A photographer who is severely allergic to horses defied doctors to follow her passion for the animal. Ruth Campbell discovers how she is now capturing the breathtaking antics of the stunt horses set to be the stars of the Great Yorkshire Show

WHILE the highly trained horses Jane Lazenby is capturing on camera are thundering past at high speed, performing thrilling leaps, dramatic falls and mesmerising dance routines, she is focusing intently on one thing – their eyes.

“I don’t want to just take photos of the colour of their coats and what is on the outside. I want to make something special, to capture their character and personality," she says. “The sharpest point of my focus is always the eyes. Like deep pools that go on for ever, you can stare right down them into the soul.”

Remarkably, this award-winning equine photographer is severely allergic to horses and defied doctors, who warned her she must never work with the animal, to follow her passion.

Obsessed by horses and ponies since she was four, she has now been tasked with photographing the 18 skilful film and TV stunt horses, along with their ten riders, who will make up the leading act in the Main Ring at this year’s Great Yorkshire Show. This will be the first time a British, not to mention a Yorkshire, horse display team has been given top billing. Not that the pressure is likely to get to these particular animals, many of whom will be coming fresh from filming the latest episodes of TV series including Poldark, Victoria and Peaky Blinders.

Trainer Ben Atkinson, 23, who has created a daring, high energy show of breath-taking routines, says Jane is the one photographer he can trust to capture the action.

“She has a special talent. She knows all the best angles to show off the animals and enhance the emotion in the scene," he says.

While details of the Atkinson Action Horses’ new routines are a closely guarded secret, Jane gives a hint of what the crowds can expect.

She says: "There are routines involving riders climbing off galloping horses onto a moving stagecoach, real John Wayne action stuff. It all looks full of risk but everything is rock solid. Horses are working at liberty, walking past and ignoring each other, then five minutes later working as a tight little herd. What they are being asked to do is very advanced, but they are so intelligent and well-bred.”

Jane describes herself as a horse obsessive. “I do spend a lot of time hanging out with them, watching them, how hard they’re trying, how they listen. I can read their expressions," she says.

When photographing Ben’s horses, she has to be one step ahead of the action. “I have seen enough to know where the movement is going to go and where it will end, where the horse is going to land," she says. "One of the horses always does a little backward shuffle when he is ready to ping seven or eight feet into the air, an incredible height. I can tell within a second when he is going to launch.

“You are constantly watching for that moment to take the photograph. There is always a bit of magic and that little bit of luck involved. It’s about the perfect harmony and balance between horse and rider. I’m watching the turn of the head as the horse listens, with half an ear back, the concentration.”

It helps that, despite her severe allergies, Jane, 47, went on to do a lot of competing in her twenties, judging dressage at local riding clubs.

It was when she was four, and her parents took first her to buy a Shetland pony, that she discovered just how allergic she was. “In the car on the way home, I said ‘I can’t see.’ My eyes had swollen shut,” recalls Jane, whose contact with horses also brought on chronic asthma.

When her specialist told her the worst thing she could do would be to own a horse, she said that wasn’t an option: “I told him a life without a horse wouldn’t be a life worth living. And he worked with me to let me follow my passion.”

When she was 13, her parents finally allowed her to have a donkey, called Johnny. “I had to wear swimming goggles to ride him,” she says. She has owned horses since, managing her allergy by wearing a dust mask, using special dust-extracted bedding rather than hay and taking anti-histamines: “I am very careful to groom outdoors and keep my arms covered, and I have to make sure my horse, Iszara, licks the back of my jacket rather than my skin.”

It was her university lecturer father Peter who introduced Jane to photography and she inherited his old manual Nikon film camera after he died suddenly nearly 15 years ago. But, again, her severe allergies intervened. “I started developing my own film, but was allergic to the chemicals and ended up spending six months in hospital after suffering a collapsed lung.” Thanks to the emergence of digital photography, her craft, which she developed as a sideline to her painting, no longer puts her health in danger.

Jane, who studied Fine Art at Newcastle University, initially used photography for reference, to support her animal paintings: “People would bring a terrible snap of their dog and I would take my own photograph to work from," she says. "So many people wanted the photographs blown up that I realised I was missing a trick, so offered photography at the same time.”

She first saw Atkinson Action Horses, which are based outside York, at a show five years ago. When Ben and his father Mark saw her pictures, they invited her to do more intimate shoots and to attend their live shows as official photographer. “I have since been to events everywhere from Bolsover Castle to the Horse of the Year Show, the sort of things that, as a 13-year-old, would have been my lifetime dream.”

Her ten-year-old daughter Lena is now similarly smitten. “She is a horse obsessive and wants to be a Cossack riding stunt girl,” says Jane.

Both are looking forward to the Great Yorkshire Show. “Over the past 15 years, I have seen a lot of Main Ring attractions. But I think it’s really special that, at last, there are guys from Yorkshire starring at the Great Yorkshire Show.”

Ben says: “It is a true honour to be asked and we are going to produce a real show stopper, half an hour of full-on madness, with things that people will not have seen anywhere else," he says. "It is a real level up from any other show, completely unique. We are really pushing the boundaries.”

  • Websites: ejlazenbyphotography.co.uk, actionhorses.co.uk
  • The Great Yorkshire Show, July 11-13