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Making the Cover: Behind the Scenes with SmartPak

Our photo shoots remind me a lot of horse show days. Early mornings, long days, tight schedules, plenty of surprises, and an absolute labor of love.

First Things First

The 2011 SmartPak Spring Catalog

As the official SmartPak photo shoot groom, my day usually starts while the grass is still soaked with dew. I walk into the barn, find the horse for the first shot and get to work. In other parts of the barn, the rest of the team is starting their prep work, too. Steamers are warming up. Racks of clothes are rolling up the aisles. Locations for each shot are being scouted. Human models settle in for hair and make-up. As the barn is waking up for the morning, little pieces and parts are being transformed into the perfect background for what we hope will become the perfect shots.

The early morning barn staff always seems a little amused, and occasionally more than a little confused, by things that seem totally normal to us. In fairness, putting baby powder on the horse’s socks isn’t really an everyday occurrence. And sometimes we’re legitimately weird – like the time I pretended the curry comb was a monster’s mouth, and made it “nom” the nose of our pony model, Barbie. (Our photographer’s husband still talks about that.)

Ready, Set, Freeze

Once the real action starts, things go from “hm, that’s odd” to “ok, these people are nuts.” I usually handle the horses during shooting, since we get to know each other during “hair and makeup.” Just like with human models, every shot is thoughtfully posed. Each hoof is carefully placed, the horse has to be angled just so, and the product has to look perfect. Blankets are especially fun because if the horse takes a step, we have to reposition, then tug and adjust the blanket to make sure it’s sitting evenly and as wrinkle-free as possible. That means one stamp at a bothersome fly, or even one shift of weight to rest a foot, and we have to reset.

Once the horse is set, I have to get out of the shot. Since I’m the only one holding the horse, I need to stay close enough so that he doesn’t try to move, but far enough away that I’m out of the frame. This unusually involves a little bit of physical dexterity, and a lot of hope. Each time I say, “whoa, good boy,” it’s a mixture of instruction for the horse and a little bit of prayer.

Play it by Ear

In addition to handling the horse, I also run point on “ear patrol,” though I often have to call for back-up, (it’s tough saying “stand still” while also saying “look at this!”). As you know, ears forward is a horse’s way of smiling, and, unfortunately, horses don’t understand “say cheese!” There is one thing that is universally understood, though, and that’s the noise that food makes. But it’s important to balance getting the horse’s attention and being overly enticing, otherwise your beautiful model turns into a treat-seeking missile, and walks right out of the frame. We have a variety of different “triggers” we use to coax the ears forward, with each of these being guaranteed to work about 1/3 of the time:

  • Gently shaking a bucket of grain or a bag of treats
  • Sprinkling a handful of grain into an empty bucket
  • Crinkling a peppermint wrapper
  • Snapping a carrot in half (biting into the carrot works, too!)
  • Tearing up handfuls of grass (a great option if you also want the horse to put his head down)

Some horses can get over-stimulated by these delicious and tempting sounds, which makes for quite the fidgety model (which makes for a lot of resets, which isn’t fun for anyone). In those instances, we’ll turn to inedible attention getters. My personal favorite is a pink and white pompom from my days on the Customer Care Team (our phone team knows how to have fun!). (Interesting side note: in addition to flying to Florida for our annual spring photo shoots, my pompom was with me for all 39.3 miles of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer!) The pompom is visually interesting, makes a fun sound, and isn’t something most horses have seen before, so it’s really good at eliciting that “oooo, what’s that?” expression, which photographs beautifully. However, because all models are different, it’s important to introduce the pompom slowly and carefully – there is a big difference between “oooo, what’s that?” and “WHAT IS THAT!?”, with the latter resulting in a not-so-photogenic expression.

Occasionally, we’ll have a particularly disinterested model. Treats, grain, pompoms – nothing seems to phase him. While it’s great to have such a calm and quiet horse, “bored” is not the look we’re going for. But to get a new model fully groomed and dressed takes a lot of time, so we’ve been known to get creative when trying to get a “smile.” The whole team gets involved, taking off our jackets and waving them like flags, shuffling our feet in the gravel, folding the leather lead in half and “cracking” or “snapping” the leather, shaking or squeezing plastic water bottles, twirling a broom like a baton, and, my personal favorite, the time when one of us took a mouthful of water and spit it out, a la a cherub in a fountain (hey, it worked!).

The Human Element

Adding a human model into the shot adds a whole other level of complexity. The vast majority of the models we use are professionals with little to no horse experience, so every little thing they do, from how to hold the reins to where to stand, has to be explained. This is where the human models start to think I’m crazy. While they’re holding the reins and walking on the right side, I’m holding a lead line off to the left, walking with them and saying things like “Look at him like you love him. Like he just won you a big, blue ribbon. Tell him he’s a baby. A big, handsome, kissable baby boy!” The point isn’t to convince them that I’m completely insane, it’s to help them get comfortable enough to genuinely laugh and smile, so that we can get an image that really captures the irreplaceable feeling that we riders have when we’re walking with our horses.

A Photo Finish

After shooting thousands of frames over the course of 8+ hours, it’s time to pack it up, thank the barn staff, tuck the horses in and head home. Every shoot takes a lot of hard work, and probably even more luck, but every time, I come home feeling like the luckiest person in the world. To paraphrase Joe DiMaggio, “I’d like to thank the good Lord for making me a SmartPaker.”

Sarah Paull

Sarah Paull is a lifelong rider and SmartPak’s Brand Manager. You may know her better as the life-size foam finger from the London Olympics, the host of USEF Network’s Live from London coverage, or “that girl from the Stuff Riders Say videos.” Prior to joining SmartPak in 2008, Sarah worked as a Veterinary Technician at B.W. Furlong & Associates in Oldwick, NJ, and obtained her degree in Equine Science from Centenary College. Sarah is the proud mom of Cody, a semi-retired, 23-year-old Quarter Horse gelding, and she’s currently looking for an eventing partner to help her get rid of all the extra time, money and energy she doesn’t actually have :-) If you're interested in her often-horsey, always-odd musings, follow @SmartPakerSarah on Twitter.

Posted in SmartPak Features, Stories & Adventures

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35 comments on “Making the Cover: Behind the Scenes with SmartPak
  1. Diane James says:

    A shame you didn’t mention who the photographer was.

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Diane, Thanks for your question! Our outstandingly talented and incredibly patient photographer is Cheryl Clegg ( We’ve worked with Cheryl several times and she’s always been an absolute dream.

  2. Cassandra says:

    I’m a model with a lifetime of horse experience – I wonder how/where SP does their casting calls…

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Cassandra, Thanks for your question! We go through local agencies when casting our photo shoots. Our Spring shoot is always in Wellington, FL and our Fall shoot is always somewhere within driving range of Plymouth, MA.

      • Cassandra says:

        Interesting… maybe I’ll have to find my way to those areas… 🙂

      • Deborah says:


        I also had a similar question. Do you have open casting calls in Wellington, Florida? I also have modeled and I adore horses. 🙂

        • SmartPak SmartPak says:

          Hi Deborah! We don’t typically hold open casting calls, because we’re only in Florida a few short days, so we need to have models selected before we arrive. However, if you’d like to email with your information, our awesome Customer Care Team will be sure to forward your information to our Photography Team. Thanks for your interest! – SmartPaker Sarah

  3. Adrianne says:

    Hey, Great article. I was wondering how you get a job like that. It sounds like something i would love to do. I show groom, have horses and i’m also majoring in Photography.

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Adrianne, Thank you so much for the great feedback! I have a full-time job here at SmartPak as a copywriter, so I’m only out on photo shoots a dozen or so days each year. If you’re interested in applying for a job at SmartPak, our current openings can be found here: or you can email your resume to Thanks again for your compliments and your interest!

  4. Penny Garzarek says:

    I have your equine model’s clone! At least the color, marking, shape and refinement of the face/head — that nice jaw and that gorgeous big eye and expression. I received the catalog and flipped out! You have good taste — “Zoom” always gets the “he’s so beautiful” comments from visitors!
    Penny Garzarek
    The Krugerrand Run Farm
    Columbiana, AL

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Penny, Zoom sounds like a handsome guy, I’m glad to know that visitors appreciate his beauty – it’s nice to be admired 🙂
      Thanks for your great feedback on our cover!

  5. TD says:

    How long (on average) does it take to get “the shot”? For example, the new cover?

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi TD, Thanks for your question! At the annual photo shoots, we’re going from 7AM through the very last light at sundown. We shoot thousands of frames throughout the day, and never know which one is going to be “the shot” for the cover, until we’ve had time to really sit down and go through them.
      To answer your question about this cover shot, the prep time took a lot of work, for the horse and the model. However, once we got out on location, we were maybe out there for 8 minutes, walking back and forth, shooting a couple dozen frames. It’s a lot like horse shows – a whole lot of prep for a couple of intense minutes in the spotlight!

  6. Jayme says:

    Wonder why we never use real horse people as models… we seem to turn out all right at shows! It would help the issue of making the model appear comfortable around horses.. I always see these ‘non-horsey’ models in the catalogs and just shake my head thinking, “That girl has never been on a horse before!” For me, it would also give more confidence in the product being advertised if a REAL horse person, especially a recognizable one, were displaying it. But the SmartPak catalogs are always beautiful and that is inarguable!

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Jayme, Thanks so much for your question, and your very nice compliment!
      For our smaller photo shoots throughout the year, we often do use real riders as our models, for exactly the reason you describe – it’s so much easier to have things go smoothly with the horses, and the feeling is always really genuine. However, for our annual Spring and Fall photo shoots, we have so many apparel items to shoot, and so few shots that actually involve a horse, that it makes sense to hire real “pros” at the whole modeling thing. I know it sounds easy, but fashion modeling really is a tough gig, especially on a 9+ hour day, so having a professional really makes a difference for our team.
      Thanks again for reading the blog, and for your thoughtful question!

  7. Kara Losack says:

    I loved to hear about your photo shoots. Great article so good I imagined myself helping. I could understand the difficulty in these shoots. WhenI take photos at home I have to take 30 to get one that good shot. You know the spectacular shot. Anyways Smartpak you did it again. Lots of love to you and all your employees. Great job guys and girls. Your very much appreciated and your job well done is enjoyed by many.

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Kara, Thank you so much for this wonderful feedback, on the blog and on our cover! It’s having great customers and friends like you that keeps us so excited about the work that we do.
      If you have any pictures you’d like to share from your photo shoots at home, we’d love it if you posted them on our Facebook wall!

  8. Heidi says:

    I love behind the scenes tours and articles! You described everything really well, and it was easy to imagine being there. I just received my new catalog this week and thought the pictures were beautiful! Now I know what it took to get them. Thanks, SmartPak. You are the best!

    • Sarah from SmartPak Sarah from SmartPak says:

      Hi Heidi, Thank you so much! We really love what we do, so writing about it comes easy. I’m so glad you enjoyed this little sneak peek behind the scenes. Thanks again for the great feedback, and for being our customer and friend!

      • Adrienne says:

        Hi Sarah,
        I am a professional model with an agency (plus size model) as well as a horse owner. I would love to work with Smartpak on a shoot. My email is attached. Thank you:)

  9. Cheryl clegg says:

    Hi Sarah, I loved the article. You guys are great to work with! I am always amazed at the volume we are able to shoot in a given day, and how wonderfully organized everyone is!
    Thanks for all of your hard work and the rest of the SmartPak team to make the shoots happen!
    Best, Cheryl
    Ps: the cover looks fabulous!

  10. Abbey Good says:


    Thanks for the lovely article! Could you PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make a Hunter braid video?? I am a DIY’er and cant afford to have somebody braid my boy for me. 🙂

  11. Waterville Farm says:

    Hi! My trainer has this horse at our barn who we all agree he would make an AMAZING model. He has the cutest face and always looks happy. What would I have to do to try and make him a model in your magazine. I assume I need to send in pictures but I am not sure who to.

  12. Katherine says:

    I had been looking for plans for my own blog
    site and discovered your post, “Making the Cover: Behind the Scenes with SmartPak

  13. Morgan Louise says:

    I dont suppose anybody could help me? im 14 years old and i live in wales, i have a horse and i have loads of experience handling, but ive never modelled and im really interested! but i dont know where to start, or who to talk to? :S xx

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Morgan, unfortunately all of our photo shoots are either in Wellington, FL or within driving distance of Plymouth, MA, so we wouldn’t be able to help out (though we would love a trip to Wales!!). Good luck on your modeling journey! – SmartPaker Sarah

  14. Julia Stento says:

    I would like to know if there were any current openings for horse models. I want to use my horse for modeling at smartpak and I am in drivable distance to Plyymouth, MA. Though he does not have much experience, he is super cute, calm, young, and would make a perfect model horse

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hey Julia, thanks for your comment! We’re always looking for fabulous new horses to work with 🙂 Because we work with privately owned barns, we can’t accept trailered-in horses for photo shoots, because it’s not our property, so we can’t be liable for any accidents. However, we are always on the lookout for new barns to use as shoot locations!
      There are a lot of things we need to take into consideration when working with a new barn (is there enough space to have background objects at a suitable distance? are there enough long, low horizons? will the barn be quiet enough that we won’t be in the way? etc.). If you’d like us to consider your barn, please send an email to with as many details and photos of your barn as possible, and they’ll share it with our Creative team, who arrange the photo shoots.
      I hope this has been helpful! Let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks! – SmartPaker Sarah

  15. Ariana solce says:

    Do you get money for letting smartpak use your barn for modeling?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Ariana, thanks for your question! We do compensate our photo shoot barns as best we can with lunch and SmartPak giveaways (and of course plenty of treats for the horse models!!), but we don’t offer any sort of cash in exchange for usage. I hope that’s helpful! – SmartPaker Sarah

  16. Leah says:

    How do you become a model for smart pack? My daughter is a rider with goals to continue a career competing once she graduates from high schoo. She is 5’10 1/2 and would love to be a model for equine. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

  17. Ashley says:

    Out of curiosity, how does one become a model for your magazine whether it be to model the clothes or be on the cover?

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