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  • The Horse Lady

Just a day with a Unicorn, nothing special.........

So what does it take to get beautiful pictures of children, and their other family members, that are worth keeping for a lifetime?

On June 11, 2017, Christina Warrysh came to the Red Gate, and we all spent a day with Shannon, photographing families from the Ottawa area. Let me preface this blog entry by saying that all of the pictures you see here were taken by Brett Stewart to illustrate the PROCESS, not the people, and so should not be taken as indicative of the quality of the finished portraits.

Our first concern, on a day like this, is for Shannon herself. Shooting periods are about twenty minutes, and in between she has access to grazing and water. Also, she always feels safer with another horse, and since Suzy was away being bred, Duke came out to join her for the day. For most of this particular day, Duke's handler was an old friend of our family. She made sure he didn't get so distracted with juicy grass that Shannon couldn't see him.

Also for Shannon's welfare, as well as the quality of the photos, Shannon has a handler - me. In every photo, I am there in the background, coaching, comforting, encouraging, rewarding, and sometimes just plain old cuddling as she carries out her duties. I am sure by the end of that day the words "look at Christina!" were etched permanently in her memory. In the photo below, look at her ears. They are turned to listen to me, to my quiet instructions, promises of carrots, and enjoying the touch of my cheek on her shoulder.

During the day, Shannon also got two long breaks in her stall with lots of hay and fresh water to rest away from the sound of little voices and the touch of strangers. Duke was also with her there, so they could compare notes!!

You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? It also takes a village to take a photograph. Throughout the day, there were a number of helpers that made it all go smoothly. One to help the photographer, two to manage the horses, one to run back and forth from the shop to the shooting site and back and one to greet the next family arriving up the driveway.

And then there are the props. Christina provides a princess's closet of little gowns, jewelry, unicorn headbands, tiaras, etc. There is also an upholstered chair that shows up for shoots. Shannon has one cream coloured halter and two horns, as well as a florist's shop of flowers to put in her mane and tail and around her horn. The white lead rope you see above took a beating that day. It's covered in mud and waiting in the shop for a long soap in Oxy Clean.

The work to prepare Shannon actually begins the previous day with a bath. We use warm water from the house and she is scrubbed with Dawn dish detergent and a scrub brush. They love the scrub brush, it feels so good on their skin. She also has her legs treated regularly with a mixture of rubbing alcohol, vinegar, Dawn and warm water. It has nothing to do with the colour of her legs, and everything to do with the condition of the skin under the feathers on her lower legs. And if we are going to wash anyway, we might as well treat, especially when the weather has been as wet as it has been in the Ottawa Valley this year.

By the day of shooting, Shannon will have rolled in the dirt to disguise her own scent, but it really is only on the surface, and a good thorough brushing removes it. During the brushing, we check her skin carefully for signs of infection or irritation. Horses can sometimes end up with open sores from repeated insect bites, so we also treat those with a soothing ointment that also protects against further bites.

With all that work done, the cosmetics begin. The pink in Shannon's mane is a spray-in product for people that washes out. The first time I used it she thought I was crazy (she regularly thinks I'm crazy) but now she barely notices. I may use a little cornstarch and sulfur to get her coat nice and white, but I am careful as it can be drying. And finally there is the mane and the flowers. These are determined by the colours for the photo-shoot, what I have available, and anything specific that has been requested. (the picture below was from a previous shoot, but you get the idea).

The final magic is the horn. Shannon, as I mentioned, has two. I made them both, and neither is perfect, but they get the job done. It's amazing how good they look, when all the time I worry that the camera will see this or that flaw.

Speaking of flaws, I should address that. In this day and age, it is an exceptionally rare photographer that does not retouch their photos electronically. That's how, when you see Christina's finished photos, I am not in them. Shannon appears standing alone, the unicorn tending the beautiful children, or the woman who once knew the unicorn as a child who has brought her own innocent babies to be blessed by the magical animal stepped out of the mists of mythology.

It's an exhausting day, but I absolutely love this process. I am in intimate contact with my horses the whole day, especially Shannon. I am so proud of Shannon and Duke, of their patience, calm, gentleness, and their people skills over all. I thank them all the time. We are working together, they and I. Each would be nothing without the other. Well, they would. But not me.

And I have to laugh at Duke, gazing at Shanny working with a sort of bemused interest on his face. Through his work on the carriage, and in Hindu weddings, Duke as been exposed to just about everything. But he hasn't yet learned the command "look at Christina!!". Yet. This too shall come.

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