Photo: Debra Garside
Untamed: Wild Horses of Sable Island - The Photography of Debra Garside
In a place where human footprints are a rare and passing mar on the land, and nature still flows through the seasons unaltered by human interference, patience is the medium required to capture moments of true wildlife. In a world of overwhelming human intrusion and competition for space with feral and untamed animals, it takes incredible fortitude and composure to remain unobtrusive among these animals and capture these moments of pure nature.
Grown in the same environment that she now captures through a lens, Debra Garside has been formed to the land like clay to a mold, and understands how she fits into settings so wild and unfettered by human conditions. A successful rider, coach, and equestrian judge, Garside has experienced life in and around horses and the show ring since she was 10-years-old. She bridges a wide gap between horses conditioned from birth to perform to human standards and those who have never been touched by a human hand.
Her style is raw and honest, covering subjects from the remote deserts and polar regions and the creatures that live there to the rare mystery that is the Sable Island Horses. It’s this aptitude for capturing undisturbed scenes from nature, both pleasant and brutal, which has won her many awards in photography, as well as respect from those in her field.
"As a child growing up, I knew that I wanted to do two things: ride horses and to be an artist. My childhood dreams were inspired by reading books like 'Misty of Chincoteague' (wild ponies lost on a windswept island). As a junior and young adult, my passion for riding and competing became all-consuming and led to a long career with show jumpers.
"When I ‘retired’ from the horse business in 2008, I began to retrace my artistic interests, and photography became my medium of expression. I spent time shooting in Patagonia, Antarctica and the Arctic, and won some awards for my work with grizzlies and polar images.
"I had intended photography to be the ‘non-horsey’ phase of my life, but alas, once horses are in your blood they are there forever. After a short time, it became obvious that I had a special connection with horses and that showed through in my imagery. Soon, I returned to them as my prime subjects.
"I decided that if horses were to be my main focus, I wanted my subjects to be as ‘truly wild’ as possible. Since the Sable Horses were the only unmanaged horse population in the Americas, it made perfect sense to start there. I read Pat & Rosemary Keogh’s book, “Wild & Beautiful Sable Island,” and after speaking with Rosemary, who was very generous with her advice, I decided to make my initial journey there in 2009.
"I researched the history of the island—of all the shipwrecks and the life-saving stations and how the horses were part of that incredible story. It was a compelling backdrop. Though it was/is a logistical nightmare getting there, it has been worth every moment. Only a handful of people each year are granted access to the island, and I am one of the fortunate few."
Surrounded by Wild Horses
"It is truly cathartic, as a horseman, to be able to observe in close proximity a herd whose ancestors have roamed freely for centuries. The herd dynamics and social structure are fascinating. Because humans have never interfered with these horses, they largely just ignore my presence, which is the best scenario. Their ability to adapt continues to amaze me at every turn. The horses on Sable, for instance, find nourishment in kelp and peat, drink salt water, and paw into the underground aquifer when water is scarce.
"I try not to become attached to any individuals because–as with all wild animals–nature’s laws of survival are the harsh reality that they endure. Even in protected areas and national parks, life in the wild is not easy. I find it sad when older stallions are usurped and must wander alone, or when a band stallion takes over a herd and forces a mare to abandon her foal. But one must accept that this is nature, and it ensures the survival of the fittest."
"The Sable Island horses have been protected since the 1960s and hopefully will have even more security now that Sable Island has become a National Park. Their history is so interesting and unique that they draw a lot of support. Other wild horse populations in Canada are not so fortunate. Wild horse management is always controversial and complicated because there is no simple solution to controlling herd populations and ranges.
In my home province of Alberta, the wild horses range on Crown Land (equivalent to BLM Land). Here, they compete with the logging and oil & gas industries, cattle that graze the land leases, and they endure frequent predation from cougar and wolves. They have no protection at all and are rounded up for slaughter, chased by weekenders on their ATVs, and are generally considered by ranchers to be a nuisance. It is a sad situation.
I think that my role here is two-fold. Firstly, I want to bring awareness to their existence and value through my exhibits and books, and secondly, I hope to establish the two adopted mustangs that I own and show people that they are valuable as riding horses.
"My partner, Paul Cooper, and I have a 160-acre farm about one hour northwest of Calgary. We offer board for retired sport horses. Paul is a farrier whose hobby is team roping, so now I have a quarter horse and have become a ‘healer.’ We live in an incredibly beautiful part of the country, the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, where we go mountain riding when time allows. I am currently having fun with starting my two-year-old adopted mustangs.
"Perhaps my previous esteem in the horse industry will help elevate people’s appreciation of how wonderful these horses can be, if given a chance. They both free-jump with lots of ability. Who knows, maybe I will have the first A-Circuit mustang!"
"The Tempest is one of the photographs I am most proud of, along with its companion piece Light Contact. They depict two bachelor stallions spinning together and kicking up sand on the beach. It started out as a knee-biting game and escalated into quite an exciting display of mock battle. The number of elements that came into alignment to make this image work was amazing. The light on Sable Island is seldom photographer-friendly, but on this particular morning, the fog pulled back allowing a diffuse glow of color into the palette.
"The band of bachelor stallions I had been following began to play right down on the shoreline, and I was in the right place, right time, with the right light and managed to capture a moment that few are privileged to see.
"I just won a major international photo contest with the image Protector. That being said, I view contests as kind of a necessary evil. The most rewarding part of what I do is when one of my images impacts viewers on deeply emotional level and causes them to pay attention to the subject of wild horses.
"My most popular/famous photograph is an image called Journey’s End.
"The old horse was enduring his last days, and I was torn between wanting to both respect and honor this. I debated whether to photograph him, but in the end took a few shots, thinking that in some way he might live on through my imagery. I took several shots of him showing the context of his desolate environment. I hoped for his survival, but he died a few days later. It took me months before I could revisit the images and be able to process them. Journey’s End was recognized by Photolife Magazine in its Emerging Photographers list in 2010 and continues to evoke a very emotional response from viewers.
"What I hope separates me from other wild horse photographers is that all of my imagery is un-staged. It is completely authentic in that the moments I capture are not influenced by human behavior. There are no ‘handlers’ chasing ‘wild horses’ along the beach at sunrise. My process is very simple: I am following and observing natural behavior, tuning into what are often subtle movements or expressions that are meaningful to me as a horseman, then trying to capture that fleeting moment in a still photo. For example, in my image Arch there are two stallions meeting each other for the first time. They cautiously approached each other and eventually got close enough to touch noses. The image depicts that brief moment before they strike and squeal, and one either backs down or the fight is on."
"I doubt anything will come close to matching Sable Island [for horse photography]. The history, the remoteness, the remarkable land and seascapes are the best backdrop an artist can hope to have for an equine subject. However, my three expeditions to remote parts of Katmai, Alaska to follow and photograph grizzlies were some of the most memorable moments of my life. Grizzlies are largely misunderstood, and living in close proximity to them, seeing their interaction with other species like wolves, was an unforgettable experience.
I love experiencing stark and remote places, and I am particularly fascinated with the polar and desert regions of the world. Extreme weather, the power of nature, is very gripping."
"I was photographing grizzlies that were fishing on the tidal flats in Katmai National Park, Alaska. The salmon were not running in large numbers yet, so the bears were not having much luck. One bear noticed me and my small group who had taken up our shooting position on the edge of a sandbar to photograph the bears’ activities. He obviously thought we had the better fishing spot, because he walked right over and lined up along the sandbar with us, staring into the water. He was close enough to touch. We tried to ignore him, but it was so funny that we could hardly maintain our composure. We were a little bit scared, but very much amused. He hung out with us for about 15 minutes, eventually decided our spot was not any better and wandered off to look elsewhere. We laughed for a long time, both from wonder and relief."
"I have had many influences and continue to seek out and study artists whose work stands out by virtue of its technical prowess, or its ability to evoke emotion. I admire Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Paul Nicklen, and hope that one day I could be to wild horses what Nicklen has been to polar wildlife, both as artist and conservationist. I am also fascinated by street photographers like Fred Herzog and Edward Weston. However, I think more strongly, I have been influenced by non-photographic artists like Alex Colville and equine artist Joe Coffey, whom I admire for their ability to create mood and emotion. Tim Schumm was a huge influence in understanding landscape composition.
"I have great admiration for Tim Flach, who spends days painstakingly setting up shots with a lighting team, and has professional horsemen managing the animals and staging shots. The results are stunning, albeit not something that I would strive to emulate.
"I don’t know if I will ever decide “now I am successful,” because the journey is always evolving. My motives and aspirations change as I progress along the path. In the world of photography I am a beginner, a novice. I am not sure what the defining moment will look like, but I think I have a long way to go, and that is why it is a wonderful challenge."