Hope you are all keeping well, I never had myself down as a blogger but since this lockdown has started, I've found myself thinking about my business in a different way, so I thought I would share some thoughts and tricks for shooting Dressage!
Dressage for me is one of the hardest disciplines to really get correct, there are so many different movements and timings that you need to know in order to really make different levels of horses look the best that they can. Usually for a lower level tests Intro and Prelim, most of the horses and ponies that compete are learning the ropes, and getting used to being inside a dressage arena, often the style of shot that the riders are looking for is what we call the "AA" this is where the two front legs and both hind legs are making identical A frame shapes.
Walk & Trot Shots
We often get asked why we don't photograph walk within a dressage test, the main reason is because the horse does not look hugely active compared to trot or canter, the shape that the horses make during walk tends to be long and low (especially for free walk on a long rein) the front legs are always more active than the hind, compared to the movement in trot where the horse is working and active equally behind as they are in front. For Intro tests and Para tests Grade I and II this is an important part of the test, therefore we shoot the walk element of the test to ensure that competitors get the same amount of shots as the higher level tests. For the majority of Dressage tests from Prelim - Elementary and even Medium, the trot is an imperative part of the test for the judges to get a good idea of the movement of the horse, a good trot consists of a horse with a good contact in the hand, active hind legs, being responsive from the leg, and working through their back as opposed to being on the forehand. For a good Dressage shot a rider normally likes to see the "AA" as mentioned above, usually when photographing this stride a photographer will be looking at the either the offside hind or nearside front leg, personally, I watch the trot as the riders are warming up around the arena to see how the horse moves, I always shoot based on the front knee action for levels between Prelim and Elementary, for Medium and above I focus on the action of the hind leg as it's the action of the hind leg coming underneath the horse that we find is most popular with our riders, with the higher level trot there is a lot more action with the hind leg and the front leg is often elevated higher and sometimes the horses point their toes! For the advanced riders, it's still about the hind leg but also the power coming through the back and shoulders of the horse, often you will see higher level dressage riders choosing a slightly bent leg in front as opposed to a straight leg, a straight leg means that the movement is on the way down on the higher level tests.
During a dressage test, the canter elements can really boost your marks, judges look for a balanced, equal and an uphill, powerful movement. In order to get the best collected canter shot, we follow the front nearside leg whilst keeping an eye on the inside hind, as the hind leg comes through and underneath the horse, the front inside knee comes up and just before it reaches the highest point, that's when we take our shot, the ideal shot we take is almost a "P" shape made with the front two legs, with the offside leg preferably off the floor or just about to be lifted, this creates the elevation motion in the image. With an extension it's all about POWER! with that hind leg really pushing off the floor and those front legs really elevated, ideally the front inside leg would be higher than the dressage boards with the offside leg not far behind, the inside hind leg coming through and showing some serious power and elevation, the neck needs to be strong and not too high nor overbent, occasionally you can see ripples through the hind quarter - really showing off the muscle!
The Advanced Moves
When you start to adventure into the highest levels of dressage, PSG, INT I, INTII and finally into Grand Prix, the expectations of horse and rider are enormous and no space for errors, with years building up the horses stamina, understanding, flexion, balance and strength, the riders at these level really are quite outstanding. A dressage horse of these levels needs to have great elasticity throughout it's body whilst maintaining enough strength to execute the more complex moves such as; pirouettes, half pass, piaffe and passage. To photograph a half pass movement, as photographers we are looking for the hind leg to cross underneath the horse, an equal balance throughout the body of the horse and for a good rhythm to be maintained throughout the movement, there are two ways of shooting half pass, with the front legs crossing or the hind, for me personally, I like to shoot the hind quarters coming underneath the horse and if possible, for the inside hind leg to be between the two front legs, really showing off the balance and action of the movement. Pirouettes can be done in walk or canter, for the INT II and Grand Prix tests, it is mandatory to do the pirouettes in canter, the art of the pirouette is that the inside hind leg lifts and returns to the same point, acting as a pivot, whereas the outside hind leg is working in a small circle around the inside leg. The pirouette is performed in a collected canter albeit slowed down a lot, the outside foreleg crosses over the inside foreleg whilst using their hind quarters to collect and lift, judges will be looking for accuracy of the hind leg and the collection and athleticism in front. In order to get a good pirouette shot you need years of practise, something that as of yet, we are still learning, however we do know that ideally to take a good photograph, the best timing is when the outside hind is just about to touch the floor, with the horse turning towards you rather than away. And then we move onto the elusive Piaffe and Passage, two of the hardest movements to photograph as the horse moves a diagonal pair off the floor at the same time, with their knees and hocks flexed, the movement sees the leg suspended for a longer period of time compared to the trot movement. This is an incredibly hard movement for the horses to complete as they need to maintain balance and impulsion within the movement, passage is completed whilst moving, and piaffe is the same movement but the horse stays on the same spot, with hooves landing in the same spot as lifted.
If you have found this insightful or have any questions, please don't hesitate to leave a comment or email us :)