Jumping For Joy: Helen Cruden’s Equine life
Born into a horse-mad family, Helen Cruden also inherited the gene. As a renowned showjumper and equine photographer, she chats to us about the symbiotic relationship and where she’s headed next
By Dominique Sisley
Photography by Helen Cruden
Helen Cruden is breathless. The equine photographer has had an intense few months, criss-crossing the globe – from Dubai to Spain to Miami – to document various showjumping and polo tournaments. Her most recent event was the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
Helen’s intense schedule is a testament to both her diligence and her skill. Over the past couple of years, she has become one of the equestrian scene’s most in-demand documentarians, capturing both the majestic power of her horse subjects, and the intense emotional bond they form with their riders. This year she is working with four professional polo teams in the High Goal including Great Oaks, Dubai, Scone and Polo Magdeleine – and has over 21,000 followers on Instagram. Even the pandemic didn’t throw her off her stride: after a quiet first lockdown, she worked almost solidly for 12 months (something she feels “very grateful” and “lucky” for).
A scour through Helen’s upbringing and lineage, and this success feels like no surprise. Equestrian sports are in her blood. “Horses have just always been ingrained in our lives and the family through the generations,” she says. The photographer speaks warmly about her grandfather, Peter Cruden; a “fantastic” professional polo player who set up his own club in India after the Second World War. He passed his passion onto his children (Helen’s mother and two uncles), who then carried on the family tradition, keeping horses and dabbling in various equestrian sports throughout their lives. “My family always encouraged me to just adore horses, adore the sport of polo, adore racing, and they always encouraged me to be the best rider I could be,” adds Helen, fondly. “Horses have always been the reason why we wake up in the morning and live our lives.”
Helen, who was brought up between Sussex and France, began riding as a toddler. At the tender age of “around four or five”, she was competing in professional showings, riding her ponies around Wembley Stadium for Crufts-style demonstrations. Although this might seem like an extreme initiation, given her youth, Helen looks back on the period warmly. She says that learning to compete so young taught her “patience, independence” and gave her a sense of “responsibility” that would become vital in later life. “I thrived off it, really,” she remembers. “I just lived for the weekends, going away to shows with my mum and travelling across the country in our horsebox together… It was just such an accolade to a young person’s life, and there was such a community, which was lovely to be a part of growing up.”
As Helen grew into a teenager, showing eventually turned into showjumping (she didn’t follow the family tradition of polo, as she claims to have “terrible hand-to-eye coordination”). She competed, briefly, but then got sidetracked by five years of university studies at UCL and the Sorbonne, which meant that she couldn’t devote as much time to the sport. A top-tier career in showjumping requires dedicated tunnel vision – powered by lots of money and time – which Helen wasn’t able to take on. Thinking practically, she opted for academia, studying French language and literature, and began considering other career options. But the equestrian world kept calling. After the unexpected death of her uncle shortly after her graduation, Helen’s life was thrown off course. As her internship plans came to a halt, she was forced to return home to Sussex in 2015 to support her family. During this time, she sought comfort in a new hobby. “I thought I’d go and buy myself a camera and take it to a polo match,” she says. “It was very much just as a distraction, more than anything.” Helen had always enjoyed photography, but when she started documenting the tournaments on her camera, all of her anxieties about her future, her career, her family, began to dissolve. “People liked what I was doing, and it just snowballed from there.
This isn’t to say that her rise to the top of the equine photography industry has been easy. The punishing schedules and constant travel require a lot of sacrifices, and Helen has faced challenges due to both her nationality and gender. After all, the polo world is mostly dominated by Argentinians, which means that English speakers need to make some serious cultural adjustments if they want to fit in. “I made a lot of effort to learn Spanish, to learn their intonations, learn what they like,” the photographer says. “I try to be as much a part of their community as I can.” As for her gender, Helen hints that she has faced misogynist abuse – through objectification and ‘horrible’ dismissive comments – but she is determined not to rise to it, or to make it a focal part of her narrative. “Being a woman hasn’t always been easy,” she explains. “(But) when you work so hard and you hear somebody say horrific things, it just pushes you. I just want to let my work do the talking.”
Fortunately, that isn’t proving to be much of a problem. Helen’s voice speeds up, impassioned, whenever she talks about her work; about the exhilarating experience of capturing horses in full speed; about capturing the feeling of oneness between a rider (or breeder) and his horse. In her images, we see the heightened emotions of the world’s polo tournaments – from ecstatic, disbelieving victories to tearful, loving embraces – encapsulated in a single snapshot. It says a lot about Helen’s empathy, that she is able to capture the moments both viewers and participants want to remember. “I just love making people happy and I love making the owners of the ponies or players happy,” she says. “And I also love beginning to share the sport with new people.”
Up until the end of last year, Helen balanced her photography with regular showjumping, and she admits that the world of equestrian sport is completely consuming. However, after suffering very bad disc herniations and nerve damage to her leg, her showjumping, and in fact any physical activity, has come to a heartbreaking halt. Helen plans to get back to riding and competing regularly as soon as she can, something she calls, “a hobby that I take very, very seriously”. When Helen is at home, she spends time with friends or her three horses. Over the phone, she talks through the individual temperaments of each one – Hero, Wonder and George – as if they were her own children. “My mum laughed at me earlier because I was giving kisses to one of my horses,” Helen jokes. “She was saying, ‘You shouldn’t be giving kisses to horses, this is ridiculous.’” But this powerful bond, or this willingness to see horses as loving individuals rather than machines, is perhaps the secret to Helen’s success. “Churchill once said that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man, and it really is true. They are such quiet animals, but they say so much if you give them the time and space to build that bond with you.”
As for the future, Helen has dreams about one day branching out and photographing other sports (Formula One has been another lifelong love of hers). She talks hopefully about moving more into showjumping documentation, about capturing the Olympics and about diversifying her craft. But she is cautious about over-extending herself, and leaving behind the world she has spent so long trying to build. “I almost have got to the stage where I feel a sort of obligation to support polo because I’ve spent so many years in it,” she says, finally, before pausing for a moment. “I would really love to diversify into more sports. But I’m just not sure if my heart would commit to them as strongly as it does for the equestrian world.”