Images courtesy of Shelley Paulson Photography
“How do you have time to do it all?” Whenever I meet highly productive and successful women who run their own businesses and just happen to ride horses, I ask this question.
Because I know how much time and energy both endeavors take.
And… I’m always wondering if they have some secret I don’t.
When my friend, Shelley Paulson, agreed to be interviewed, I decided she was the perfect person to talk to about balancing work and horses. As one of the most sought after equine photographers in the business, she has had to learn a thing or two about how to efficiently get things done while consistently creating compelling work.
No small feat. The upside beyond developing a wildly successful business? She’s figured out ways to create space in her busy life for her other passion: her two horses.
During our chat, she told me what helped her make the leap into equine photography, the simple tool she uses to manage her time, and the lessons learned from a difficult year.
Here’s our conversation.
Q: When did you combine your passion for horses with your work as a photographer? How did that come about?
Shelley: Well, the horses came first. I was the horse obsessed little girl with all the Breyer models. I started riding around the age of 10 and then, took lessons and leased horses. I bought my own horse when I was 25. And that’s the one I still have. She’s 27 now. I got her as a two-year-old.
Little known fact, I actually have a degree in opera singing, but I ended up going into the technology field. That was about the time (and this will date me), that the internet came about. I taught myself how to design web pages and, and managed to get a career going there.
I started my own freelance web design business way back in 2001 and realized a lot of my clients needed images. So I got one of the very first consumer-level digital cameras. Before I knew it, I was shooting people’s weddings and their babies and all this other stuff.
But of course, one of the first things I took photos of was my own horse and the horses at the barn where I was boarding.
So I ended up primarily focused on weddings for the first 10 years. Wedding photography helped me grow a certain level of skill that really put me ahead of the pack. I don’t see a ton of other equine photographers with the ability to problem solve all day long.
Q: How has that skill translated to your work?
Shelley: You have to have advanced lighting skills, you have to deal with stress and lots of people asking things of you. I had some really great mentors and great training. So I was able to translate that into the equine work.
When I started photographing horses, there was no social media. And the only photographers people knew about were the people who had a booth at the horse expo or worked at horse shows. It wasn’t until social media that I was able to really get some traction on the horse business.
And about then, I had a traumatic brain injury which made it really difficult to keep photographing weddings. The stress would give me a terrible headache.
Q: Oh, I didn’t realize that. Was that a horse-related accident?
Shelley: No, it was just clumsiness. I stepped out of a bathroom at a car rental place in San Jose. I slipped and hit the front of my head. That event was very life-altering. I was 43 at the time and you just don’t bounce back from something like that very well.
But in some ways, it was a gift because the weddings were a kind of golden handcuff. I made so much money doing them and it was a consistent income. So when I quit those to do equine, the first year was rough. It was a major dip in our income. Now I’m far beyond what I made doing weddings, but it was that leap of faith in that uncomfortable transition that took a lot out of us.
Q: That’s an amazing way to frame what most people would consider a tragedy.
Shelley: It’s its own gift.
I think adversity tends to bring some of the best things into our lives, and that was adversity for me.
I literally couldn’t get through an entire day. By this time of day, I would be in bed. That lasted for about three or four years.
In the end, I’m really grateful that it pushed me out of weddings so that I could pursue what I love.
Q: One of the things I love about your photography is the storytelling aspect. Does that come from your experience photographing weddings?
Shelley: I would say it mainly comes from the weddings. I learned from a group of hardcore photo journalists who became wedding photographers. For them it isn’t about being a fly on the wall and standing back. You need to be right there in the action.
A comment people would say to me was, “No two of your weddings ever look alike.” I think that speaks to how much I tried to understand who my clients were and to reflect that in how I told the story of their day.
I had one mentor who told me that you can’t plan anything. You can’t go into the day with any specific ideas. You have to be totally open-minded without expectations and just let the day present itself to you.
Q: You have to go with the flow with horses too. Don’t you need that same approach with horses?
Shelley: Yes. A lot of the skills I learned photographing weddings really translates into photographing horses. Not as much with my portrait work, I’ve put those skills to the test with my documentary work. I love documentary projects because I get to use those wedding photography muscles.
I don’t do a lot of that kind of work now, but I’m lucky enough to have one client in particular who loves all of that. She loves telling a story. So when I go to work for her, it just brings my spirit alive because I get to get back to those roots that I love so much.
Q: With all that you do, how do you balance everything with your business and riding?
Shelley: When it comes to my business, the workflow is everything. Having a repeatable process is key. I know that before I go to a shoot, I do these things. When I get home from a shoot, I do these other things.
I actually wrote an ebook that I’m going to be revising into an online course in 2021 that is called The Lazy Photographer’s Guide to Workflow.
A lot of my efficiencies come from the fact that I’m kind of a lazy person naturally. You wouldn’t think that because I’m also a high producing person.
The quote that led me to the title of the book is, “Efficiency is intelligent laziness.” I like to sit on the couch. I like to ride my horses. I like to not be working. So when I’m working, I’m constantly looking for ways to make my workflow more efficient so that I can spend more time doing all those other things.
Q: What have you found to be the most helpful strategies for reaching your goals with your horses and your business?
Shelley: I’ll start with the business. 100%, the newest and best thing I’ve done this year is time blocking. I did a lot of reading about productivity and time management and listened to a lot of podcasts this year. I decided I’d try it.
Because before that I was a slave to my to-do list. The problem with the to-do list is you’re going to tend to pick the easy things first. New things come up and things you didn’t tackle fall off the list. So I still keep the list, but on Monday mornings, I open up my Google calendar into a week view with a special calendar for time blocks.
I time block everything that’s on my list into my week. I do this on Monday mornings so when I’m in the thick of the week I can just look at my calendar and know what I’m supposed to be doing at any moment.
When I’m doing a time block, I close my email. I close my Facebook. I mute my phone. Then, I can stay focused.
Q: And what about with the horses?
Shelley: It’s hard this time of year. I try to make sure that my younger mare, Fritzie, gets ridden or worked on a regular basis because she’s the kind of high energy, intelligent horse that needs that.
I’ve been thinking about the winter and ways I can keep her engaged. Things like just playing with her in her paddock would be good for her mental health. I’ve started clicker training with her and she loves it.
She’s so smart. She picked it up right away. So just to be able to do some groundwork, which I think is such a fantastic foundation for horses anyway, helps.
Q: Do you have any lessons you’ve learned over this past year that motivate you to keep moving forward with your goals or your dreams?
Shelley: This year has afforded me more time, especially with Fritzie, to understand what makes her tick. Last year I traveled so much. I had 11 trips in 10 months. I just wasn’t here that much. I took one trip this year and got home two weeks before everything shut down. From a horse standpoint, just having that extra quality time with my trainer really unlocked something in my understanding of my horse and our bond.
Business-wise I realized that I don’t want to travel as much. I found that I like being at home. I’m so much more productive.
With traveling there’s a lot of stress. You don’t sleep as well. You don’t eat as well. I think there’s a certain badge of honor that comes with being a traveling photographer. But I’ve reached the age where I don’t care about that anymore. I’m super happy right here in my five acres of Minnesota.
Shelley Paulson is a professional equine photographer who lives in Minnesota. She does commercial photography for businesses large and small along with taking stunning images for individuals. You can find out more about her work and mentorships on her website, Shelley Paulson. Follow Shelley on Instagram and Facebook.
Many thanks to Shelley for allowing me to use her beautiful images in this post!
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