Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shooting Lessons

Not long ago a friend of mine, Kareem Shehata, came riding with me while visiting Egypt. He's Egyptian/Canadian and wanders back and forth visiting his family here while living/working/studying there. He had just gotten his first really good camera in 2004 when he first went riding with me and when I saw the photos he shot that day I was blown away. There were some seriously lovely photos. I used some of them for my website where they have been much admired.

These first photos were somewhat serendipitous. Kareem was about as surprised at their quality as anyone else and much encouraged in his interest in photography. He continued to work at it along with all the other interesting things that he does in southern Ontario and in the early spring of this year Kareem appeared again in Egypt.

He called me to arrange another ride and this time his camera was even bigger and more impressive. I gave him one of my horses who has photography experience and knew how to stand still, or as still as a horse ever stands unless he has a pile of hay in front of him. Again, he sent me some lovely shots. I haven't seen any photos from the last visit that he made, but he did send me a link to a nice post that he made on LiveJournal about doing photography on horseback and I thought that I would pass it on.

Photography from horseback

I've gone for many rides on horseback as a tourist. I'm not a serious rider, though I can usually get a horse to go in the direction I would like most of the time. Through beginner's luck, I got the combination right on my very first trip. Since then, I've found that I get the combination right at the very end of the trip - after the best opportunities have already passed. Here's what I've learned. Hopefully it will be useful to you, even if I'm not likely to remember to read this before my next trip!

1. Use a telephoto zoom lens.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but consider that you're up much higher than usual. Yes, with a typical medium or wide lens you can catch some great vistas, but you could do the same from standing. Take advantage of your perspective by getting closer to your subjects. From horseback, you'll also be farther from the most interesting shots, and you won't be able to move closer physically most of the time. Getting a horse to the right spot is very difficult, so a zoom lens is highly recommended.

2. Use the fastest shutter speed possible.

A horse is constantly moving, even when "standing still." They shift, take a step, sway a little bit, and that moves you. Add to that using a telephoto, and you will need at least a 1/1000 shutter speed to reliably get sharp shots. I've found that even 1/500 will often give soft shots - heartbreaking when you discover a particularly great shot is ruined as a result.

3. Let your camera do the math

On horseback, you won't have time to fiddle with settings. Yes, manual mode is often better than auto, but in this case, you won't have time to make adjustments. If you have a Tv (Time-value) setting, use it. If you have an automatic ISO setting, use it - it will give you camera more flexibility to catch the shot for you. Make sure you have the white balance and any other settings figured out before you get on the horse!

4. Lose the polarizing and any other filters, except for a UV filter

Again, you won't have time to adjust a circular polarizer. Any filters will reduce the amount of light going through the lens, and to get the fastest shutter time possible, you'll need as much as you can get. The only exception is a UV or clear filter to protect the lens. Going on horseback is a dirty thing, and there will be lots of dust and even dirt flying. A lens hood is also a good idea, if it doesn't get in the way. Make sure everything is tight before you leave - anything dropped will be damaged or destroyed.

5. Find a strap that will sit comfortably on you

I have a luggage strap that I've adapted for my camera so that it hangs at my side when I'm not using it. This is important, because you will often times need both hands to handle the horse, and you'll want your camera somewhere safe and comfortable as you ride. Too low and it hit the horse, you, or other objects as you ride. Too high, and it will be uncomfortable to ride.

6. Be like a sniper

Look for something distinct and interesting. A detail that relates part of what you're experiencing. It is possible to shoot while moving, but stop the horse if you need to catch something great. Line up the scene as best you can, and when the moment is just right - the scene set, your camera moving as little as possible - take the shot. Multiple shots will sometimes work from continuous shooting mode, but don't scatter shoot as none of them will turn out right. Your best bet is to use basic shooting tricks: take your best aim, and then shoot twice.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bombproofing R Us

Everyone who rides lives in fear of the grand spook, that heart-stopping, muscle-wrenching moment when your horse looks ahead, says "What on earth is that? It's going to EAT me!", spins and bolts. It really isn't fun, and the older you get the harder the ground becomes. When I began taking clients out riding, I knew that I had to have horses who would not do the grand spook for anything. Happily, I have the perfect place to unspook horses...the Egyptian countryside.

Most people who ride in Egypt do so in arenas if they are training for jumping or dressage, or they ride in the desert for pleasure. The desert is nice and empty...seriously empty with only sand, rock, and the occasional rider or ATV. So the horses in the desert get used to seeing nothing very alarming. They don't have to work in a confined space as it is the Sahara after all and you can ride ten people abreast at 2 meter distances if you like. So most horses are a bit taken aback in the countryside. But I had two horses who needed 6 months of rehab on hard ground and the countryside was the only place to do it. It was an interesting 6 months but well worth it. Once I'd gotten them past the heebie-jeebies, they made excellent teachers for the others.

The photos accompanying this post were taken by Kelly Anderson on her rides around our area this summer while I was laid up with knee surgery. They illustrate some of the training objects that we use for bombproofing. A horse drawing a cart is of some concern to most saddle horses. "Is that what happens to bad horses who spook and spin?" "You betcha, toots. Look carefully." The man with the lethal ice cream cart is more of a physical danger to the kids buying the ice cream but someone climbing halfway into a brightly painted box pushed by a bicycle is definitely suspect. And the tuk-tuks! Those little covered tricycles with huge boombox music blaring out of them! Definite horse eaters.

The trails in the countryside run alongside the irrigation canals and the farmers often use diesel pumps to transfer water from the canal to the fields. When working the pumps put out a powerful stream of water about 6 inches/10 cm in diameter. The farmers are very obliging about turning off a pump that is projecting across a trail so that we don't have to get soaked, but encountering a diesel pump being hauled by a donkey on a narrow trail is a sure sign that the horses are going to slow down rather than rush up behind something that is suspiciously coiled and jiggling.

The alternative form of water transport is almost as horrifying as the diesel pump. This is the sakia, a form of water wheel that is donkey powered. Of course, donkeys are not stupid and will not voluntarily walk in circles for hours so the farmers blindfold them, often with objects that look like reject props for a Madonna concert. A still sakia is no cause for alarm...but a sakia that is being run by a dangerous punk donkey definitely rates a second look.

Then we have the final, most dangerous countryside object...the dreaded crake, or dredge. With millions of kilometres of mud-sided canals to keep working, a number of backhoes with broad scoops work 24/7 cleaning the accumulated silt and whatever out of the canals, also broadening them where the sides have slipped in. To their credit, the horses have learned to walk carefully past the dreaded crake as it rests quietly by the trail (the operators are very cooperative in this regard), past piles of slippery smelly mud until we can feel the sighs of relief as the monster is left behind. I have on one occasion tried to ride past a dredge in the dark of the night when the strong halogen lights affixed to the long arm throw enormous beams of light into the darkness. Suffice it to say that discretion is the better part of valour and we returned along our original path. Some fights simply aren't worth it...and I thought it was pretty spooky myself.

So if you really want to bombproof your horses, just drop us a line. We can pack up some of our wonderful neighbourhood spooky creatures just for you. The European storks that no longer seem to migrate north in the summer are already fairly mobile and standing up at about 4 feet with an easy 6 foot wing span, they can certainly take care of any avian issues. Happy to help.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Losing a Dear Friend

Last night a very special horse died. He was eight years old, the son of my oldest equine partner, Dorika, and the grandson of her best friend, Nimbus. I have a number of horses twenty years old and older, horses that one might reasonably expect would die before a nine year old. But Figgy (Fagr) just didn't have that luck.

Figgy was a total surprise to me when he was born. I'd been disappointed when my mares both gave me colts, but when Nimbus' son managed a sneaky pasture breeding to Dorika after my husband died, I was delighted. He was a social, adorable friendly soul from the first moment. The first day of his life he came out to visit with children, dogs and everyone like he'd been around forever. When he was about four months old, however, we had our first cause for concern when his hind legs began catching as he tried to walk around. We had the American orthopedic vet see him and found out that he had subluxated patellas in the hind legs. We either had to do knee surgery on him or be ready to put him down when his legs locked up at about two years old. We did the surgery and he recovered very well, growing into a tall, athletic horse.

At four we began riding him gently and he spent a few years only working with the grooms and myself until we were sure that he could be safe for clients. We had a few adventures as he was growing. He spent some time not being quite sure where his legs were with the result that he and I ended up swimming in a canal one day during a trail ride with friends. He was the only horse I ever had who fell into a canal. I had to swim to one side of the canal to get out and he swam to the other, following us along the canal until we could come to a place where we could meet up about a hundred metres down the trail. I'll never forget how he called to me when he could see me in front of him, cantered to me and then stopped resting his head against my chest in relief at being reunited. Just a week later he tripped in a small ditch and he and I did a wonderful show of being horse and rider in a tumble drier...happily no one was ever hurt.

But lately he'd learned where his legs were and we began entrusting clients to him. We'd warn them that the enormous energy they could feel under them when they got on was just his natural collection and enthusiasm for life. He was wonderfully responsive and responsible. I don't believe he ever ran off with anyone. At the fastest gallop, the rider only needed to pull up a bit to say "Let's slow down here a bit" and he slowed immediately. He was a huge favourite, especially with teenaged girls.

Figgy adored his mother and brother and they lived together in one paddock, a happy little sub-herd among the larger herd. If one of them went out on a ride the others called out to him or her on his/her return, and they were happiest when all three of them got to work together. Figs' huge, huge walk was a joy to me and made him a great group leader because we could be walking out in front while everyone else was trotting to keep up.

The last time they went out together was just before I traveled for 10 days to see my kids in New York. Despite the fact that they were just ambling around the countryside for an hour, the next day they were running fevers and had runny noses. My farm was hit hard by a strangles epidemic in the area. While I was gone, his brother Nazeer got a huge abscess under his jaw (a complication of strangles) and when my ordinary vet couldn't be reached, another one recommended giving the horses an antibiotic, something that I never do with strangles. When I got back everyone seemed to be recovering ok, but suddenly about 10 days ago, Figgy was much, much worse. He seemed to have symptoms of laminitis, lumps were appearing in places on his body where they really shouldn't have been, and he was having problems breathing due to a nasty abscess deep in his throat. I had a good vet come to see us as soon as possible and he gave me the horrible news. Figgy's odds of recovery were maybe one in ten, but we could try with a new strong antibiotic. We did and he had the best nursing in the world, with massages, healing, cooling baths in our very badly timed heat wave...everything.

Yesterday morning he was nose deep in the bathtub where we soak our beetpulp and happily snorting water from his nose, a sign that the abscess in his neck has shrunk considerably. He was walking much more comfortably, and we were all delighted. Hopefully we'd beat the odds...but the odds beat us. Late last night he showed signs of serious distress and I could see that it was the end of his fight. I called my vet and then drove over to get the Big Blue Needle that would help him to find some peace. Figgy was a fighter to the end, but it wasn't right for him to go through so much pain. Jack told me that probably either an abdominal abscess had ruptured or there had been a cardiac embolism that had broken loose. Peace was the last gift I could give him.

Somewhere in the ether the souls of our horses meet up. He's with his grandmother now. She passed on some seven or eight years ago at over 30 years of age. But there are a lot of souls here missing them both terribly.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, March 04, 2010

An Eye Opener

Part of owning horses in Egypt is having friends come to experience the extreme pleasures of riding in the Sahara or through the villages of the Nile Valley. I love my visitors and get a special thrill out of showing them my Egypt. So when my old friend Laurie wrote to me to say that since she was retiring she felt that it was time to come riding with me, I was delighted. She told me that she'd be bringing a friend and that the friend was blind. Now that would be interesting. When I suggested that we could always use a lead rope, her laughter rang out over the internet. Gail has been blind for about 20 years and riding for at least 15 of them, many of them with Laurie shouting out "Duck! There's a branch!".

I have to admit that I couldn't wait to meet this woman who as far as I could see was some sort of marvel. I ride in the desert all the time and sometimes even being able to see where I'm going, I'm terrified. My horses are lovely and kind and fit and fast. The thought of tearing around the desert without being able to see where I was going was a bit more than I could comprehend. And then there's the interesting fact that I have 17 dogs wandering around the farm as well. What if she fell over one? These were some of the thoughts racing around my brain while I went to the airport to pick Laurie and Gail up.

Within a couple of days I was having to remind myself that Gail couldn't see the things that Laurie and I could. The first time we went out riding I put Gail on Nazeer, my favourite Mr. Responsible. To my vast relief they were utterly fine. Laurie rode next to her and cued her to move right or left as needed, but the job was rather different from riding down the trails of Massachusetts. Our desert is EMPTY! But at the same time there are hazards such as changes in sand consistency, hills, and archaeological excavations.

I think that it would be an understatement to say that I was impressed with Gail's willingness to risk life and limb on a horse. That has always been my forte, but not with my eyes closed. Definitely. At one point, Mr. Responsible decided to show Gail a shortcut during a gallop up a wadi, which even she acknowledged was a bit more than she had bargained for. He made a big loop to the right and as she heard our hoofbeats moving off into the distance she got rather concerned. But Mr. R came to his senses and stopped so that we could gather our lost duckling.

I don't know what the impact of Gail's trip to Egypt was on her, but for me it was, to use a bad pun, eye-opening. She gave me a chance to see some of the boundaries of our ability to come back from adversity and to adapt to less than friendly conditions. After watching her having a great time on horses and camels, negotiating through a crowded, crazy horse fair and appreciating fine stone work in the Coptic museum, I have a sense that there are fewer limits on my life than I'd previously thought. Thank you, Gail.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, January 15, 2010

Walk Dammit!

Sometimes I help people learn to ride. I wouldn't say I'm a riding instructor, but sometimes I help people learn to ride. When they want to really learn to "ride" as in dressage, jumping or just the proper way to sit a horse, I usually send them to friends of mine who are riding instructors...and most of the people who I help to learn to ride do end up with proper instruction at some point.

So what do I do? I really like to start people in their quest to learn to relate to horses. I particularly like to help women in their early days with horses. Women have a special love affair with horses. Horses are beautiful, strong, soft, gentle, powerful, fast, free creatures...horses are all that we all want to be and often feel we aren't. But horses can teach us so much as well, much more than we realise at first. On weekend mornings I host the local American school riding clubs for the middle and high school, most of whose members are teenaged girls. Some of them have established their relationship with horses and some of them are just trying it out. I teach them about the kind of animals we are, horses and humans, and how it is little short of miraculous that our horses learn to trust us predators so completely. I teach them about the natural hierarchies in a herd of horses, how the older mares who have the nerve to push up to the hay pile and tell everyone else to move over get the respect. I point out to them that the horses are not saying "please" or making quiet requests but they are asserting what they feel are their natural rights. Most teenaged girls are a bit fuzzy about what their natural rights are, so I think that it's good for them to learn to boss someone around.

When I got my first horse, Dorika who is currently my partner of over 20 years, I was in heaven and hell simultaneously. I wanted desperately for her to be my friend and ally...and she bit me. A wiser horseman told me that before she could be my friend, she was going to have to respect me. In order to earn her respect, I had to be able to order her around, tell her what to do, have her obey me. In short, I had to stop saying "Please" and just say "Do it". I tried it and we found a new way to work together.

Most of the girls who come to ride here are really polite young women. I put them on horses who will stand around looking at the flowers until they are told in a believable way that the rider wants them to move. Don't get me wrong...these horses know how to move just fine. Tell them to go for a two mile canter in the desert and you will get one you'll never forget, but if an unsure student is sitting on their backs, they will await their orders. We start out with "Please walk" and work our way up the ladder of intensity and force. After a while, I tell them that I promise not to tell their mothers but they need to be able to at least think "Walk, dammit!" in order to get their point across. Giggling nervously, they mutter "Walk, dammit!" and lo and behold, the ponies amble off around the arena and young women grin.

As I point out, if you can boss around a horse, the sky's the limit.

copyright 20010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani