“Integrity” – A Portrait of Vixen

A beautiful chestnut mare stands boldly in the foreground before a cliff from which descends a waterfall lit by the setting sun. Called Horsetail Falls, this phenomenon happens only two weeks out of the year in Yosemite National Park

I have always found the essence of horses to be reflected by the beauty of Nature…


She is quiet, clear, intention
She can be calm, yet fiery
She can be graceful and explosive
In her delicacy, she is strong
In her complexity, she is honest
She connects on her own terms
My wish is to be worthy of her


~ Kim McElroy

When I was commissioned by Suzanne to paint her horse Vixen – a rescued elder mare, I discovered she had a unique temperament. When photographing a horse for their portrait I typically like to choose a photo of the horse looking at the viewer, but when I photographed Vixen at liberty in an arena several times over the course of a few years, she only rarely looked at me, so out of the hundreds of photos I got of her, only a few were of her connecting eye to eye with me.  When I commented on this to her owner, Suzanne said “yes – Vixen only connects with me eye to eye occasionally and when she does it is always a profound moment”. When I meditated with Vixen’s spirit for her portrait, I saw a waterfall, and that was all.  This was in contrast to Suzanne’s other two horses who had a lot of symbolic visions to express for their portraits.

Vixen photo by Kim McElroy

I meditated with Vixen’s spirit for her portrait and I saw a waterfall, and that was all.  This was in contrast to my meditations with Suzanne’s other two horses I had painted, which had included a lot of symbolic imagery.

Horsetail Falls

After looking at hundreds of stock photos of all types of waterfalls, none of which were the right feeling, I googled the term “Horse Falls” just to see what would come up, and Horsetail Falls was one of the images that appeared.  When I read that this falls  is an event that only happens for a couple weeks in February, only if the conditions are right, only if there is enough snow pack that year that melts in time, and only lights up only if there are no clouds during sunset… then I knew this was the perfect combination to depict Vixen’s elusive spirit.

Vixen was described by her owner Suzanne using the adjectives in the above poem, and also she said, “She’s been the most regal while also being the most honest in how she is in the world.  She’s the most like me; she connects on her own terms and only with those she deems worth and of good intention and character.  I love that girl … ”

Suzanne titled the portrait sight unseen after her horse’s character which we determined was defined best as “Integrity”.

“Horsetail Fall” by Frank Leonard

Choosing the right reference

The photograph of Horsetail Falls that I used as a reference was taken by Frank Leonard – I found his photo of Horsetail Falls the most ideal for the portrait.  It had the right color and composition, and in addition, it just had a good feeling about it.  When I contacted him to request permission to use his photo, it turned out that his wife does Reiki for rescued horses.  When I asked Frank  what it was like photographing this stunning scene, he said:

Frank’s thoughts:

“My thoughts as I watched the play of light and color and water unfolding before me was one of true gratitude for even having the opportunity to witness this miracle of nature.  Many of the others around me literally talked through the entire event.  I was speechless.  No words can express, nor would we want them to do so.  The creation at play right before our eyes.  I am proud to have been a part of your amazing artistic expression!”

No wonder this photo out of hundreds had a good feeling about it!


From Wikipedia: Horsetail Fall

Each year in late February, hundreds of spectators gather in Yosemite to witness this amazing event. But the Yosemite Firefall can be finicky. Although Horsetail Fall is visible from multiple viewpoints in Yosemite Valley, several factors must converge to trigger the Firefall. If conditions are not perfect, the Yosemite Firefall will not glow.

First and foremost, Horsetail Falls must be flowing. If there’s not enough snowpack in February, there will not be enough snowmelt to feed the waterfall, which tumbles 1,570 feet (480 meters) down the east face of El Capitan. Likewise, temperatures must be warm enough during the day to melt the snowpack. If temperatures are too cold, the snow will stay frozen and Horsetail Fall won’t flow. (Lack of runoff is also why there is no Firefall in autumn. Although the sun hits Yosemite Valley at the same angle in October as it does in February, Horsetail Falls is usually dry in October because the runoff that feeds it has long since dried up.)

Second, the western sky must be clear at sunset. If it’s cloudy the sun’s rays will be blocked and Horsetail Falls will not light up. Winter weather can be highly variable in Yosemite, however, and days that start off cloudy can clear up by sunset.

If everything comes together and conditions are just right, the Yosemite Firefall will light up for about ten minutes. To see Horsetail Fall glowing blood red is an almost supernatural experience.

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