In late October 2011, WHJ interviewed American fine art/equine photographer, Rachael Waller on her work with wild horses, what feeds her inspiration and what she hopes to accomplish through her craft. She has won numerous awards; her clients include Hollywood personalities; and her images of wild horses have fetched unnamed prices by private collectors. When not behind the camera, she spends her time caring for an assortment of rescued domestic and wild horses at her and husband, Rod Rondeaux’s, ranch in West Texas and their ranch in California. Rod is a member of the the Crow tribe, an award winning stunt man and specialist in training mustangs, remedial and rescued horses using Native American principles.
We caught up with her at the end of the day, after dropping her daughter Cheyenne off at school, feeding a lot of over 30 rescued horses, mostly mustangs, from 4 months old to 26 years-old, and sharing chores on the farm with one of her two volunteers.
WHJ: How did you first become involved with wild horses?
RW: I’ve always photographed rescued horses and horses in need which has always been my mission. It hasn’t been a direct focus but I did photograph the Indian lifestyle too, showing different faces of who Indians are. I was always photographing Rod too who always worked with mustangs because most people didn’t know how to deal with them after they got them from the BLM. Rod has a way with horses and knows how to translate from horse to human and human to horse so they could understand each other. He can take a wild mustang and be on it by day two. He helps me in my art because he is so quick and takes such good care of the horses. People would bring them to him to train and I would take photographs. I’m more the nurturer and give lots of scratches. Ron trained his first horse at age seven and would want to try different things and we’d have alot of fun doing that although I photographed my first horse about 15 years ago. His name was Isabella’s Blue Moon Jazz. He was a renegade quarterhorse. His mother came from Mexico to Texas across the Rio Grande. At that time they would round up and confiscate loose horses and auction them off in town. She had a brand on her but she bred with a wild stallion. The baby was born on a blue moon, thus the name. He had a big wild heart. The rest of his name came from a Navajo friend of mine who has since passed away.
WHJ: Is Blue still alive?
RW: No. He died suddenly in April 2011 at age 16. I have a picture of him that I sold which I took in 2007 when the California wild fires were raging across our backyard. It shows the fire in the sky reflecting in Blue’s eyes.
WHJ: Do you get hired to photograph other people’s horses?
RW: Yes, I am hired out for creating one of a kind pieces of peoples horses or lives with their horses, I am very much a documentary photographer. I’ve never photographed any kind of show horse without a client asking me to do it for them. It’s important to me to meet the horse and know the horse first before I take a picture of it. Anytime I shoot a rescue horse and it makes a cover, I give half to the rescue group. It’s my way of giving back. The first blue ribbon I won surprised me because it was a photo of a slaughter bound horse. People have told me, who aren’t even horse people, that they are touched by my work. They buy it because they feel a connection to it. The rawest images are always the rescue horses.
WHJ: How many horses do you and Rod have now?
RW: We have about 40 here in Texas. We had 16 horses and a burro. Although this year, we were in the middle of the worst drought ever and on the way home one day, after hearing about the seized horses in Marfa, I took a left turn and drove to see the West Texas 25. All of a sudden, I doubled my herd by taking them in and 3 of the 3 Strikes horses.
WHJ: Can you explain who the West Texas 25 and the 3 Strikes horses are?
RW: The 3 strikers are horses that the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) deems unadoptable because they’ve either been passed over or returned from adoption 3 times. They (the BLM ) allowed a guy who owned the 3 Strikes Ranch in Nebraska, to take all the unwanted horses. There were over 200 of them, some were dead, others were starving or were infested with parasites before Lifesavers Wildhorse Rescue stepped in (and the Humane Society of the U.S.) The West Texas 25 are horses that were considered estray’s (owned by no one) and apparently their papers didn’t match, they where seized by the Sheriff and Amber from RUSH.org from the kill ben on the border of Mexico. I was able to convince the sheriff to hand custody of them over to us although there were only 23 at the time and now 19 survivors. They were so starved, neglected, sick and emotionally damaged that with some their organs can’t regenerate. But we got them and that’s what counts. It’s hard because many of us watch truckload after truckload drive through this area (Texas) every day, full of horses bound for slaughter in Mexico. It’s not for the faint of heart to do this kind of work. You never stop learning. Everyday is a new day and you never know what’s going to happen.
WHJ: So you’re not only doing the photography, you have to actually get out there and care for the horses. That must help you in capturing their personalities. Do you carry a camera with you all the time?
RW: Most of the time I do. I feed first then create art. The morning light is so pretty and when the sunlight comes over the mountain it is simply a blessing. The mountain (we call Unci Maka in Lakota means Grandmother Earth. The use of Unci when referring to the earth gives rise to a relationship that permeates with sacredness, respect and humility. It encompasses a philosophy that reflects that we are related and completely part of a spirit.) that is where the horses go first thing to get warm and then the watering hole. I’ve watched horses come back from hell and show me who they are. There are some who will only give it to me once and then never again. I feel so much has happened in their life, they’re so sensitive but they’ve also got big forgiving hearts and most will still meet you half way. The brands on them say it all- it’s like my tatoos, it’s their life story.
WHJ: It sounds like you have your hands full. What do you hope to accomplish through your work in the future?
RW: There needs to be something in the system where breeders have to give to a fund to help organizations that rescue horses. There needs to be awareness and people held responsible for their actions. Our wild horses are vanishing off the lands at the blink of an eye, something must be done. No one asks who is footing the bill for all of this. It’s their dirty work we’re picking up whether a horse is wild or domestic. They are all sacred creatures who need us and much to teach us all if we listen.
WHJ: How are all the horses doing now?
RW: We call this place a little piece of heaven. We’re in the mountains of far West Texas which is a great habitat for the horses. They have to go up and down different terrain, alot of uphills, so it’s like a workout. We help the wild ones get used to the sound of the ranch, like bales of hay hitting the ground, the tractor, and things that would make them jump. Some are wild and free by choice. You can see that some things just don’t go away for them. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t say “Wow, you’re here”, and I’m grateful. They are just hard core, and we let them be horses and they all do great. Even my old quarterhorse never looked better. None of the horses have shoes and they walk over lava rocks on the hills which naturally trim their hooves. Even the horses who had bad foot problems and who had to have special shoes, special everything, don’t have that now.
WHJ: You have such a great sense of humor and perspective for someone who has seen so much.
RW: Indians like to laugh and we’re always making jokes. It’s important to relieve stress and everyday we say A’Ho, which means giving thanks to the creator. It can be tiring and wear us out because things get so crazy but I can’t think of my life in any other way than to be surrounded by angels, the horses are angels, and when I see their brands or scars I consider those battle wounds and if we can see them then they have been victorious, they are living to tell their story. Hearing their hooves go by the house every evening is like night music. I can’t complain at all.
To see more of Rachael Waller’s work, go to www.rachaelwallerphotography.com