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Shiflet’s journey to the Celebration




Shane Shiflet considers the call he received about coming to Shelbyville to work as a secondary photographer almost 15 years ago to be the call that changed his professional life; the call that gave him his big break so to speak.

Deeply rooted in other breeds in the horse world at large, the Shiflet name is widely known and respected. Shane had even settled on photography as his career path, thanks to the guiding hand of his brother Doug Shiflet, a well-known photographer in the American Saddlebred industry.  

Before the perhaps fateful call came in to photograph the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, however, Shane was feeling discouraged in that career choice. Once fun and sufficient enough to make ends meet, horse show photography was no longer cutting it financially for Shane, a young husband with a soon-to-be growing family. He was shooting other horse shows, and doing lots of candid photography to assist Doug, but he needed to step it up a notch and trade in the “fun” job for something more.

Shane had told his wife Suzy, an American Saddlebred trainer who at the time was working for his dad Claude Shiflet, that he was going to have to do something else that yielded a better income as they embarked on starting a family. 

“Here’s how it was back then,” Shane said, frankly. “Suzy and I didn’t have kids back when I started out, so it didn’t take a lot to live. It was fun. I was working for Doug and traveling all over, meeting folks everywhere. I am a people person and I was having a blast. It didn’t take a whole lot for us to get by so it worked back then but we got to a point where we needed a little more … I had talked to Suzy about doing something else.”
Then the call came about the Celebration gig. 

GIG OF A LIFETIME

He knew what the Celebration was because he had been exposed to the walking horse at the many multi-breed shows he shot in those early days. In fact, he had even sort of joked with his family back then by saying he’d love to shoot the Celebration — someday. 

He certainly wasn’t expecting the call to come when it actually did.

“I received the call three weeks before the show that year,” he said. “It was a totally unexpected phone call. I remember running around to get it all together and come up with a crew at the last minute. I got three rooms at the Best Western for like $5,000. We were still shooting film back then so we got the last two rooms there; one was to use as a dark room for film and the other was for printing pictures and proofs.”

Suzy came down to help him out that first year along with their young daughter Payton, just 9 months old at the time. A few good friends came as well — it was hard to put a crew together to come work for him for two weeks, as most people couldn’t leave their normal lives that long on such short notice. 

“We used the two rooms at the Best Western that we were able to get for the photos but everything else was filled up,” laughed Shane. “As far as where we stayed … We had to bring two campers down and literally had to set them up in the Dabora parking lot!” 

That first year and the few that followed were tough, but Shane was grateful to have received the opportunity. Jack Greene was still the main photographer, so Shane was asked to come in more in a secondary capacity; to offer something fresh and different. He credits some influential people he’d crossed paths with early on such as David Howard, Benny Johnson, Bob Adcock, Bob Medina, Bill Reel, Hatcher, and others for perhaps playing a role in him getting the offer for the “chance of a lifetime” Celebration job. 

“That first show was very hard. I didn’t know anyone and I was the ‘new’ guy doing it. Jack Greene had always done a great job,” he said. “Jack and I were completely separate. I did it different. I set up next to the Blue Ribbon under the grandstands, and I didn’t like how I had to set up but we made it work and thank goodness it has gotten so much better over the years … I think I only sold about 30 prints that first year.”

Shane might not have been a walking horse person, but he was a horse person, having grown up around Saddlebreds and the show horse world in the South under the Shiflet name. He understood the significance of having a gig like the Celebration. 

“To have a world championship horse show is a dream for any photographer because there’s only about six out there so it’s a huge honor to get one,” he said. “But back then I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know what I was doing there … I was coming from a Saddlebred world where everyone knew me and my family to the walking horse industry where no one knew me.”

EARLY ROOTS

Shane’s journey in the horse industry began with his father’s love for horses. His father was eight when his parents bought him a pony in Virginia. Claude Shiflet loved that pony and grew up riding, trading and eventually training. One of Shane’s favorite stories about his dad is when his father was trying to train a pony early on, at about 12 or 14 years old. 

“He was trying to get this pony to rack and he couldn’t so eventually they sent him to a trainer to get it to rack,” Shane said. “Well the trainer sent it back and said, ‘This horse won’t rack.’ Dad was only a kid but he worked on that horse all winter long and went back and beat that same trainer the next year.” 

Claude’s love for the American Saddlebred trickled outward toward horses and people in general. 
“I have never met a person who doesn’t speak highly of my dad,” Shane said. “He is so passionate about horses. They were not only his job, but his hobby. He’s on several Hall of Fames, and to this day, even when he doesn’t make it to a horse show he watches them on live feeds … He knows everybody, a lot of the old-timers like Ronnie Spears.”

In fact, Shane shared the story about one year when Spears was exhibiting a horse and let Claude, who has only been to the Celebration once, ride it out of the ring.  “Dad thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Shane said. 

Claude and his wife, Shane’s mother Alice, are both 85 years old now, and still very happy. They’ve been married for 65 years and serve as the foundation of the Shiflet family. 

“My parents are the salt of the earth,” he said. “I’m very proud of my family. We still get together often. We used to get together every Sunday and don’t do that all the time anymore because we all have kids but we still live close, talk all the time, and are very, very close.

“My parents go above and beyond for anybody. It all starts with them.” Shane is the youngest of four siblings, with his three older brothers being Mark, Harrison, and Doug, the one who helped Shane get started.

All the Shiflet boys were exposed to the horse early on through their dad, who made them all go to the barn often to help out. Shane loved riding as a kid, but became more involved with sports the older he got and basically quit riding. 

“I didn’t have time for everything and when I got into sports I got away from horses,” he said, explaining his brother Harrison chose to train horses while Doug chose photography and Shane went to school for accounting. “Even though football was my favorite sport I actually ended up playing baseball in college at Elon College for two years.”

Before he got into the sports, however, Shane spent lots of fun times at the barn. “I would try and ride all the good horses when my dad was gone at horse shows, and of course anything I got to ride was always for sale,” he laughed. 

So Shane admits — despite his love for his first pony named Sugar And Spice, and having lots of fun times in the barn growing up — he really just didn’t love the riding and training aspect of the horse. 

“Here’s a funny story about when I was growing up,” said Shane. “When my dad was gone once I had to clean all the stalls. So when I was doing this I’d muck a stall out, leave the stall door open and move the spreader up to the next stall. Well, I got several stalls down the aisle and I looked back and all the horses were staring back at me. They had all gotten out but thankfully they didn’t go anywhere. Maybe that’s why my dad didn’t let me ride much.”

ACCIDENTAL INTRODUCTION

Shane’s introduction into the horse show world of photography happened by accident, in a way. He had graduated with an accounting degree and was working in Baltimore when he decided to move back home. He started helping his brother Doug out and learned the basics of photography.

“He helped me a lot and influenced my career in many ways,” said Shane, adding that another well-known horse show photographer, Howie Schatzberg, has also been a big influence and friend to him over the years. “They were both big influences to me. If I was at a Saddlebred show everyone thought I was Doug’s son.”
Not too long after started to work for Doug, Shane said he was helping him at Louisville, the American Saddlebred’s World’s Championship Horse Show, when he picked up a camera from center ring and got really lucky.

“I got a one-time great picture of a five-gaited stallion showing at Louisville and it made the front cover of a publication,” he said. “It just sort of took off from there.”

Naturally, every early experience wasn’t comprised of that perfect, lucky shot. He remembers doing a lot of those multi-breed shows early on — the ones that initially exposed him to the walking horses — and having a major problem with his camera. He remembers panicking. Again, back in the days of film he didn’t realize he was doing something wrong until he got back to his room after the session and processed photos.

“I was shooting at way too slow of a shutter speed and totally botched it,” he said. “That’s back when we used to mail actual proofs out to the customers so those people showing in that session just didn’t get proofs. I remember calling Doug in a panic not knowing what I was doing wrong or why I didn’t have any pictures. He just laughed.”

Shane said there are countless stories like that where he had to live and learn as he taught himself some and relied on family advice some more. 

A horse is a horse, and he said from a photography aspect of his career, his technique never drastically changed from show to show. For example, he learned how to shoot a gaited horse, how to shoot a horse trotting, and even how to slow his click for a walking horse to capture it’s walk that’s driven from the back-end. 

CAPTURING 'THE MOMENT'

He loves all the breeds he shoots for the aspect of the people who show the horses. He still travels heavily in the north with his biggest show besides the Celebration being the New England Morgan Horse Show in Massachusetts. His goal always remains the same — to capture that perfect moment.
“Things have changed over the years with digital photography, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that desire to get that great photo,” he said. “The day that goes away is the day I need to quit.”

Shane explained that digital photography has made it easy for almost anyone to get a good photo, something shooting with film did not lend itself to because it was harder on film in that there were fewer chances to get the shot. In the film days, for example, Shane might have shot 12,000 photos at a show where in today’s digital world he’d shoot 50,000 images.

“But the drive to get that great picture is still there; those nerves are still there,” he said. “It’s easy to get a good picture. I can get one of those with almost every horse now thanks to digital photography but I want the ‘great’ one. I want ‘that’ picture. The one.”

Though his career is at its peak with little time to do anything but those sought-after ring shots of prized victory passes, Shane’s true passion is candid photography, the type of stuff he did back in the low-pressure days when he discovered his passion while working for Doug. He hopes maybe someday he’ll get to slow down and pursue that avenue again. 

For now, Shane and his wife Suzy work hard to support their family, which includes two daughters Payton, now 13, and Coley, 11, who stay active in their own hobbies. In fact, Suzy, who still trains a barn of about 18 horses and shows at Louisville the same week Shane is shooting the Celebration, and his daughters don’t even get to come to Shelbyville during his biggest couple weeks of the year.

“It’s kind of a joke because people down here will say you’re always talking about your beautiful wife but we’ve never seen her,” he laughed. “Suzy came to the Celebration those first two years but she’s not mentally built to sit at a photo table and work like that. She’s too fast-paced and non-stop. She’s wide open and loves training horses.”

Suzy’s love for that very thing is actually what brought the two to meet nearly 18 years ago. Shane was working at a show in New Hampshire for Doug and Suzy had her own little barn up there and was showing at the same show. Shane was shooting the show and Suzy kept winning. Shane tried to talk to her when she’d be in center ring collecting a blue and having her winning photo made, but she didn’t reciprocate the friendliness as she was busy, he said. 

Later, she had an issue with a photo and approached the photo table where Shane was working.
“She was complaining about the eyes being messed up in the photo and she was showing me the photo and she actually had photocopied my photo,” said Shane. “I said ‘Who is your trainer?’” 

A couple weeks later she called for a photo order and they had an easy and comfortable chat on the phone for two hours. “We’ve talked every day since for 18 years … I talked her into moving South with my southern charm I guess!”

Evidently the feelings were mutual as Shane said Suzy hung up the phone that same day and looked at her mom and said, “I’m going to marry that guy someday … She probably regrets it now,” he laughed.

PASSION FOR PEOPLE

Shane’s laid-back, free and fun spirit have resulted in many friends throughout several breeds. He loves it all, adjusts well to all the families of breeds he shoots, but takes special delight in the friends he’s made in the walking horse business.

“The Saddlebred and Morgan people have been great to me but the schedules at their shows are tighter, so there’s a little more time to get to know and hang out with people in the walking horse industry because they don’t have such tight schedules,” he said. “When I come down here we get to hang out a little more. We get to play golf and just relax a little more so it’s different in that aspect.”

Finding balance and trying to adjust at home can be a challenge, especially because Suzy also travels and their kids stay so active in sports and school.

“Traveling can definitely take its toll on me,” he said. “I try to drive straight through on Sundays after a show to get home so there’s often no day ‘off’ as many times after a show weekend I’m on the phone Mondays. One of the hardest things, also, is that the schedule is so different while on the road so it can be hard to adjust once I’ve gotten home.”

When they aren’t at shows, Shane and Suzy spend their weekends at volleyball tournaments. On a busy weekend, it’s possible a tournament and a horse show can be going on. It’s not uncommon for Shane to have his computer with him while he’s watching the girls play.

“There are so many times when we bring our computers with us so we can work while trying to support our kids,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ve ever taken a vacation without having to work during it, so I’d say as crazy as a horse show is life at home can actually be crazier.”

What grounds him? To not surprise it’s those deep family roots. No matter how crazy or busy life is during busy season or school activities, the Shiflets always come together. His best friend and nephew, well-known American Saddlebred trainer Matt Shiflet, lives only six miles away.

“We are extremely, extremely close and do everything together,” Shane said. “Our whole family still gets together a lot and we are all loud and talk at the same time, and I’m not sure there is ever a time when we’re together when horses are not discussed. 

“We used to get together every Sunday and this has changed some as all of our kids have gotten older and we are all running in different directions but we still get together a lot. We always have a discussion about who has what horse or what babies have been born or who saw the latest exciting horse at a show.
“I guess horses have just been ‘bred’ into me.”

Ironically, Shane joked, he comes from a Saddlebred family but his family seems to take joy in discussions about the walking horse perhaps because it’s a fresh topic and they are “not” so involved in that breed. They enjoy hearing about something of which they’re not so involved. 

“They like to hear all about it,” he said. “They hear all the stories about the great horses. My dad loves it and believe it or not he’s only been to one Celebration — the year there was no stake horse winner — but he would love to come back. He reads all the horse magazines, it’s crazy. And my mom is dying to come.
“I like horses, but my dad and wife love them,” he said, explaining the difference between one’s passion and one’s job.

PRIDEFUL INDEPENDENCE 

Perhaps the biggest thing the walking horse has offered besides a major part of Shane’s professional stability and one of the family’s favorite pieces of table talk during dinner is a key piece of Shane’s identity. Walking horses and the Celebration gave him something his family, no matter how deep their influences or roots, couldn’t give him. 

He earned his spot on the biggest horse show event of all time, in his own right.

“My family loves it, but it’s a different environment. It’s my world, my thing. We all talk about them because it’s different, but having a chance to do all this without people knowing my family is special. Some people might know my family a little in the walking horse industry as in, ‘he’s from that gaited family.’ A lot of people know my dad but as a whole they don’t really know us.” 

Having earned his success in the walking horse world in his own right is what matters most to Shane, and what makes the week of the Celebration one of the best traditions of his year. Unlike when he started as the unknown photographer under the grandstands back in 2003, Shane now has many friends here whom he looks forward to seeing all year and considers Shelbyville to be a second home. 

“I get really excited to come to the Celebration,” he said. “I’ve built relationships and some of my best friends are in Shelbyville. I’m perfectly comfortable and know it like the back of my hand. All the uncomfortable part of it from being the ‘once new guy’ is gone … I was getting know where but when I came here I said, ‘wow, this is where I need to be.’”

HIS OWN THING

Shane said getting to this point of love and comfort took time, but it was time and effort well spent. 
“I’m proud of my family but I’m proud to have this thing on my own as well,” he said. “It means a lot. A real lot. I fell in love with the Celebration right away. The atmosphere was like no other I’d ever been a part of. The first year I was there I’ll never forget when Shout was there. She came in, the crowd went crazy and there were jets flying over us. Those guys (trainers), the wait the walk in and wait at the end and then that place just erupts, man, the atmosphere makes it special. I’ve worked other world championship horse shows but the atmosphere at this show is special.

Suzy, who is at her world’s championship horse show this week, even admits the Celebration is like the World Series of the equestrian show world. “There’s just nothing like it,” he said. “I’ve shot a lot of shows but if I had my choice as a trainer to make a choice as a trainer I’d definitely choose to make a victory pass at the Big Oval. If I was on a horse that’s where I’d want to be because I know there’s nothing else like it.”

Shane has pretty much reached the epitome of his craft, and still, he says, ‘a horse is a horse.’ He rode a walking horse once with Joe Cotten several years ago and immediately appreciated the thrill of the smooth ride; in fact, he says he did pretty good and “the faster I rode the better it felt,” he laughed. “It was like nothing else … 

“A couple years ago in Jackson I was joking with Edgar Abernathy and told him when I saw him, ‘Hey, that horse looks like it needs a real trainer."

Abernathy took him up on his offer and it didn’t take long for both professionals to realize they were just fine in their current niches. “It was not pretty and that was the last time I rode a horse … But who knows. Me and Patrick Thomas always say the day he wins I’m gonna ride out of the ring and he’s going to shoot it.”
And one day, he says, it’s going to happen. 
 

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