Zooming In On The Action
“I look at the photo I just took and think how can I make that better?” Going the extra mile is what drives Erin Gilmore to find the perfect shot. The equestrian sports photographer is behind some of the most striking images of eventing moments
By Alex Temblador
Photography by Erin Gilmore
Her equestrian photographs were famous long before she was comfortable calling herself a photographer. Even today, when Erin speaks about her photography career, she seems surprised by how her love for horses led her to capture some of the greatest moments in equestrian sport at top competitions like the Olympics.
Scroll through her Instagram account and it’s easy to see why her images stand out. She has a knack for capturing the elegance of horses, the emotions of their riders, and an instinct for the right shot at the right moment. People often tell Erin, “Oh, I knew that was your photo,” but if you ask her what they recognise, she’ll say, “Maybe depth of colour, depth of field, timing, and the moment that photo was taken,” before adding, “I want to make everything tell its own story.”
Erin’s career began with a love of horses while she was growing up in the Bay Area of California. “I don’t come from a typical family in horse sport where the parents will pay for the kids to have horses and go to the horse shows,” she says.
Her mother, who grew up in Long Island, always loved horses and even worked at the Belmont racetrack, but ultimately could never afford to do much more. She was supportive when Erin took an interest in horses, and as a kid, drove Erin to riding lessons that cost $25 a week. At 15, her parents said she could get a horse if she got a job and was willing to take the bus to see her horse. So that’s what she did.
Without the financial means to take her riding career to new levels, Erin became a writer and editor for equestrian media at 20 years old. Apart from taking five years off to ride professionally and work as an instructor and horse trainer, for the most part Erin has been involved in equestrian media for most of her adult life. Then in 2011, while working for a magazine, she started taking photographs to accompany her articles. She soon landed her next job as an editor on a show jumping news website.
“It’s funny, I was a writer for so long and had worked so hard at being a writer, but the recognition I got as a photographer was tenfold,” Erin says. “I was suddenly known as a photographer before I felt ready to call myself one.” As a self-taught photographer, Erin looked for mentorship where she could, mainly among seasoned photographers at equestrian competitions. Those she met in Europe were particularly welcoming, she remembers, which gave her a lot of confidence in her craft.
Even so, much of what Erin learned about photography came from just doing it. In her last full-time media job, she was given a pelican case of cameras and put on a plane to Spain to cover a top five-star show. On the plane, she realised she had been given a Nikon (she’d only ever used Canon) and scrambled to teach herself how to use the camera by reading the manual. Still not entirely comfortable with the camera by the time she got to the show, Erin just started shooting and figured it out.
When she arrived at the London Olympics in 2012 on a writer credential, her confidence as a photographer was still rocky. “In London, I was pretty starstruck,” she says. “I didn’t consider myself any kind of a photographer at that point.” It was at the Rio Olympics in 2016, after she had a few World Championships under her belt, as well as three summers living and shooting in Europe, that Erin’s skill and tenacity as a photographer showed on the worldwide stage.
On the last day of the show jumping trials, Erin knew that for Great Britain’s Nick Skelton (and his horse Big Star) to win a gold medal hinged on how well Canada’s Eric Lamaze did on the last jump of the day. “Everyone knew that if [Lamaze] had a rail down, then [Skelton] was going to win gold. [Skelton] was up a ramp in the warm-up area, and security was crazy. I didn’t want a picture of [Lamaze] in the ring losing if he had a rail down. I wanted a picture of [Skelton] way over here winning,” Erin recounts.
“When [Lamaze] had the rail down, I turned around, ran, and chose that moment to ignore all the poor security guys,” she adds. “I got into where [Skelton] was crying and petting his horse. One other British photographer had gotten in there, too. But it was him and me and that was it.” It was a truly special moment. She says, “In that moment, being bold and acting like the paparazzi really worked out. [Security] yelled at me a little bit but not that bad. Worth it.”
In 2018, Erin quit her last full-time media job and became a full-time photographer. She continues to shoot at national and international shows, partnered with Shannon Brinkman, a well-known equestrian photographer, and expanded her services to include portraits of horses and owners. When asked what she looks for when she’s shooting, Erin says it depends, though the horse is always the most important part of the shot. “I hope that my portraits stand apart because I try to get more out of the depth of it. It’s always a challenge to show true connection,” she says. And when she’s on a course shooting a three-day event or show jumping, she thinks, “The horse may be galloping from here to here, but now this is your opportunity to find something there. How do I get something different?” “I look at the photo I just took and think how can I make that better?” she adds. “Can I do the same thing again? That’s an ongoing process that never ends.”
Erin notes that capturing a great image can be achieved through planning: “We set ourselves up for that kind of success, whether it’s the one little chance I had at the Olympics to get something no one else could, or Shannon and I agreeing that I can get the best emotion so I’m going to go stand at the finish line of the biggest US competition of the year.” So does it take being in the right spot at the right time? Not exactly. “I try and tell people you can stand next to the most famous photographer in the world and get a totally different photo,” she says. “Some of my most famous photos were like, there I am, there’s seven other people, and I got the shot that no one else did.”
These days, Erin’s photography business has taken on a new level of success. She’s now the official photographer at several competitions which means she hires a team of three to six photographers to shoot every competitor. Before a competition, Erin maps out where she needs each photographer during each event, whether it be show jumping, dressage, or three-day eventing. Dressage and show jumping are held in small arenas, while three-day eventing involves an eight-mile cross country course with solid jumps.
For three-day eventing, she walks the course three days before the competition. “You need to place four people out there, know that you can’t get it all but make a plan to get four jumps here, four jumps there, and then make a plan you don’t outrun yourself. Say you have to run 200 yards; you can’t run 200 yards for eight hours,” she explains. Erin has established her photography business in Virginia where she currently lives and is always looking for ways to stay involved and relevant in the equestrian community.
After George Floyd was killed in May 2020, Erin witnessed many in the sport, especially the show jumping community, “acknowledge in a lot of ways their privilege and the whiteness of the sport.” She wrote about Brianna Noble, an African American horsewoman who went viral in Oakland when she rode her horse in a Black Lives Matter protest, and the experience really left her thinking about how the equestrian sport is difficult for people of different races and income backgrounds (and the intersectionality of the two) to be involved in the equestrian world. “We haven’t forgotten about it. We’re talking about it [and] we are trying to make the sport more inclusive,” she says, yet notes that unless the sport can be made more affordable, it will continue to be a space primarily for the white elite. “[Our Federation] runs our Olympic teams and our high-level sport and that is still really for people with money. I’ve never gotten anywhere in the sport as a rider. I didn’t have money or opportunity,” she explains. “My opportunity has been my career.
“[Our Federation] runs our Olympic teams and our high-level sport and that is still really for people with money. I’ve never gotten anywhere in the sport as a rider. I didn’t have money or opportunity,” she explains. “My opportunity has been my career.
“Now I’m at a point in my life where I can get another horse – the horse of my dreams.” Erin adds. “And last year, I did just that. It turns out that it isn’t a six-figure show jumper but a young, palomino Gypsy Vanner cross that I bought for the peace of mind and pure joy that he brings me. My goals aren’t to jump at the Olympics, they are to canter on a loose rein, to stand relaxed and to adventure through the Virginia countryside with a brilliant partner. Every single day I feel lucky that I have found exactly that type of horse to enjoy.”
Erin goes on to explain how her business and career have progressed. “The pandemic became kind of a catalyst, in the sense that while it halted travel for the most part, and paused international competitions, it created the space for me to focus on my business close to home in Virginia. I spent 2020 and 2021 photographing a growing list of competitions that are all within an hour’s drive, and more importantly, on mentoring and working with a growing team of photographers. As much as I dedicate myself to the business end of producing and selling exceptional images, I have thrown my efforts behind the goals and dreams of the group of female photographers who shoot for me.
As a result, I am building a supportive community of equestrian photographers who lift each other up and help each other grow. The growth of my business is nothing without them, and I support them in kind by giving them opportunities wherever I can. I am still focused on photographing the “big” sport; I most recently shot the Live Oak International CSI4*-W, and it was fantastic to be back ringside. But careers have many dimensions, and I find as much joy striving to reach my own goals, as I do helping others see and achieve theirs.”