“Out For A Keeper”

“Out For A Keeper”

Was it different many years ago when a rider looked for a horse?  Considering the search as a process, four friends decided to focus on a buyer’s approach to looking for a horse before automobiles, motorcycles, tractors, et cetera.  I jump started the effort with thoughts that settled on the similarities for a buyer and seller from the past and present.  We all agreed on a five step process an limit of five photographs to enact the sale of a horse.  To guide the camera, I sketched a storyboard sequence.  This prearranged composition directed the story through the drawings that would eliminate any guesswork when daylight hours could not be left to chance.

Guy Gane III, of Old Timey Casting, LLC., selected Michael Clarke as the horse buyer.  Guy filled in as the stable manager and seller. Alex Martin took the photographs.  I provided the horses, tack, and garments.  My wife Leona, took up the task of all-purpose wrangler.  We used a headstall I copied from one produced in the 19th century.  The saddle, a splendid border stamp, loop seat was built a few years before by Dan Schrader of Darby, Montana.

The location for a bygone look was a big consideration. We looked for an old barn with regular maintenance and without anachronisms.  Most of the older barns we looked at had hardware and materials retrofitted, clearly not available at the time of construction.  A vintage barn without improvements stumped the effort, but Phil Wold, a cattleman and friend, had what we needed.  With the hanging of a sign, the barn became the feed stable of W.J. Segraves.  This was a stabling business established on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana in 1871.

For many years, I studied original garments from the 1870’s and 1880’s. As an experienced tailor, I drafted patterns, selected textiles, and built the clothing, including the head-wear that we would be using.  Guy and Mike needed outfits demanding instant recognition of their roles.  the proportions and fit were critical for an authentic look.  What’s more, the image of a stable manager had to convey the look of a man who knew an animal’s marketable worth.  As a seller he had to portray a salesman.  Our cowboy had to bring forth the impression of someone from the work-a-day world of horsemanship.  this would be someone of no extravagance, no pretense, only a customer ready to connect with the right horse. As if dealing with two sides of the same coin, the two ensembles were selected from a wardrobe that stayed within the cuttings and styles of the second half of the 19th Century.

Horses for the photo essay needed good ground manners with a tolerance for cues from a strange rider.  In this effort there could be no spooking, kicking, bucking, rearing, shyness, or headstrong ways.  We didn’t want a stand-by until good behavior returned.  A good saddle horse was the horse for this portrayal.  Cast for the part was Tirzah, a dark bay of 16 hands, a registered quarter horse accented with a feather-like blaze. Six year old Tirzah was all heart and willing to please.  She would be the keeper.

An off-white appaloosa, named Mary, complimented the composition by providing both contrast and balance.  Nature made her a study in color, having a blonde mane, blue eyes, and more chestnut spots than anyone could count.  Everyone agreed on her steadiness, but guessed about her background.  An all-Western girl, shea came from points unknown.  Surely, there was something special that she acquired from her ancestors, and we figured it was sense of distance in her bones.

On the morning of the scheduled photographs, we dressed in overcoats.  Everything was cased in glittering frost, except for the horses.  They waited at the warmest spot in their meadow, on a small plot of elevated ground touched by the first rays of the sun.  We loaded, took a final review of everything needed and drove the five miles to Fairfield, Pennsylvania.  A few props were quickly placed about the entrance door of the barn.  Mike, Guy, and Alex reviewed the first drawing in the sequence. Alex adjusted his camera and studied the outdoor set.

During a pause, Alex walked along the creek near the barn, making a final check fro unwanted, out of place structures in the distance.  Closer to the water were Mary and Tirzah, especially Tirzah who went into the water.  She was suddenly having a good time.  One big splash followed another, then another until Mike realized she didn’t need a drink.  In a few seconds he redirected her attention to the handful of hay on the ground.

To maneuver the horses into place was the challenge we would run with. Mary and Tirzah truly cooperated but a selection of four or five snapshot for each frame on the storyboard would not be enough.  It took ten, twenty, even thirty for a breakthrough image to appear on the digital screen.  In the end, our take on photojournalism resulted in the five photos wanted to present the most basic chronological order in the purchase of a horse, starting with the search and ending with the sale.  In between were the selection, a close inspection, and the tryout.   In the end we had what we wanted – photos that told a story at a glance.

We considered all the imagery then decided on the year 1885 to represent the match of horse and rider.  It formed a timeless chronology repeated a million times over.  True, a horse auction is very different than using websites, digital imagery, and videos to sell a horse has transformed the search.  Still, it’s the same.  The buyer follows a pattern that’s holder than advertisements in a newspaper and much older than electronic communication.  We viewed it as a part of our western heritage, something deep in the background every time a horse and rider connect in a partnership.

We stopped for lunch when the horses were off the job an eating.  Alex said, “All the photos we need will soon be ready for review.”  Mike said, “I really enjoyed the shoot.  The horses are great girls.”  Guy gave the moment it’s capstone when he added, “I like the title, “Out for a Keeper”.

– Written & produced by Paul Smith of McKnightstown, PA.

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