TALES FROM THE TRAILS
Funny how everything can be going right along the same as always, then something happens and everything changes. That’s how it was for Sharon Packer.
Packer had been riding most of her life, owned horses and showed in hunter/jumper classes. Then she decided to take a dressage lesson to improve her seat.
“That day changed my life,” she recalled. “I was instantly addicted to dressage. I was also amazed to learn that I didn’t know how to ride. It was exciting, thrilling. The complete communication between horse and rider, the ability to move in synch. Oh, I was hooked. There was no going back.”
Packer lived in North Carolina at the time and worked as a school psychologist. Then came more changes. She started having physical problems, to the point where it was difficult just getting out of bed. She had rheumatoid arthritis and had to rethink her whole life, including the horses and the job.
“I gave up riding, and I couldn’t get to work on a regular basis,” she said. “I decided to go back to an old hobby, photography. In the early 1980s, I had gotten fairly good at composing and printing landscapes. I decided to try equestrian photography.”
Packer ended up in Millbrook, N.Y., doing a photo shoot for Courtney King, who represented the United States at the 2007 World Cup in Las Vegas, the 2008 World Cup in the Netherlands and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When King came to Wellington for the winter circuit in 2008, Packer followed her to do a photo shoot at the Palm Beach Dressage Derby.
“I loved everything about it,” Packer said. “The caliber of riders and horses, the VIP seating, all the perks. Even though I wasn’t the official show photographer, I got permission from Mary Phelps to work on the grounds. She encouraged me.”
Packer stayed in Wellington, working when she was able to get around. In 2009, she was named the official photographer for the Gold Coast Dressage Association, the Wellington Classic Dressage Association and the White Fences Equestrian Center, and was appointed to cover the Region 3 Dressage Championship.
“I felt humbled by my success,” she said. “I’m most appreciative to the show management, the riders and horse owners.”
Even though Packer works strictly digitally now, she is glad she learned to shoot using an old-style SLR. The color was better on actual film, she said, and she really learned to compose a shot looking through a lens. However, digital gives instant gratification, and you still need to know how to set the shutter speed and aperture size to get a really good photo.
“For me, a really good photo re-creates the image I have in my head,” Packer said. “Sometimes I grab it. It depends on the shoot. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I decide what I want to capture. During a sports event, I try to get the correct stride of the horse: collected trot at lower levels, extended trot or half pass at higher levels. Dressage makes it easy, because I know the test in advance and have some idea where the horse will be at what point.”
Packer doesn’t rapid-shoot a series of shots; she clicks them one at a time using a camera with a 300mm lens that weighs a whopping 16 pounds. She uses a monopod to keep it steady.
Packer also does farm shoots, photographing horses and their people at home. “I compose them like portraits,” she said. “Sometimes I do an abstract, using a slow shutter speed, which fades the background to white and blurs motion. Enough of the horse’s eye is in focus so you get the fluidity and have to reconstruct your own story of what’s happening.”
Her favorite shot? “Anything with a horse,” she said. “I love shooting a stallion running free in a pasture: running, rearing, coming close, then running off again.”
Sadly, Packer hasn’t ridden since last year. She had bought the stallion of her dreams, an 8-year-old gray Lusitano named Ariston Interagro — a perfect gentleman: intelligent, kind, loving, athletic. She was dismounting when she got stuck with her leg halfway over his back. Thankfully, the horse remained calm while Packer was helped off, but the experience proved too scary. It broke her heart, but she sold him to a perfect home. “I decided I needed to stay on the ground,” she said.
Even though she can’t ride, just being around horses is therapeutic. Packer knows firsthand about their healing power.
“Back in the late 1980s, I had a private practice as a psychotherapist,” she recalled. “One of my patients was an 11-year-old girl who had experienced major trauma and couldn’t speak. I learned that she rode, so I held our therapy sessions at the farm where I boarded my horse. We groomed horses and went for a trail ride. By the second session, I couldn’t shut her up.”
Horses have also been therapeutic for Packer herself.
“Horses absolutely have a healing effect. I had a somewhat abusive childhood. My healing place was always in a stall with a horse. I felt safe. Horses are extremely intuitive and reactive. I never met a horse I didn’t like,” Packer said. “Two years ago, I was working at a show when a mare came up behind me and bumped my shoulder. I turned around, petted her, then kissed her muzzle. The rider, who had been distracted, saw what I did and was horrified. ‘This mare bites everyone! She could have bitten your face off!’ But the mare hadn’t offered to bite me at all. She’d invited me to kiss her. Sometimes we let our fears overshadow reality.”
Although Packer had to resign as official show photographer in 2011 due to family matters, she still works as a media photographer for the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, the White Fences shows and the NEDA Region 8 Championships in Saugerties, N.Y. She’s also available to do private farm shoots.
“I love photographing backyard horses,” she said. “I try to capture the emotional relationship between horse and owner. Something funny always happens. Horses are so curious, such a joy. I love getting that moment which shows the horse’s true character. I’ve made wonderful friends. Horse people are amazing. They go out of their way to be helpful.”