Still…surrounded by horses

Standing firm in a warm bath.

The Irish Wolfhound, despite being more than a football field away, sat proud as a sentinel along the rocky, unpaved driveway leading to the Paris, Kentucky horse barn. His breath was visible in the early morning sun.

As my little Volkswagen GTI completed it’s 2 hour trek from Cincinnati, it struggled over the terrain that was more fitting to a Jeep than a sports car. Up ahead, the motionless giant of a dog was passed by a more traditional watchdog, who I’d later learn was named, “Roscoe.” Roscoe blazed along the high grass, yelping and barreling toward me. Here is a dog that possesses the fearlessness and respect of the horses that inhabit the farm.

Welcome to Southern Elite Stables, Paris, Kentucky.

I was surrounded with horses growing up.

My hometown is Louisville, Kentucky; the home of the Kentucky Derby. My Mom was raised right here in Bourbon County, and had many horses on the farm as a child. The next-door neighbors were big into harness racing. I remember being fascinated with the helmets, the goggles, and the whips in their garage, not to mention the occasional sulky — the featherweight, 2-wheeled vehicle the standardbred would pull, complete with jockey — that would show up for repair.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade

Despite all that equine culture — heck, in my first ad agency the first account I worked on was for horse feeds and vaccines — I never learned to ride. Run for the roses and twin spires be damned, the only stallions I ever mounted as a Kentuckian were the horses on the merry-go-round at the State Fair.

When I moved to New Jersey, I discovered its rich dressage and hunter-jumper culture through a friend, and began photographing the events. I must say, the English saddles and tweed jackets caused my southern DNA to giggle a bit, although I did find the pomp and circumstance of it remarkably sexy.

Yankee or rebel, there is an undeniable confidence that comes with horse people. It’s earthy, it’s pragmatic, and I like it.

Thumbtack lead makes good

A pair of young New Jersey hunter-jumper riders prepare to walk the course.

A pair of young New Jersey hunter-jumper riders prepare to walk the course.

I received a request to quote for an equestrian team portrait thanks to my Thumbtack profile. Since my online portfolio already demonstrated a number of equine event shots, I pointed the client, Karen Massey of Rockin’ Double-J Farm of Monroe, North Carolina toward them, and I was delighted to get the assignment. To my further delight, the work went beyond simply a team photo; I was able to shoot their newest budding pro rider, Cheyenne, alongside a pair of their prized mares. Additionally, I designed a centerfold ad for their team and Southern Elite that will be featured in an upcoming Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News magazine.

I’ve been privileged to visit their horses and trainers, based out of Paris, Kentucky’s Southern Elite Stables twice. The first day began on a frigid February morning, where, despite the biting cold, Cheyenne, and new trainers Travis, and Jessica, were true, hand-to-the-plow soldiers. They were gracious and patient with me — and their beautiful horses. Known for their gentle temperament, even these horses could only hold a pose for so long while a photographer experimented with lighting styles, gels, and color balances.

With the horses hitched and doin' the loops, she can do what any modern rider does: check her FaceBook

With the horses hitched and doin’ the loops, she can do what any modern rider does: check her FaceBook

My assistant and I were treated to an incredible fried chicken lunch by the stable owner. I can still smell it now, as I type. As he rattled off all the various side dishes the nearby diner was famous for in an attempt to take my order, he seemed genuinely disappointed when I turned down the corn pudding. My first bike race was coming up in March, and I was being careful about what I ate. When the styrofoam-packaged meals arrived later, I had to do a double take. Only chickens on steroids could possibly grow that big! But man, was it good. It sounds like a cliche, but I thought of my Bourbon County mom while I took sips of the sweet tea and dredged the copper-brown chicken through the gravy. Huddled around space heaters, surrounded by their numerous show ribbons, and reveling in the mashed potatoes and green beans, I knew there was no way I could finish. I had to get back to setting up the lights.

Cheyenne Kee, pausing in the midst of the hard work of being a supermodel — and trying to stay warm

Cheyenne Kee, pausing in the midst of the hard work of being a supermodel — and trying to stay warm

Their breed is one I wasn’t familiar with: Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Their gait reminded me of a very easy-going Tennessee walker, but Karen quickly corrected my perception by instructing that their Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are simply trained to enhance their normal, natural gait. Punitive training practices, called “soring,” are completely rejected by Karen and her team. “Our horses get lots of attention. We’re “high touch,” she proudly told me.

While Roscoe, skittishly approached me and my equipment before barking and kicking it into reverse, I set up for the main portrait. Meanwhile, Jessica washed one of their stallions while taking business calls like a CEO. Jessica — like the rest of the team and the horses she trains — is beautiful, confident, and carries herself in a way that says, “I’ve got stuff to do.” It was quickly apparent that she was a trainer of blue ribbon winners.

Jessica Shannon, doin' it all: warming them up, cooling them down, makin' 'em pretty

Jessica Shannon, doin’ it all: warming them up, cooling them down, makin’ ’em pretty

Rockin’ Double J is a good lookin’ team with beautiful horses and a noteworthy work ethic. As I packed up my speedlights and lenses, their old, faithful Wolfhound hobbled over, and carefully laid down near my bags. It felt like I had been accepted. I felt a connection with my past, thanks to my mom’s endless and colorful stories of Paris and her own horses. Thanks, Karen, for the opportunity to put your team and horses in the best light I could. Bring home some blues!

Cheyenne Kee, along with RDJ's Scarlett O'Hara and Maggie Mae

Cheyenne Kee, along with RDJ’s Scarlett O’Hara and Maggie Mae


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