Friday, May 01, 2020

Behind the Lens: Get to Know Endurance Ride Photographer Genie Stewart-Spears

by Merri
May 1 2020

In today's issue of my "Behind the Lens" series, featuring members of the Endurance Ride Photographers Guild (ERPG), we get to meet veteran photographer, journalist, and inspiration to many of us, Genie Stewart-Spears.

Genie has written and photographed for - to name a few! - Arabian Horse World, Western Horseman, Trail Rider, Chronicle of the Horse, Arabian Horse Express, Horse & Rider, Endurance News, Horse Women, Horse Play, Equus, Equine Images, Morgan Horse, Appaloosa Horse Journal, Inside International (AHA), Horse Care, Horse Show, Miles To Go, Ride, and Horseman. Her photographs have appeared in numerous books and calendars, and also in ads.  Most recently she sold an endurance photograph that will be on the side of a regional horse feed delivery truck!

Where do you live?
Southern Illinois

What is your profession?
Equine Photographer and Journalist since 1984 - 2020, but retired except for selling a few in-stock photos, writing a few articles a year, and running an airbnb out of my home (Inn To The Forest)

Do you have horses? Do you ride?

Yep, a now 13-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter and 22-year-old mule that I  trail ride all over the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

How did you first get into photography?

I began photographing for my articles in equine magazines - how-to articles that included endurance, and then covering endurance rides for magazines.  I got a lot of practice photographing horses in motion at the nearby Paducah Downs, in Paducah, Kentucky.

I was an endurance competitor in the beginning (5-day Outlaw Trail and Renegade Rides were my favorites), and often carried my camera, getting off and photographing other riders (for the purpose of illustrating the magazine articles I wrote). And because I was frequently being asked by riders if they could purchase photos, my work morphed into also being an endurance ride photographer.

One of my first events to photograph and cover for magazines was the 1987 Race of Champions in Utah, followed by the World Championship (1988) in Virginia.  I also photographed and covered a number of North American Championships, more Race of Champions, Pan Americans, Old Dominions and Biltmore Rides, to name a few of the big rides.

What equipment do you normally shoot with?

I began with a 35 mm Olympus and went to Canon equipment with the 70-200 lens being my favorite.

When did you start shooting endurance rides?

Mid 1980s

Why do you like shooting endurance rides?

I was drawn to the athleticism of the horses and the riders.

What are challenges you find in shooting endurance rides?

Biggest challenge was getting trail maps/directions to preview the course. Ride managers or trail bosses back then didn’t comprehend what all goes into finding the best places to capture the essence of the competition with a strong background or foreground with the best possible light.  I often would arrive two to three days prior and explore the trail in reverse, because that is how I would be viewing the horses.

What are one or two of your favorite ride shooting stories/adventures/misadventures?

Endurance photographers often lend aid on the trail to lost or injured riders and horses!

#1 Oh mercy, I’m not a swimmer but I had to swallow my fear of water to get out in the middle of the Shenandoah River (Old Dominion Ride) year after year.  The second or third year a horse was as terrified as I was of the water, dumped its rider and fled across the river in terror. It was in full panic mode.  Suddenly it saw me standing in the middle of the river and I guess it thought I would save it from the water swallowing it whole, and turned straight for me. I was torn between photographing or running for shore! True to being a photographer, I kept shooting and then grabbed its reins. It stood, trembling, until the rider slogged her way across the river to retrieve her horse.

#2 At a ride in Kentucky (Land Between The Lakes), as I was driving to my next spot to shoot, a riderless horse came toward me at a full gallop. I was able to slow him and catch him. Once he was secured, I went in search of the rider who I found in the middle of the trail, conscious but in great pain. She had been full-bodied slammed into a tree. She was helicoptered from the local hospital to a major one in Tennessee where she underwent surgery. Thankfully she fully recovered and returned to competition. As I recall, she was riding the late Dr. Matthew Mackay-Smith’s horse that had its own idea how fast to run the course.

Any other pertinent info you’d like to share with us?

I was honored to meet and spend time with the late and great (and first ever) ride photographer Charles Barieau during the 1992 Tevis. Some of the stories he shared were wonderful pieces of endurance history! He talked about riding the Tevis Trail (in training) with Wendell Robie and about their adventures. Charles wasn’t into riding as much as Wendell. On one long ride, hoping to turn back for home, Charles told Wendell the horse he was riding was getting tired. Wendell told him the horse was just fooling him and swapped horses (both were Wendell’s horses) and they kept going. Not what Charles wanted!

I’ve ridden alongside some great riders and horses through the years and better yet I’ve photographed and interviewed many of the greats for magazine articles. People like Valerie Kanavy (Cash) and her daughter Danielle who is just as awesome of a rider as her mother; and there’s Becky Hart (Rio),  Jeanne Waldron (Brombe), Crockett Dumas (Grasshopper), Debbie Gordon (Redman),  Maggy Price (Priceless),  Beverly Gray (Omner),  Mary Koefod (Dana’s Northlite), Darla Westlake (RT Muffin), Sharon Ballard (Kidd), Kathy Arnold (Easter Charm), Stagg Newman (Drubin) and so many more greats that make up the sport and made it what it is today.  

While I’m not out there photographing rides anymore, I’m enriched with having been in the midst of great riders and learned from them, not just about riding but about life and how to roll with the punches as well as appreciate the good times.  I thank God for it all.

Below are a couple of Genie's favorite shots and rides over the years.

Valerie Kanavy with some of her horses on her farm in VA (2009)

Stagg Newman with Drubin after the horse’s retirement from endurance (2004)

Annie Whelan during the North American Junior and Young Riders’ Competition in 2015

Valerie Kanavy on Cash (Pieraz) in the 1993 Race of Champions.

Danielle Kanavy McGunigal at 2005 Biltmore finish line.

Top photo is a recent photo of Genie with three of her four poodles that often go hiking with her


Behind the Lens: Susan Kordish profile is here:

Behind the Lens: Becky Pearman profile is here:

Behind the Lens: Dave Honan profile is here:

Behind the Lens: Linda Sherrill profile is here:

Behind the Lens: Steve Bradley profile is here:

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