Carol Walker’s Tips for Taking Majestic Horse Photographs

Having photographed equine subjects professionally for more than 15 years, Carol Walker can tell at a glance whether a pictured horse is domestic or wild. “The domestics are usually very clean and shiny,” she says. “Their manes are untangled, and they’re prettier. The wild horses have a more rustic look—they’re just dirty,” she adds with a laugh. “They might have matted hair, and they look rougher. But they’re gorgeous when they’re galloping in the wild.”

Walker has an affinity for both types. “I’ve loved horses since I was a little girl, and I’ve ridden them all my life,” she says. “The more you know about your subject, the better photographs you’re going to get. With horses, I know how to predict what they’re going to do and how to work with them.”

A resident of Longmont, Colorado, Walker is a fervent advocate for the preservation of wild horses in the American West. “Right now our wild horses are getting squeezed out by very powerful interest groups such as cattle and oil and gas, so they’re disappearing,” she says. “I’ve been fighting to try to keep them wild. It’s a tough fight.”

Walker’s recent self-published book, Galloping to Freedom ($ 40; is sponsored and partially funded by Cana Projects, a wildlife preservation foundation. “It’s about a group of horses that were rounded up in Wyoming,” Walker says of the book. “They were all separated from their families, then reunited at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. So it’s a true story with a happy ending.”

The key difference between photographing wild horses and domestic ones? In a word: control. “Wild horses are a challenge because you can’t say, ‘Move over here, the background is better,’” Walker says. “You have to anticipate where they are going and put yourself in a good position—and then it’s luck. With domestics you can say, ‘Let’s go over here,’ and it’s much easier.”

For the latter, a handy tool is the universal lure of food. “Sometimes I have a can with grain in it and shake it—horses are very food-oriented so they’ll jump to attention,” Walker says. “Then I usually get the owner to turn the horse loose out where it’s safe so they can run, because that’s where you get the best pictures. I enjoy action shots.”

For the photo on our opening spread, a trio of domestic horses were herded through water by riders outside the frame. “There were about five riders keeping them in place,” recalls Walker, who was leading a horse-photography workshop in the Camargue region of France. “They’re running through the water right in front of us, in late afternoon as the sun is setting.” Dressed in mud boots, she perched in the water with a monopod for her Canon EOS-1D X and a 200–400mm f/4L lens (with a built-in 1.4X extender). “The shot is staged, but it’s really cool to have several horses running in a line—you can’t get this under most circumstances.”

Horses in motion require fast shutter speeds; Walker shot at 1/800 sec. “For a horse walking, the minimum shutter speed is 1/500 sec and for running it’s 1/1000,” she advises. “If the horse is running directly toward you, you can do 1/500 sec. I set the camera on shutter priority with moving subjects, and then I raise or lower my ISO [800 here] depending upon the light.” Rather than use a manual light meter, the photographer relies on her camera’s exposure compensation. “For fast-moving horses,” she adds, “I use autofocus and autofocus lock.”

Into the Wild

On their own, horses tend to run more free-form, as in the shot on the top of page 45 in the mountains near Cody, Wyoming. “It’s a group of wild stallions that have been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management—they were the lucky ones that got released after the roundup,” Walker says. “They are running like heck to get as far away as they can.”

These horses, which all had families and were relatively old, were among the few chosen for release by the BLM. “The ones that weren’t so lucky went to Rock Springs, Wyoming, where there’s a holding facility and they get sorted,” Walker says. “A small percentage will get adopted by people, and some will end up in slaughter.”

Consequently, many wild horses are skittish around humans. “They can be very scared because they’ve been rounded up with helicopters. Or oil drillers will chase them off the land,” Walker says. “So sometimes as soon as you get out of the car they’re gone. Or you have to approach them very slowly and stay far away to make pictures.” That’s why Walker carries several telephoto lens options including Canon’s 600mm f/4L, 200–400mm f/4L (with built-in 1.4X extender) and 70–200mm f/2.8L.

Other wild horses, though, are surprisingly nonchalant. “It depends on the region and how used to people they are,” says Walker, who has followed specific herds in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana (see the sidebar, opposite). “One herd in Montana’s Pryor Mountains is so used to people that they call it the Zoo Herd. Those horses completely ignore you.”

This can actually be a problem in terms of safety. “I have had to run from fighting stallions that were not paying attention to me. If you’re in the way you could get knocked over,” Walker says. “I’ve been ready to jump up and wave my arms and start yelling—because that will scare them off for sure.”

Yet horses are not naturally aggressive toward humans, Walker notes. “They are a prey animal, and we are predators, so their orientation is not to attack people at all—it would be to run away. And they are much faster than we are.” She cites common-sense safety rules: “Don’t get between a stallion and his mare; don’t get between a baby and her mama.”

Back Home Again

Wild or not, horses have a nonpareil grandeur when running free. A case in point is Walker’s photo at left of a well-kept, regal stallion near Dubai, UAE. “I was invited by the crown prince to teach a workshop on horse photography last year,” she says. “We went out to the desert and they turned this guy loose in the dunes. It was incredibly beautiful.” She shot with a 200–400mm zoom from about 100 yards away. “But if I’m in a smaller situation with a domestic horse,” she says, “I like to use a 70–200mm lens so you can get a wider view.”

That’s what she used for the shot on page 42 of a Friesian stallion running in a pasture, against the sky, with his muscularity on full display. “Stallions have all that testosterone—and they’re extremely strong,” Walker says. For a closer look, you can wave a flag to lure the horse toward you as he runs. “Horses are often very curious, and they’ll come up to investigate because they want to see you,” she says. “Even for a flashing moment, that’s always nice.”

In other cases, you’ll need educated guesswork, a long lens—and excellent luck. Walker had to rush to get a far-away but symmetrical view of the quintet on page 43 near Cody, Wyoming, using a 600mm f/4L lens. “That’s a family of wild horses running to water in the early morning,” she recalls. “I’ve followed this herd for years so I kind of know where they go and what they tend to do. Sometimes I have to drive and drive to find them. And I have also sat at a water hole for five hours and ended up with absolutely nothing. So you never know.”

But on this morning, in inviting early light, Walker spotted the wild herd from the road, then homed in on this close-knit family running in a line. “I drove like heck to get in position,” she says with a laugh. “And I was ready for them.”

Where the Horses Are:

Head West. “Wild Horses are in ten western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming,” Carol Walker says. “Half of the horses left in the wild are in Nevada; Wyoming has the second-highest number.”

**Search Online. **“Google the name of the state you want to visit, plus ‘wild horses’ and ‘Bureau of Land Management’ or ‘BLM,’” Walker suggests. “You’ll get a list of areas where there are wild horses.” Often BLM web pages will have maps of Herd Management Areas (HMAs) and info about herds. Popular HMAs include McCullough Peaks and the Red Desert, both in Wyoming, and Sand Wash Basin in Colorado. “You can visit these herds without special permission—they are on our public lands—but be prepared for rough roads and possible lack of cell service.”

Take a Tour. “One of the most famous HMAs is the Pryor Mountains in Montana,” Walker says. You can arrange guided tours of it through the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center (go to Tours are also offered at sanctuaries such as the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota (

Look East. “There are wild horses in a very few Eastern states such as North Carolina,” Walker says. Tours are available at Shakleford island ( and Corolla ( “There are other spots like Assateague Island in Maryland,” she adds, noting that access rules vary: “These horses are managed differently by various agencies.”

Attend a Workshop. “You can visit and photograph the white horses of the Camargue region in France,” offers Walker, who regularly leads equine-photography workshops there in May (

Seek Out Domestics. “I started by going to stables and asking owners if I could photograph their horses, going to horse shows, building up a portfolio, then offering my photo services,” Walker says. “A great resource is Equine Photographers Network [], where you can access reference materials, online forums, workshops, and business listings.”

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