As the equestrian industry continues to face the cancellation or postponement of horse shows around the world due to COVID-19, professionals from all facets of the sport are being forced to change their business models and immediate plans. Many people in the competitive horse show industry, such as horse show staff, braiders, grooms and judges, have taken a huge economic hit over the past few weeks, suffering tremendously with their livelihoods taken away and no competition in sight. Of those that rely heavily on the competitive aspect of the sport to make a living are photographers. Phelps Sports spoke with one of the most sought-after photographers on the international equestrian circuit, Ashley Neuhof, to see how she is handling the effects of the global pandemic.
What was your reaction to the cancellation of many of the current and upcoming horse events?
It all happened in waves. The reaction was a bit of disappointment, a little bit of shock and then a phase of realizing that this is bigger than us and that there is not much we can do but our part as citizens. Once things started to get canceled I realized that it would have a domino effect. Initially, at WEF (Winter Equestrian Festival), things were changing by the day so it was a bit surreal. A lot of my work deals with European events as well, and they were obviously already experiencing the virus at a heightened degree, so a lot of the information I was getting from that prepared me for what was to come in the U.S., and that was that things were going to be shut down. I was also taking a lot of cues from other information that was being given about other sports events because we are obviously connected to the sports industry. When WEF canceled its remaining weeks, it was a defining moment for a lot of us.
Did the cancellation of events so far throw a wrench in your plans for spring 2020?
It definitely put everything on hold as far as events go. I am very used to going from show to show and I actually feel like once WEF ends is really when I start hitting the ground running. I was scheduled to go to the Longines Global Champions Tour Miami Beach, which has a lot of carryover from WEF so a lot of my clients were looking forward to that. I also work with a couple of the teams that do the Longines Global Champions League, so that was a big blow to the schedule for sure. I was also planning to go to the FEI World Cup Finals, which would have been great because it was in the U.S. this year so it really affected what I had planned out. I am quite a big planner and I function at my best when I know what plane I am getting on next and where I am headed. That is a huge part of my business, the planning and execution of each show, so not having that is difficult.
How has all of this shifted your focus on your business temporarily?
For a little while, I was able to shift my focus to my studio and fine art side, which I really enjoy. I had a lot of interest in the portrait sessions I do and I had been working with this particular backdrop that I had commissioned from a studio in New York City, which was a connection I made through my very good friend and fellow photographer Danielle Maczynski. I went to an exhibit on Irving Penn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of years ago and seeing his photos in person really inspired me. He had the original backdrop there that he used for all of his shoots, which made it special knowing that the famous people he had worked with had, at one point, stood or sat with that backdrop behind them. I got the idea to create that myself by having a backdrop commissioned by this studio that does nearly all of the backdrops for the photoshoots by Annie Leibowitz, Steven Klein and others for Harper’s Bazaar and other major campaigns. It is obviously pretty large so that a horse can fit on it and it is reinforced with multiple layers of fabric to withstand the wear and tear of hooves. When I first got it, I was so worried about it being ruined, but each hoof print and indent reminds me of every horse that has graced it so far. This was a refreshing piece to work on because for a while, I was able to transition over to a project that I had really been wanting to delve into but hadn’t had the time to execute. It was really fun work on while it still fit within the CDC guidelines and was safe to do. People really enjoyed the sessions I was able to do with that unique element that was a little different. It kept people engaged and interested in my photography and in what I could create for them outside the competition arena. I will continue to do that once it is safe again, but until then I am at home taking a break.
The power of photography is greater than ever, as we realize how quickly life can change, so I am trying to not focus on the monetary loss. I have hopefully made smart financial decisions where I haven’t ever spent too frivolously. I am not a big spender and I have learned to trust the process. Hopefully what is on the other side of this pandemic is a better place for all of us but I recognize that there are those who have been irreparably affected with the loss of loved ones, and I try to always be thankful for the health of myself, friends and family every day. You get nervous when you compare your finances from last year and where you feel you should be, but when you concentrate too much on that it can be a huge source of stress. Instead, I have tried to focus on using this time to maintain the relationships I have so that when things do resolve, the connections are still there and maybe even a bit stronger because people value my photography.
How have you been handling the “new normal” in your daily routine?
I am not someone who is very routine but I can fall into one when the circumstances require it. Places like WEF do create that because the show dictates your schedule but when I am left to my own devices I am a bit erratic and will oftentimes stay up very late editing images. That has also worked well for me in my down time because I really try to listen to my body and do what I need to do to feel my best, which I realize is such a privilege to be able to do. I am not someone who gets up and goes to bed at the same time every day and when I am on the road, often between big gaps in time zones, I try to adapt quickly, but sometimes I just have to give in and sleep at strange hours to be able to continue to function at a normal level.
Lately, I have been doing a lot of yoga, which has been great for my body because as a photographer, you end up contorting your body in ways that probably aren’t very healthy! I feel a bit more centered than I did before and that has drawn some awareness to that for me. It is so hot in Florida right now that I don’t run as much as I would like but I try to do other high-intensity workout sessions to keep me active and healthy.
I am not really sure what the “new normal” is. I think, for me, it has been accepting that I am grounded for a while and that takes different forms each day. Some days I am really inspired and I go through my old images to formulate different content, and other days I find it tough because I am so used to going a thousand miles an hour all the time. I also recognize that is unsustainable, so I am definitely trying to take this time to rest.
How has this affected your relationship with your clients?
I am very, very fortunate to have the clients who have been with me for a long time and I think this is a bump in the road for everybody. We don’t see each other five days a week anymore so I miss the interactions with everybody very much. A lot of my business is based around those relationships I have built and the feeling of being a part of their teams in a small way. I have really been trying to continue to create Instagram stories and posts that give my clients pieces of content to look at and use in this time where we aren’t creating new images. I try to keep connected with them and social media is good for that. It has been nice to get the feedback from them and see them repost, which has made me want to do more of that even when this is over. I have been able to take the time to research the various ways to deliver newer, more current forms of content which has kept me inspired along the way too. Giving my clients something to look at, look back on and forward to, is fun for myself and them.
How have your feelings regarding COVID-19 changed as it has progressed?
The last day at the Palm Beach Masters had a very eerie feeling of not knowing when we would all be back together. It felt like it all happened really quickly, but in some ways time also felt like it was standing still – it was surreal. As a creative person with a creative business, I am always geared toward a specific moment which in some ways I am always searching for. It is a great gift but it can be very mentally and physically exhausting. I tend to be in a perpetual state of FOMO (fear of missing out), so to have a moment where I don’t feel I am missing anything is quite an experience and really very strange. I haven’t had that for at least the past three or four years since taking my photography to a full-time level.
The bottom line is that this has really made me step back and appreciate what I am able to do and the people I am able to do it with. As photographers, we are very lucky that our job is to capture these moments that are happening in time and in history. Now that we don’t have the ability to be at a horse show, we can look back on all of those moments and recognize that those images actually mean more now than they ever have before. For me it has been a really great process to go through the content that I once shot and edited, but didn’t necessarily take the time to process it for myself. It has given me the opportunity to look back on so many moments that were incredible to be a part of and it has been nice to relive that journey while standing still. It certainly creates a feeling of nostalgia, but it has also helped stoke my fire to get back out there again when the time is right.
Do you feel the changes from both the virus and the economy will have lasting effects on your business?
I would hope not in the long run. It is going to take some time to regain some confidence in going back out, even if it is just to the grocery store, but I think humans are very resilient and I hope that we can take some of the lessons that this has taught us into the future.
I am sure global travel will be a bit different. I think I flew 130,000 miles last year and I didn’t think much of it because that was normal for my job – we rely on air travel. As glamorous as it sounds, we all know that travel can be tough. I have learned to embrace the various challenges of traveling globally and it sounds odd, but I feel so at home when I am sitting in an airport knowing I am headed somewhere with a greater purpose. The one routine I always have is when I get up to walk to my gate (which in London’s Heathrow Airport can be a long one) is to put on some motivational music to remind me that I am on a mission, wherever the destination may be. It helps put me in a mindset of go-mode. I definitely miss that. There is a bit of a kindred spirit connection I have with other travelers that I definitely feel is easy to take for granted when we are quite literally all grounded now. Traveling has become a bit of my identity and I think that will need to adjust in some way. Time will tell and we are at the mercy of science until then. This virus is bigger than all of us.
Has the virus impacted your business decisions?
I have been through things in my life that have really shown me things like this are out of our control. I have learned that making any big moves at times like this can be out of emotion, so I am trying to really accept the circumstances as best I can and keep my brain and body active while allowing myself some time to rest. That way, when things pick back up I will be ready to go. Right now, I feel it is my duty as a citizen to not go to farms or come in contact with people. At the most immediate moment, it has affected my ability to work behind the camera altogether, although I am contemplating a second career as a reptile photographer since all varying forms seem to be frequenting my backyard at the moment. Time will tell how long the effect will be moving forward.
What do you feel the equestrian community can do or continue to do to minimize the risk of the spread of COVID-19?
We just have to take the precautions necessary to do what we can to keep everyone safe. We also need to know that we can’t be selfish in just wanting things to get back up and running. We have to know that there will be a “new” normal we will be living in and that remains to be seen in how it will play out. I think what everybody is doing is limiting people coming in and out of the barn, while others have closed access altogether except staff. Horses are inherently potentially dangerous animals so as we work around them I think it is important to keep it in the back of our minds that now is not the time to get hurt. We can only control that so much on any given day but I think not taking unnecessary risks is best. On the other hand, as a horse person above all else, I certainly recognize the therapeutic benefits that horses bring to our lives with routine and being in the present moment. No one knows when the next horse show is so I think everyone is laying low and being smart, which is all we can do while still taking good care of the horses.
My heart goes out to the people that rely on lesson programs or the show in general to make their income. I think the Show Jumping Relief Fund is a really wonderful way to bring the community together to help everyone affected by the loss of work. We all sort of rely on a “gig” economy and I think the virus has made us realize that we can’t just assume these shows and opportunities will always be there. Nobody ever could have predicted this but we just have to hope that if we take the right measures, remain patient and gracious to one another, we will come out better on the other side.
About Ashley Neuhof: Ashley Neuhof has rapidly become one of the most sought-after photographers on the worldwide equestrian circuit, known for her uncanny ability to capture exquisite moments both in the arena and behind the scenes. Her images have been commissioned by top brands and are published frequently in luxury lifestyle magazines worldwide. Her fine art style of portraiture and candid sports imagery continues to drive a modern approach to the visual experience of the equestrian market. For more information, visit www.ashleyneuhof.com.
The Show Jumping Relief Fund (SJRF) was created to help the many people in the competitive equestrian industry affected by the show closures due to COVID-19. SJRF is calling on all equestrians to band together during these trying times in order to support the unsung heroes who keep our industry operating daily, such as the ring crew, in-gate crew, grooms, braiders, stewards, judges, office staff, security and many others who are now unemployed and facing financial hardships.
For those that have the means to do so, donations for SJRF are accepted on its GoFundMe page. The funds will be used to help individuals and families to pay bills, purchase food and medication, and other daily expenses.