BY JESSIE LOCHRIE
Careers in the horse world are known for long hours, low pay, and a high rate of burnout — so how do the professionals we admire manage their careers in a sustainable way? We reached out to some of our favorite people in the equine industry to find out. Today we’re chatting with Ashley Neuhof, a photographer who has built a career traveling the globe to photograph the biggest names in show jumping.
How did you get started in horses, and what led you to your particular path in the industry?
I started riding with my father before I could walk. He would put me on his Arabian horses, so I learned to sit a spook quickly! I competed in eventing for about 10 years before deciding to step away from horses and pursue a career in the film and television industry, which is what I studied at university.
I was fairly certain that I would continue in this realm for my professional career, but after graduating, I moved to New York City and began gravitating towards still photography. While working on video production projects, I studied part-time at The International Center of Photography. It was there that I learned many of the techniques I use today in my work, and I began taking my camera everywhere with me – the barn, local horse shows, concerts, weddings.
Eventually, my attendance at shows paid off and I made some connections who gave me the confidence I needed to think I could make a go of being a photographer. I launched my horse portrait business as my first foray into the world of professional photography. People really enjoyed the photographs, they caught the attention of magazines and brands, and everything began to come together. The elements of my life have complemented each other and created a business beyond what I could have imagined as a horse-crazy girl growing up in Vermont.
What was the most difficult part of starting your career?
The biggest challenge as an artist is finding a voice and a story that resonates with yourself, as well as a broader audience. What I have tried to stay true to is creating imagery that speaks to the way I see horses and people. I think there is something extra special about combining all the elements of sports photography with the subtle moments of the lifestyle and emotion that go along with it.
As with any startup, I had to pay my bills and that took some time to develop. There is a certain element of trusting the process while remaining realistic about goals and expectations. While I am a relatively outgoing individual now that I am established, I would say I was on the shy side starting out. That was a challenge, to continue making connections and forming career relationships without being a direct member of a company. As a freelancer, who you meet and how you work is entirely up to you.
Were there startup costs, and how did you manage that?
I didn’t go out and buy the latest and greatest gear when I began. I tried to shop for used gear, and I often rented lenses. I developed a strong enough equipment arsenal to do the job, then focused my spending on getting to the places I knew would be advantageous to photograph and to make connections within the industry. I attended my state university so that I could save money, and I was very lucky to have some savings when I graduated to help fund my business. My mother was also a huge supporter of my work and helped me make vendor booths and displays, which was a wonderful collaboration.
What does a typical day or week in your life look like?
A typical day for me really depends on where I’m located. When I am at the Winter Equestrian Festival, I usually arrive at the show a bit before 8am to work with my clients who are competing each day. I am lucky to have a team onsite with me now, and we deliver daily portfolios for each rider and their teams. I will usually spend 3 to 5 hours at the end of each day editing images before they are shared with my clients.
If I am at an event abroad, the schedule is usually 4 days of shooting combined with editing. I enjoy the variety and the energy that comes with traveling to the big competitions, which have their own rhythm and pace. Before the pandemic began, I was on a plane once a week on average. I like to make my own travel arrangements because it’s the little things that make a difference — always allow extra connection time for riding the bus around London’s Heathrow Airport between terminals!
Do you feel you could remain in this position for the next 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
I think I will always be involved in this work in some way. I love what I do, and as any artist will tell you, it is always about growing, learning, and adjusting to life circumstances and demand.
If you weren’t in horses, what would you do?
I would have probably found a career in the film and television realm. I would still like to explore documentaries and mixed medium projects. I think there can be a lot of crossover in creative careers, and I admire photographers who do both.
What’s the hardest part of your career? Has any aspect of your path or role in the industry surprised you?
The hardest part of my career is turning it off in order to spend time with friends and loved ones. I have really tried to carve out time where I say to myself, “Ok, I am not working these two days, these weeks, or this month,” but it is difficult. I feel fortunate to have many places that I could be on any given week, but it can be a challenge to decide how I will meet that demand without burning myself out.
I sustained a concussion at the end of the Wellington season this year, and one of the things I learned was that my health and well-being are of utmost importance. There was about a week where I really had to rely on my team to help pull me through, and they were incredible. A huge element of what I do requires me to be the face of my business, and I hadn’t given a lot of consideration to what happens if I can’t always be there.
I feel very lucky to have such an incredible group of clients and I always want to be everywhere for everyone, so that is my biggest struggle. I never want to let anyone down, and if I am not there for a big moment in their career, I feel like I missed out. It is always working to find that balance of keeping the photography special and being there as much as I can while reminding myself I am only human and they haven’t yet invented teleporting!
What advice would you give to someone starting out in your career path?
What has helped me create a sustainable career in the horse industry is all of the relationships that I have developed. I have always been very aware of how small the industry is, and developing trust amongst the community is the most important element of all.
As a photographer, I am carrying a camera into warm-up areas, places where riders are often tense. We have a great responsibility as photographers when we are allowed into the company of people who have grown to trust us, and it is not something that I take lightly. I think there is a certain sixth sense that goes along with the job, knowing when to pick the camera up and also knowing when to put the camera down.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone starting out in this industry is to develop a network of individuals whose work you admire and learn from them. When someone offers you their time and advice, remember it is the most valuable asset that they can share with you.
Know your worth and the amount of time and financial investment it takes to build a career. Never under-value yourself starting out and let your work speak for itself no matter which area of the horse world you’re looking to establish yourself within. Do great work and the right people and opportunities will find you.
You can find Ashley Neuhof Photography at https://www.ashleyneuhof.com/ or https://www.instagram.com/ashleyneuhofphotography/.