I hate looking at photos of myself.

So when equestrian photographer Laurie Thomson posted a candid picture of me and a Gypsy Vanner on Facebook last year, I picked myself apart. On the phone with a friend, I griped about how cold and wet I looked and how my hair was a hot mess.

“The mare looks beautiful,” I said, “but my six chins are showing.”

 My pal replied, “You know, Gretchen, it is a rare gift to have an image of yourself doing the thing you love.”

 It has been a year since I first saw the picture, and it is now one of my favorites. Not only was my friend right, but it was nice to have evidence of one of the most intense equine adventures I have ever had.

My good friend Chris Baehnman, owner of Feathered Horse Farm, was hosting a workshop with world-renowned Polish photographer Katarzyna Okrzesik-Mikolajek. The weekend of the shoot was in mid-April, and the Kentucky hills howled with rain and wind. A tornado warning in the middle of the night left us scrambling to the basement after the first day of the shoot.

Still, Katarzyna and her small band of shutterbugs came rumbling up the steep hollers daily, and Chris and her tiny band of helpers rose to the occasion. Terrible weather or not, the heard of Gypsy Vanners in all their feathered glory would get photographed even if it killed us.

And those hills definitely tried to unalive us.

The steep banks combined with broodmares and stallions fresh with the scent of spring was a prime recipe for physical comedy. All of us handlers had at least one moment where we slipped and got covered in mud—we fell face first and butt first, sideways and backward.

My worst fall was sliding directly down a steep hillside between a broodmare’s back legs. Like an angel, she avoided me as carefully as she could.

The photo of me was taken in a quieter moment. Later, in the barn, Katarzyna instructed the others in equine portraiture. Some of us posed different steeds for pictures while others waited on the side with the next subject. The photographers adjusted their lenses and moved about the barn for different angles.

That weekend, I learned exactly how much blood, sweat, tears, skill, and bravery it takes to capture the perfect horse photo. I will never look at those dreamy calendars of galloping steeds the same way again.

That behind-the-scenes lesson in portraiture wasn’t the only lesson that weekend—I was also reminded of the power of holding horses.

There are a handful of people in my life that I can confidently turn to and say, “Hey, hold this one’s lead rope.” It might seem like a simple task, but taking the lead of a horse, especially one you don’t know, takes a substantial amount of horse sense.

You need to make sure you are not in the way of others and know what to do if the horse spooks or misbehaves. You have to learn how to ask the horse to do whatever you need, whether it is loading in a trailer, or holding still.

Deservedly it or not, a few people have also trusted me enough to hang on to their steeds.

It’s an honor and often also a learning experience. You get to know a lot about people waiting for the vet or standing at the entrance of a show ring with an equine beside you.

You learn even more about horses. You learn how to read the flick of a tail or the turn of an ear. You learn to be quiet and confident, and provide comfort even when you are frustrated. Above all, you learn that humility and humor are really the only ways to get through the day. 

When I left the small breeding farm I worked at in college for four years, I was oddly worried about telling the farrier, of all the people. I thought of all of the hours he and I had stood together as he trimmed hooves. When I told him, he frowned and said, “Who is going to  hold horses for me?”   

It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.