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How to Photograph Your Backyard Horse for Sale

Hollywood Royal Lady, on her 26th birthday, is pretty as a picture.

Hollywood Royal Lady, on her 26th birthday, is pretty as a picture.

Put Your Best Hoof Forward

It's tough enough for professionals to sell a horse these days. It's even tougher for the backyard horse owner. Even if they have the expertise, backyard owners often don't have the facility, the network, the clientele and the marketing perspective that professionals do. You don't have to be a professional in order to appear professional, though. A professional-looking photograph -- or, at minimum, one that shows the horse to his best advantage -- will go a long way in separating you from the thousands of other owners trying to sell horses in your area.

The photograph is absolutely critical to your online ad. Many horsemen, myself included, won't even click on ads that do not include photographs. There are so many horses out there, and there's no excuse for anyone to not be able to obtain and upload a photo these days -- so why would a buyer want to hunt you down to beg to look at your horse? The familiar, "photographs available upon request," is a pet peeve of mine. It adds another layer of work for the buyer to even have a glimpse of your horse, and adds another obstacle for the seller to hop over in getting some interest in their horse.

Even if there is a photo, if the quality is so dubious or so badly done that it flashes, "backyard beginner!" all over it, many of us won't come see your horse. Getting someone to click on your ad is only the first step of many. The second is getting someone to come look at your horse based on what the ad tells them. A good photograph can save even the worst-written ad; a bad photograph can kill interest in the very best. A photograph truly is worth 1,000 words, especially to a potential buyer; let those 1,000 words be just the first chapter in your horse-selling saga.

Useful versus Useless Photos

This isn't a primer on doing great horse photography. I'm not trying to turn anyone into the next Robert Vavra. These tips are intended for the average backyard horse owner who is trying in earnest to sell their average backyard horse. The concept I'm stressing here is "useful" versus "useless" photos.

A useful photo shows the horse in its best light but without being deceptive. It gives a true and accurate picture of the horse, showing its condition, conformation, and perhaps something about its training, personality, or skills. It's useful for the viewer in determining whether the horse deserves a second look -- or even a purchase offer. It doesn't have to be a truly great photo, nor does it have to be beautiful, artsy, or cute. In fact, some of the most beautiful, artsy, and cute horse photos are absolutely useless in marketing your horse. Certainly, a photo of a horse's dark brown eye, reflecting a green pasture, framed by wildflowers caught in its forelock, is a beautiful artsy photo. It's also useless for the purpose of giving a true picture of your horse to a potential buyer.

A useless photo is one that does not inform the viewer in some way. It may skew the horse's conformation, or hide it somehow; it may show the horse standing so awkwardly that it looks emaciated, deformed, or clumsy. It doesn't reveal anything at all except that there's a 1,200 blob of hide on the rough shape of a horse. Let's aim to provide something useful in helping the buyer to make a decision -- and let's help them make the decision to come see your horse!

Make Your Horse Dazzle!

Wash Your Horse. Really!

Trust me: it's not that a good horseman can't see beyond dust, shedding hair, and green manure spots. It's that they shouldn't have to. If you think so little of your horse that you don't want to groom him before you take the photo, don't expect buyers to think much of him, either. Take the time. Wash your horse. Clip his bridle-path (the part of the mane behind the ears) and his muzzle. If he's not supposed to have draft-horse feathers as part of his breed standard, clip the backs of his legs. If possible, and if you know how to do so, clip his ears.

If you have ShowSheen or Weaver Sheen, or other good quality coat polishes, apply them after you've clipped your horse. Brush out his mane and tail. Want to really impress the potential buyer? Sand his hooves lightly and apply hoof polish. Clear is best unless he has solid black legs; and if he has those partial-white hooves, do NOT apply black in some places and clear in others. That's the equine equivalent of mixing plaids and paisleys.

Don't put oil in your horse's ears. That's a common rookie error, and it will not only attract dust, hair, and dirt, but it will piss your horse off and it will make him constantly shake his head. If you want that shiny, clean-ear look after you've shaved the ears, use a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol on it to remove that oily residue. That's all. No oil. Trust me.

If you have an Arabian or similar breed in which the big, prominent eye is emphasized, use a little mineral oil (baby oil in its cheaper form) around the eye. Rub a little between your hands and wipe them across the eyes and muzzle. Then, keep your horse away from things he can rub on, because that oil will attract dirt and shavings like a magnet!

If you're really committed to getting that great photo, there are a couple of other grooming tips that will make him stand out. Corn starch patted onto his white legs will make them bright and pretty. Cowboy Magic smoothed onto the crest of his mane, or controlling his forelock, will give clean lines and some gleam. Setting gel will tame the rubbed-out portion of his mane, or will keep it on the proper side if he's got that Little Rascals hairstyle.

Useful Photo

Although the angle could be better, this shows the trail horse standing politely, untied, on the trail.  The backdrop is good and the horse is shown in use, which compensates for his poor grooming.

Although the angle could be better, this shows the trail horse standing politely, untied, on the trail. The backdrop is good and the horse is shown in use, which compensates for his poor grooming.

Select an Appropriate Backdrop

Backdrop is important, and not just for the sake of a pretty picture. There are subtle clues that buyers will subconsciously notice that may determine whether or not they want to see your horse. For example, if your photograph shows clear safety issues or signs of neglect, a good buyer is not likely to come calling. If you show little or no regard for your horse's safety, they certainly can't trust that you've wormed your horse, cared for him properly, or prevented lameness-inducing accidents, can they?

As for the pretty picture end of it, this, too, is important. Don't photograph your horse with Uncle Zeke's beat-up Astrovan in the back. Don't take a picture in front of your eight-foot mound of manure. Move the garden tools. Ideally, select a backdrop that is either pretty or rustic, but not pretty rustic. If you have a hedge or a mountain view, pose your horse in front of it. If you're in a more urban location, identify a location that is as clean and un-busy as possible. The broad side of a barn is a great target -- just move all the clutter that may have accumulated in front of it! If you have a hay or straw pile, that can be a good backdrop if there's no place better. Try to use a backdrop that is of the same color theme and relatively dense -- for example, don't stand your horse against a circus of colors and shapes. It will make it very difficult to distinguish the horse's finer points from the riot of visual stimuli behind him.

Remove and avoid those background distractions! A horse posed in front of a beautiful saguaro cactus may make for a pretty photo unless the horse is placed such that it looks like he's a carousel horse with a saguaro serving as the brass pole. Don't let telephone poles sprout from your horse's head, or power lines extend out his rear. Be attentive to those issues when taking the photo -- or learn to edit the pictures well.

Don't photograph your horse in a stall. Please. This means never, ever photograph your horse in a stall. The lighting will be inferior; the horse will be standing listlessly; and the angle will be crappy because you'll be in too close or standing above the animal. Even if you just LOVE the picture of your cute little two-year-old granddaughter Kennedy poking her finger up Banjo's nose in the stall, don't use it. If you have a stall for your horse, certainly you have an outside of a stall. Take him out, even if you have to tie him up. A picture of a horse standing tied outside is far better than a horse in a stall.

Be attentive to what's going on behind the horse in your photo. Dogs pooping, horses breeding, kids with poopy diapers, someone chopping the head off a chicken -- those things will scare your potential buyer off and they may not even know why.

Zippin Cody Bertie, AQHA mare, shows off  her Quarter Horse booty.

Zippin Cody Bertie, AQHA mare, shows off her Quarter Horse booty.

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Showcase Your Horse's Breed Characteristics

Horses are bred for specific functions, and buyers are looking for horses of specific breeds. That's why breed photos are often posed very specifically. Saddlebreds are posed to highlight their long, elegant necks, their long straight legs, and the overall lines of their coupling. Arabians are posed to show their snaky arched necks, their flat toplines, and (if moving) their elevated trot. Quarter horse people such as myself like to see the powerful hip and hindquarters, the depth of the chest, and form-to-function attributes such as good legs, shoulder, and neck.

Know what is desirable in your horse's breed, and show those features to his best advantage. If you aren't certain what angle of photograph to take, do an online search for your horse's breed. You'll soon see a pattern: lots of photos of Quarter horses sliding and stopping, or taken at an oblique angle with their butts aimed somewhat toward the camera; plenty of Arabians with their noses outstretched and their necks arched like swans; and so forth. Professional horse photographers know breed traits well, and they'll take photos accordingly; learn from their example.

Useless Photo

What's good about this photo?  Nothing.  Multiple horses; heads down distracting fence rails in the foreground; poor angle.

What's good about this photo? Nothing. Multiple horses; heads down distracting fence rails in the foreground; poor angle.

Pose Your Horse

Make your life easy: ask the help of a friend or family member. Tying the horse up and expecting to get a good shot is a crapshoot. It's so much easier to have an assistant hold the horse. Coach them in how to stand him properly. If you're not standing him up according to specific breed standards, have your friend stand him so that his front feet are aligned (don't let him have one foot in front of the other) and his head is forward. Ask them to encourage the horse to put his ears forward, too -- they might be able to hold something of interest in front of him. A treat, a handkerchief, a plastic bottle that makes a crinkly noise are all possibilities. Obviously, if they're not experienced with horses, don't put them in a position where they're going to get hurt. Make sure your friend is wearing appropriate clothing (more on that elsewhere).

If you are a deranged loner who absolutely cannot find someone to hold your horse (no offense to deranged loners intended), you may have to tie him or turn him loose and take your chances. Again, try to get photos of him standing as cited. Sometimes, tossing something like a water bottle filled with rocks into the bushes in front of him may get him to look alert, ears forward -- but you'll have to be quick on the trigger when shooting the photo.

Don't Show Undesirable Habits

This should seem obvious. It's not. A casual search on Craigslist on any given day will yield photos of horses doing all sorts of naughty-horse things. Why do people show these pictures? Because they don't know any better, which means that their horse doesn't know any better, either. It may be a spoiled horse or one with a serious vice. Either way it yells, "No!" to the buyer.

I'm not saying to be dishonest with the buyer -- no, anything but! -- but don't let it be the photo you use to promote your horse. Tell the buyer about those bad habits at the appropriate time; don't make it the first thing they learn about your horse when they click on your ad. Here are some bad habits (or behaviors that look like bad habits) that shouldn't be shown in your photos.

  • Bucking under saddle
  • Nipping at a person in the photo
  • Pinned ears
  • Chewing on a lead rope or tack
  • Setting back when tied
  • Kicking at anything or anyone in the photo
  • Cribbing or wearing a cribbing collar
  • Rearing up under saddle or within close proximity of a handler (unless you're selling a trained trick horse)
  • Clearly showing poor training under saddle, such as holding head up in the air and resisting the bit, etc.
  • Signs of resistance under saddle, such as tail swishing or leaning into the bit
  • Showing aggression to other horses, dogs, or humans

Useless: Poor Angle, Pose, and Grooming

Here's a poor example. It shows the horse full-frontal and from above.  You can tell nothing useful about the horse from this angle.  In addition, her face is dirty -- and the dumpster in the background is distracting.

Here's a poor example. It shows the horse full-frontal and from above. You can tell nothing useful about the horse from this angle. In addition, her face is dirty -- and the dumpster in the background is distracting.

Compose Your Photo.

Take a few minutes and figure out the right composition for your photograph. This includes being close enough (but not too close); centering the horse in the picture; and paying attention to basic photography rules such as proper lighting, avoiding shadows, and so forth.

Most important when composing your photo, shoot from the proper angle! Don't stand or sit on a fence rail and shoot downward at an angle that shows your horse from above. Be as perpendicular to the horse as you can, meaning that unless you're using a zoom lens and at a distance, you may need to crouch down a bit to get the proper angle. Bad angles distort your horse.

Never shoot a photo of the horse staring at the camera. These might be appropriate for Facebook so you can show your friends how you adore little Pixiedust, but they aren't the least bit useful for selling your horse. This isn't to say that you shouldn't show the horse front-on to highlight those straight, clean legs -- I'm talking about the "why the long face" photo so many horse owners seem to love. It's not the horse's prettiest angle and it's useless in determining conformation. Even if you're taking a photo of the horse from the side, and he turns his head to the camera, he will spoil the chance to see his neck, shoulder, and profile properly. You might be tempted ... but just don't.

Remember basic photography rules. Stand with your back to the sun so the glare doesn't eliminate the view of the subject. Make sure your subject isn't hiding in the shadows. (This one is so important I stress it again under the heading of "Don't photograph your horse in the stall.") Watch for weird shadows -- standing your horse under the shade of the spreading chestnut tree might be comfy and pretty, but when you look at the photos you'll see branch-shaped shadows. Watch for your own weird shadow -- it can ruin an otherwise pretty photograph.

Here's an otherwise suitable photo ruined by the cactus sprouting from my hat.

Here's an otherwise suitable photo ruined by the cactus sprouting from my hat.

Edit Your Photos

Become familiar with your computer's photo-editing feature. You may not even know you have one, but odds are, you do. Even smart phones have an editing feature you can use before you even upload your photos. Your computer's photo edit program is likely easy, intuitive, and so worthwhile.

At minimum, here are the editing touch-ups you should do:

  • Crop! Crop the photo so your horse is front and center and not lost among scads of background. Crop out the handler if necessary; crop out the extraneous stuff.
  • Straighten! It's much easier to straighten the photo than to expect the viewer to see your downhill-sloping horse properly. The viewer shouldn't have to tilt their head like the RCA dog to do so.
  • Enhance! Most apps and programs now have a one-click enhance feature; consider enhancing and boosting the photo to add more visual appeal.
  • If you took the photo in the brightest sunlight and the colors are bleached out, and if the one-click boost doesn't work, reduce brightness.

That's it, folks. Anything else is just icing. Don't spend time using special effects, or putting pretty borders on your photo -- you're not trying to make a scrapbook, you're trying to sell a horse.

AQHA mare "Sheza Tic Nac" shows she can do something!

AQHA mare "Sheza Tic Nac" shows she can do something!

Show Your Horse Doing Something.

If you can only include one photo of your horse, make it a good quality standing photo. Your primary objective is depicting your horse's conformation and condition. Next, if you can add additional photos, show your horse in action. If your horse is trained in a specific discipline, show him doing it. If she is a pleasure horse, show her under saddle with a smiling rider. Trail horses are easy: we all love trail shots. Show your horse crossing an obstacle or covering rugged terrain. If you have a horse in which gait or movement is important, such as an Arabian, show the horse at that beautiful floating trot with the tail over the horse's back and the hocks elevated.

There are caveats, of course -- if you have a breeding stallion, trust me, no one wants to see a picture of him breeding a mare. We trust he has the hardware and the know-how. You don't need to prove it. But if you have a cow horse, we want to know that he's worked cows. Get a good shot of him cutting or sorting or roping. Action!

Don't Show Unsafe Practices

This is similar to the "don't show bad habits" rule. Here, don't show off your own unsafe practices -- it will mark you as a rookie and quality buyers are not going to want to see your horse. If I see a photo of a woman in shorts and wearing flip-flops handling a horse, I want nothing to do with it. It's not entirely rational, but that's the way it is -- the photo is telling me not only that the handler violates certain basic safety procedures, but is so oblivious that they don't mind telling the whole world about it in their photos.

Similarly, I don't want to see photos of horses made to do egregiously unsafe things. A trail photo where two horses under saddle are touching noses makes me cringe. A photo of a horse tied to a portable (not fixed) object, such as a wheelbarrow, makes me nauseous. I look at those types of photos, think, "Wow. If that's what the owner does, how can the horse possibly have good habits, or be free of past injuries?"

Certainly there are times we aren't at our best around our horses. However, those aren't the times we should capture for marketing purposes.

Inexpensive but Attractive Option

Don't Show Crappy Tack.

If you don't have high-dollar tack, that's okay; however, quality counts. Obviously, if you have a beautiful silver show halter, take advantage of it -- but if not, clean up what you have and choose the best tack for your photo. If your tack is crappy, it's best to not show it at all. I'm not inclined to go look at a horse wearing a worn-out fuzzy pink bareback pad and a faded nylon bridle with a small-ring driving bridoon. Spare me. Those types of things just scream, "Backyard!" And backyard, sadly, often screams, "Poorly trained horse that never had proper care or handling!"

Putting a battered, torn, badly maintained saddle on your horse and then photographing him can convey that your horse has been ridden in saddles that may not fit. It may fit him fine -- but the impression will still remain that he's not tacked properly. If you don't have a great saddle, show photos of him unsaddled, or doing something such as working cattle or handling a trail obstacle -- an action picture will remove the emphasis from the tack.

If you use draconian gimmicks on your horse, such as wire-wrapped nosebands or bits that are severe to the point of cruelty, what the hell. Go ahead and show them. The buyer may as well know what you're up to right away. Otherwise, leave the gimmicks off for the photo. Training aids such as running martingales, and protective equipment such as splint boots, are absolutely fine. But overall, the cleaner and simpler the tack in the photo, the better. Showing a trail horse carrying lots of gear is suitable -- because it's useful in showing the viewer that the horse is, indeed, an experienced trail horse. But what are tie-downs and cowboy cavessons going to show?

If you are photographing the horse under saddle, make sure the rider looks appropriate. With the rare exception of a kid's pony, the rider should be wearing long pants (not shorts), a nice shirt (not shirtless), and without crude writing on the shirt. You might love your t-shirt that says, "Kill 'em all and let God sort it out," but it's not going to send that warm, professional message you want your photo to send.

Miscellaneous Don't-Do List

  • Don't photograph your horse grazing.
  • Don't photograph your horse with his head down.
  • Don't photograph your horse with the fence between you and the horse.
  • Don't photograph a herd shot, where the viewer has to figure out which of the six horses in the photos is the one for sale.
  • Don't photograph your horse with his head in a bucket or feeder.
  • Don't take pictures of your horse while wet. Dang, that's annoying.

Compare: Suitable vs. Unsuitable

Below are two photos of the same horse, taken within minutes of each other. Neither one is a "great" photo. It's not meant to be. It's meant to show you the difference that just a few minutes and a couple of different techniques will do for the same horse on the same day. I did not have an assistant for the purpose of this comparison, and I am using a mare who is overdue to foal to make my point. I have deliberately made the "suitable" photo an average photo of an average horse using an average backdrop.

Unsuitable Photo of Cody

Would you want to look at this horse based on this photo?

Would you want to look at this horse based on this photo?

Suitable Photo of Cody

... or would you rather look at this horse?

... or would you rather look at this horse?

So What's Different?

In the top photo, Cody has been newly washed and is dry. At least there's something I did right. However, everything else is so wrong!

  • The backdrop is awful. It's too busy, unappealing, and looks trashy.
  • She is not positioned well.
  • The shadows are a great distraction; you can't even see her conformation properly.
  • The basketball hoop is growing out of the top of her head.
  • Although she has been washed, she hasn't been brushed or clipped.
  • She is standing downhill, which ruins the profile.

Here's what's better in the second photo:

  • In the bottom photo, Cody has had minimal clipping -- bridle path and muzzle only.
  • She has had a bath and has been brushed, including mane and tail.
  • I've put fly spray around her eyes, making the dark point slightly darker.
  • I've put a very light coat of Weaver Sheen on her neck, shoulders, mane and tail, and hip.
  • The background is better -- not beautiful, but not as busy and without as much "junk."
  • Shadows are not so bad as to detract from seeing the "true" picture.
  • She is standing with all four feet on the ground. Although they aren't aligned well in front, they're okay for a horse stood up without an assistant's help.
  • My back is to the sun, creating a better lighting situation.
  • I've edited the contrast and saturation on the photo to eliminate the "bleached" look from the sunlight.

Final Words

I'm not a professional horse photographer. I'm not trying to make you into one, either. I'm offering these suggestions from the perspective of a long-time owner and trainer, and a many-time buyer and seller of horses. I see the mistakes average folks make on a daily basis when trying to sell their horses -- and right now, with the economy as bad as it is, everyone needs every advantage they can get in doing so. Every time I look at Craigslist ads, I groan inwardly at the photos (and text, too, truth be told). I wish I could help some of these people out a bit, and it's my great hope that, through this article, I'll do so.

I wish you the best of luck in showing your horse to his best advantage to potential buyers!

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without the express permission of the author. However, links to this article may be freely shared.


justmesuzanne from Texas on May 07, 2013:

Good points! :)

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on May 07, 2013:

Thanks, Suzanne! You're right, there are many opportunistic buyers right now who aren't buying the "horse for the kids" they say they are. Sadly, in today's market, normally expensive horses are truly going for killer prices, and it's the horse who pays that price. That's one of the reasons it breaks my heart seeing nice horses marketed so badly -- if a GOOD buyer, who really is looking for a horse for their own use, won't look at the horse, that will drive the price down further and make the horse more readily available to killer buyers. That's also why it disheartens me every time I see someone selling a horse without papers (i.e., the ones who will take less for a horse if they don't have to transfer the registration). Every time a registered horse "loses" his papers through that process, it makes it more likely someone will ultimately send the horse to slaughter. Registration can save lives. It's unfair to ditch the papers out of whatever strange motivation compels people to do so.

justmesuzanne from Texas on May 07, 2013:

These are great horse photography ideas! I will say that people must be VERY, VERY careful about advertising horses for sale online or elsewhere because kill-buyers are notorious for seeking out gullible sellers and lying through their teeth to get horses at bargain prices. They then proceed to ship them off to Mexican slaughterhouses.

Before selling any horse, find out what the going price of horse meat is and price your horse well above its slaughter value. Stick to your guns on your price, no matter how much your prospective buyer gives you a sob story about lack of funds or tells you that they just love your horse and will give it a forever home if you will just lower your price.

I belong to several Facebook groups that rescue horses from kill buyers and make them available to people who will truly care for them. It is heartbreaking to see the beautiful, high quality, obviously previously loved horses that these kill-buyers snatch up to send off for slaughter.

Good photo info! Voted up and useful! :)

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 05, 2013:

Thank you so much, Bill. I'm sorry you don't have horses at present ... but if you did, those of us who so enjoy your writing probably wouldn't have as much of it to enjoy, so there's a small silver lining there! The herd is my greatest distraction ... but that's not a complaint.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 05, 2013:

Great suggestions from someone who knows what they are talking about. Sigh...I wish we had horses. I miss owning them. Sigh again! :)

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