From Groom & Braider to Top Show Photographer, A Look Behind the Lens of Kathy Russell

From Groom & Braider to Top Show Photographer, A Look Behind the Lens of Kathy Russell

Following his flawless clear round in the $35,000 CP Welcome Stake at the Palm Beach Masters in Wellington, Daniel Coyle reached up to reward his mount Cita with some congratulatory pats. But before he sank back into his saddle, the 22-year-old reached farther up his mare’s neck to pull out some strands of untamed forelock that had gotten caught beneath her browband.

Standing quietly beyond the confines of the railing surrounding the expansive grass field, Kathy Russell snapped, capturing the simple gesture.

“I don’t necessarily do a lot of thinking or planning [before a shoot], because a lot of what I create comes from the feel of what’s happening around me,” said Russell, who’s been photographing the nation’s top show circuits for more than a decade. “If you’re having a [really bad] day, I want to convey the emotion of that. If you’re having an incredible day, I want to convey the emotion of that. I want the peaceful moments, the chaotic moments—all the extremes and all the simplicities of everybody’s experiences with their horses. Everybody’s is different, so I can’t plan it or put it in a box, because then I would be limiting myself. My philosophy is to try and convey what your individual relationship is and what your individual experience is with your animal.”

Russell considers herself not to be purely a horse show photographer, but the riders’ documentarian, making an art of telling stories through her photos. It’s a view she’s carried since enrolling in Loyalist College’s photojournalism program, one of only two photojournalism programs in Canada, after completing her undergraduate education at Trent University, outside of Toronto.

“That was always my vision: to do more documentary-type photography for the equestrian world and create it in a way that has a heart and has feel,” said Russell. “It’s not just something you’d see in the newspaper. In a sense, it’s kind of like art.”

“I think that there’s a high every time I come home and I’ve captured something in a way I know conveys what actually happened.”

While Russell’s education undoubtedly helped her hone her skills, it’s her extensive and unique experiences within the horse show world that have given her the unique perspective she discovers gazing into her viewfinder. Russell always wanted to find a way to combine her passions for horses and photography, but before she ever went to the ring with a camera to shoot a class, she paid her way through college and horse showing by working as a braider.

“When I showed, I braided my own horse, and that turned into me braiding every horse in the barn, which segued me into coming down to Florida to braid,” Russell explained. “I braided down there and paid my way through school with braiding, all the while knowing that I wanted to do photography.”

Growing Up In Ontario’s Equestrian Hub

No one in Russell’s family had ever gotten involved with horses before she, at 11 years old, attended a childhood friend’s birthday party at a farm just outside of Toronto. But when Russell saw the friend’s pony, she spent that entire weekend there in the barn.

“She and I became closer friends, and I spent every weekend after that learning how to ride on her pony, which was a brat!” Russell recalled. “They had a ring that was down the hill from the barn, and there was no fence around the ring, and that pony dragged me back to the barn I—don’t even-know-how-many times—before I learned to keep it in the ring!”

Before long, her teenage years were consumed by all things equine.

“I quit everything else I was doing,” Russell said. “Dancing, theater arts; you name it, I was doing it, and I quit it all and started riding. Then, eventually, I started taking actual lessons. I was lucky to be in the middle of the hub for horses, because no one in my family had ever done anything with horses and they’re all allergic to them!”

Russell rode with John and Mary Skey at their York Equestrian Riding School in Stouffville, Ontario, and the two gave Russell the opportunity to work off her lessons. She tacked up, mucked stalls, and happily rode whatever horse was available to her. When she began braiding, it afforded her the opportunity to travel with the Skeys to Florida to compete in Wellington. Through the endeavor, she earned enough money to support herself through college—all with the eye of returning to the circuit as a photographer.

“I did the braiding thing for three or four years as I was trying to figure out the photography end of things, and then I switched to daytime working versus nighttime working!” Russell exclaimed, recalling one exceptionally busy night where she braided 17 manes and 19 tails from 4:00 p.m. one afternoon until the following day at 2:00 p.m. “Braiders are an incredible network of people. They really are. They took me under their wing. They are the flies on the wall of the horse show industry. They’re the quiet observers of all things.”

Russell maintains a close relationship with the Skeys to this day, and when her schedule allowed this winter, she enjoyed riding an extra horse the duo had with them in Wellington.

“I love being around the horses [when I’m working], but sometimes I just have that urge to get back in the saddle and just keep myself in it,” Russell said. “Someday I hope I can do it a little more regularly. I definitely still love it.”

Developing Her Vision

Russell’s love for photography was established even earlier, as some of her first memories are “tearing through” a disposable camera while taking photos of her family dog on her front step.

“My mom would get upset, because I was using all the film,” Russell remembered. “I was trying in my own way to learn how to create through the camera, and I think part of learning to take pictures is learning how you see through the camera and not just pressing the button. You have to learn what you want to see and how to create it.”

“Everybody still wants the jumping shots or the standard photos. They’re still important elements of our experience, but there’s so much happening around that.”

What set her on her professional path was when she acquired her first “real camera” in high school as a gift from her older sister. It is with that camera that she shot her first over fences class at a horse show.

“It was at Cleveland at the Ohio show, and I remember, I went out with the camera my sister had given me, and I went and sat ringside, and it was my first time pressing the button for just horses,” Russell detailed. “I’d gone to schooling shows and stuff like that at my barn in Canada with a disposable camera, but not with the intent of actually trying to create my vision. It was a jumper class, and I’d had the vision in my head for so long that it just felt natural to me. Then it was just learning how to do it from there.”

An influential project while studying at Loyalist also played a crucial role in her creative development.

“I had to interpret a poem through images,” Russell said. “I interpreted it all through horse photos. It was really the first time I’d gone out to just shoot abstractly. I submitted the project, and the professor’s comment was that he was able to see my soul. I felt completely free in that moment to just do whatever I wanted in my photos.”

Seeing Things Differently

Russell spent her final semester completing her projects in Wellington before returning home for exams and graduation. But it wasn’t long before she was back in South Florida working, this time as a professional photographer. Looking beyond the traditional jumping and presentation photos, she played a key role in developing documentary-style photography at horse shows and was a part of the team that first began packaging the horse show experience into custom albums. She started her own business three years ago, specializing in creating uniquely tangible keepsakes that capture the equestrian-equine relationship—but go beyond just horse and rider.

“You can be the rider; you can be the owner; you can be the groom,” Russell said. “It’s amazing when you actually start looking through a lens all of the emotion you start to see and feel. It’s just individualizing that and trying to stay connected to it so it doesn’t just become another picture. It remains a representation of what’s actually happening in your story and your experience.”

“I think that there’s a high every time I come home and I’ve captured something in a way I know conveys what actually happened, getting the extra special shots, or finding a different way of seeing something,” she continued. “You can’t fall into the same old, same old. You definitely have to satisfy the standard, in a sense, because everybody still wants the jumping shots or the standard photos. They’re still important elements of our experience, but there’s so much happening around that. It’s what’s happening on your way to getting to those moments and after that are just as important. Once you see that and pay attention to it, you start to recognize all of the intricacies of it.”

At the end of this, the horses are gone, the show is over, and what do you have left but the memories and how you capture those memories.

The inspiration, no doubt, stems from her late night and early morning experiences braiding from atop the ladder, her time as a working student, and her days a young, self-proclaimed barn rat before ever experiencing a rated show circuit.

“It helps me relate to all characters in the industry in the sense that, I’ve been the groom, and I’ve been the behind the scenes person, and I know that that person loves that horse in most cases just as much as the person that’s going in the ring,” Russell explains. “All of those people are important elements in getting that horse to the ring. I think that it helps me see details and look for moments that quite possibly are happening behind the scenes.”

“I’m able to appreciate all the different elements of it and feel it,” she continued. “I feel every one of those moments. I get emotional sometimes. If I’m shooting, and somebody’s having a moment, and they don’t know that you’re there, you feel it. It’s an incredible feeling, just seeing the pure joy or sometimes the sadness and the insecurity and the nerves. I think it helps me see different things and helps me look around, to not just get focused on one element of the sport. The groom is part of the sport, the guys back at the barn mucking stalls—they’re all part of what makes it happen.”

As is Russell, as she’s created her own unique role within an ever-vibrant industry, collecting and harnessing the intangibles of partnership, development, and accomplishment that riders strive for every time they go to the ring.

“This industry is essentially an upscale circus, and it’s incredible to be a part of and to be able to give people something that they can hang onto for essentially the rest of their lives,” Russell said. “At the end of this, the horses are gone, the show is over, and what do you have left but the memories and how you capture those memories. You’ve got your ribbons, and you’ve got your pictures.”

Russell’s enjoying her own ride, too.

“My mom used to say to me, ‘Do something that you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” she said. “I just reminded myself of that constantly. So many days, I’m grateful it’s my job, and it’s still fun.

To learn more, visit Kathy’s website or follow her on FacebookInstagram