story of a competitor’s horse show experience. Management is doing a disservice of not letting other photographers capture that. 

Photo © Sara Shier Photography

Photography is an industry that preaches community over competition until it’s right on their front door. I have the utmost respect for my fellow Official Photographers. I believe there is a way for private client photographers to co-exist at a horse show, we just need to try. We are supposed to be in this business for the competitors, so why are we making it so difficult to let them choose who they want to take their pictures? 

Competitors, if hiring a private photographer of your choice is important to you, let your show management know. Your favorite photographers can ask time and time again, but I promise your say will go a lot farther than ours. 


Sara Shier, a graduate from Long Island University Brooklyn, is professional horse show and equine portrait photographer based out of Southern California. She went full-time with her business in 2017 and has since photographed hundreds of horses across the country. Sara is a barrel racer with a passion for training western performance horses and a soft spot for a big gray jumper. You can find more about Sara and her work at www.sarashierphotography.com