Photographer and "South Dakota Cowgirl," Jenn Zeller's Top 10 Favorite Photos

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 12:00pm
Jenn Zeller, The South Dakota Cowgirl

When I was originally asked to choose my “Top 10 Favorite Photos” I thought, “this will be a piece of cake!” But who was I kidding? The first six I chose came pretty easily for obvious reasons. The next two took more work, and sorting out the very last two, that was a challenge to say the least. My name is Jenn Zeller, and on the interwebs, I’m known as The South Dakota Cowgirl. I picked up a DSLR camera in 2008, and since then, my work has been featured by Instagram, by TIME Magazine, in O-Magazine, in The Huffington Post, on the covers of Eclectic Horseman and the TSLN Annual Stallion Showcase, as well as many other places. Sometimes you still have to pinch me, to let me know that I’m not dreaming and that I’m really this fortunate. When I’m not photographing a wedding, an engagement, a family or taking photos on the ranch, you’ll find me wrangling ranch interns, attending horsemanship clinics, starting the occasional colt and running about the country chasing cans.

It was a hot day in August 2011. I’d loaded up the ranch pickup with two interns, my step-son and niece, to go visit the unstarted and young saddle horse herd. For nearly 50 years, here on The DX Ranch, we’ve been raising American Quarter Horses for disposition first. They all act like pets, and usually scuffle over who is going to get scratched on first once a human is spotted!

When we arrived, and saw where they were grazing, I immediately shushed everyone in the pickup, because if the horses had heard us talking, they’d have left the lush, green grass to come see who wanted to visit. I’d had this image in my head of what I wanted to capture, and I could see it so plainly, but getting the shot was going to be a matter of luck and this day, was my lucky day! I snuck out of the pickup, knelt down and nailed it. Later that year I entered in this image into the Art Horse Magazine, Ex Arte Equinus V, and won an honorable mention in this esteemed international competition. When I got the call, I cried!

Getting snow in South Dakota isn’t all that unusual. But snow that falls, quietly down to the ground, with no wind pushing it sideways is! I’d had a vision of seeing some “faces in the snow”, and one morning, while sitting in my office on a relatively warm January Day in 2013 (it was about 28F outside), when the snow started to fall. It was gorgeous! Big, fluffy flakes wafted down with no wind to be found. I was in the middle of a project and tried to ignore it but before I knew it there was two inches piled up and I was afraid I’d miss it if I sat any longer. So I grabbed my camera, because I figured this might be my only shot to turn that vision into a reality. This image, and 8 more in the series were featured online by South Dakota Magazine.

This following photo is especially special to me for two reasons: one, it encompasses the beauty that is ranch life and two, it was chosen by Instagram to be featured in their #MyStory Exhibit. The Exhibit featured 28 women from all walks of life who are shattering gender roles and breaking barriers in their respective fields. Or, as the Huffington Post put it, “28 Bad Ass Women You Should be Following on Instagram”.

In 2015, we had a few cows set to calve that fall. One of them was a heifer, and she calved in early September, unbenounced to us. We moved her herd, and noticed she had a bag, but thought she was yet to calve. A couple days later, after noticing a black speck in her previous pasture, we knew she had already had the baby. I set off on horseback to find his mama in her new pasture, and when she was located I called the crew, and they brought her little bull calf out to be reunited with his mama. I love how calves tails wag when they start to get their belly full of milk!

Cowboys, are the the icon of the West, and this one is no exception. No fighting ladies, he’s all mine! I captured him here on January 15, 2017 fixing fence. Objecting to being the subject of yet another photo, but me and my trusty iPhone won that battle! He’s turning #9 wire into fence clips. Ranching will make a person resourceful! It was a sunny, warm to us (about 25F), winter day. He’s the most selfless person I know and is the best example of how to be a man of integrity, determination and positivity. And yes, he’s wearing Bose Headphones...

I learned a long time ago that if you want to get an image on a magazine cover, you better not always shoot in landscape (horizontal) orientation. This past December on a gray, overcast and snowy day I waited as these two, DX Nukelear Fuzion (Fuz) and DX Nutter Butter (Butters), trotted back from their water tank. While they sorted out who or what was crouched down in the snow, dressed like someone from “A Christmas Story”, I snapped this photo and this time remembered to turn my camera sideways. Their ears were forward, wind pushing their manes and tails. Perfection. It was not warm this day. Negative 20F with the wind chill. I love those sort of overcast days for photography regardless of how cold or hot it may be! Lucky for me, I was approached with the question of whether I had anything wintery for an upcoming cover and this image was quickly purchased for Eclectic Horseman Magazine. Getting an image on the cover of this magazine has on my bucket list since I picked up a camera! If you haven’t checked the magazine out, you should. The bi-monthly issues are packed full of great horsemanship advice from top clinicians!

On the rare occasion I do take my big camera to the pasture, I don’t often get to use it during work. That was not the case in July of 2016, though, as we had a bit of rain, and so had to postpone our annual 4th of July branding by a day. We had help lined up, and couldn’t brand so we decided we’d rodear and rope our replacement heifers. I snapped this photo of my main squeeze, Zach Ducheneaux, riding one of our herd sires, Poco Tivio Pep (Chachi), while he trotted out to gather up a cow that had escaped the herd.

While we are on a branding theme, I adore this photo of Ty and Concho. I captured this moment between a boy and a horse at our annual July 4th Branding. I believe this was taken in 2013, and to me, it epitomizes the inherent philosophies we practice here on the ranch: awareness, empathy and presentation. Ty Ducheneaux is a fine example of his father, pictured above and below.

Getting our hands on the horses we raise is something that I know I can’t wait to do! On a few hot summer days in August 2014, we got the broodmares and their colts in and handled as many as we could for about 3 days! We like to get them used to being scratched on good with seeing people, since all our horses are born on the range. Lily here, was 3 in this image, and I love how she’s unsure, but Zach is smiling and happy because handling horses is his favorite thing to do! I love the softness in his hands and the patience, shown in the lines of his face.

I knew that Jake the Cow-Dog, our now deceased English Shepherd, had to make the cut. The miles he saved me horseback, I can’t even count. He was such a faithful, friendly dog, and was my BEST model. Anytime I’d get a new camera lens, I’d park him somewhere and photograph him. Photogenic, friendly and willing, we still miss him. I had a really hard time choosing my favorite photo of him, but eventually settled on this one - because he was modeling so I could work on some camera settings!

It was a windy September Day, when we set out to gather a cow herd in a neighbor’s pasture. Now, I’m not really sure how many acres this pasture is, I just know that we drive in over 5 miles before parking our rigs, unloading our horses and riding off. The crew is usually 8-10 folks. My horse Avie and I had made it to our first water tank, with the cattle we were trailing and we were waiting for some cattle from the West to join us. I took the opportunity to let him get a drink, stretch and as he watched cattle come in from the East, I snapped this photo with my iPhone 6. I sure love this horse; he’s been one of my best teachers.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed this little glimpse into my life. If you want to follow along, I’d love to have you! You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat: @thesdcowgirl, and my Galleries, for your enjoyment, are here. And of course don’t forget about my Home on the Web. You’ll find my blog, a gift shop where you can buy clothing, posters, mugs and more, plus you can subscribe to special content! To learn more about our ranch, and the horsemanship programs we offer, you’ll find us here. You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you’d like to book me for a session, please feel free to send me an email: I’d love to visit you, your horses and your place!

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