AN UNEXPECTED INVITATION
Editing digital photos to make fruits and vegetables appear perfectly ripe, juicy, and seductive, was not where I thought my life would end up.
When I’d chosen photography as the focus of my fine arts degree at the University of Waterloo in Southern Ontario, I had imagined somewhat more exciting subject matter. But most of my assignments these days involved long hours spent hunched on my elbows in the dirt, taking alluring shots of farm produce.
On my computer screen, a ray of morning sunlight bounced off the red skin of a plump tomato. I’d tried several filters and a range of exposures to get it just right, but something wasn’t working.
I clicked on another set of tools and looked for something that might work. While I perused the list, my phone pinged from where it lay on the desk.
I glanced at the screen to see a text from an unknown number:
Mr. Lambert, is it OK if I give you a call in a few moments? My name is Adam Marsland. I was given your name and contact info by Jaden Stevenson. I’m looking for a photographer.
Since referrals had gotten me to where I was in my life at the moment—a recognized purveyor of outstanding photographic interpretations of reality—I texted Mr. Marsland back immediately.
Of course. Give me five minutes.
I input Adam Marsland as a contact and stood from my chair. My neck cracked when I stretched it to the side, and again when I repeated the motion in the other direction. I was only thirty years old, but sitting in one position for too long was bad for anyone. I reached my arms up and over my head, feeling the pull in my muscles.
Moving into the kitchen of my small condo on Toronto’s East Side, I grabbed a tumbler and pressed the button on my fridge for cold water, watching the stream of liquid splash into the glass. It would be great if Mr. Marsland could offer me a contract for some images. I was booked up until mid-June but, after that, things looked a bit sparse.
I carried my drink to the living room window and gazed out on the city. Living on the fifteenth floor afforded me the luxury of a stunning view, even if the square footage was small. At least the finishes and upgrades in this unit were of the highest quality and done according to the latest trends. I’d been able to furnish the tiny apartment with quality pieces, like the Eames chair and a tan leather love seat from West Elm, since I didn’t need many.
When my ring tone sounded I walked back to my desk, put the glass down and pressed the answer button, remaining on my feet since I’d been sitting for the past hour and a half.
“Mr. Lambert. Good afternoon. How are you today?”
“Fine, thanks. What can I do for you?” I asked, taking a sip from my glass.
Mr. Marsland cleared his throat, and I heard the click of a pen. “I’m hoping you can come to my ranch and take some photos for me. I need to update our website and you come highly recommended.”
I smiled, because it was always nice to hear that. “Thanks. Jaden mentioned me?”
“Yes. He thinks you’d be perfect for what we need.”
“I’m pretty booked up at the moment. What timeframe are we looking at?”
“I’d need you to spend part of the summer here, if you’re available, and interested. You’ll be compensated well and we can put you in a room at the main house during your stay.”
Perfect. “I do have most of the summer free at the moment. Are you talking three weeks? Six?”
Papers rustled on Mr. Marsland’s end. “Six weeks. From mid-July to the end of August.”
I walked back to my computer and put the glass down beside it. “And I’d be photographing horses? Riders? The landscape, too, I suppose?”
There was a pause, and he laughed. “We’re not that kind of ranch, Mr. Lambert.”
I narrowed my eyes at the red tomato that had tortured me with its saucy round form all morning. Mr. Marsland’s comment intrigued me.
“Call me Oliver. And, what exactly do you mean?”
“The name of my…business…is The Braided Crop Ranch. We’re really a club, of sorts, with a resort hotel on the premises.”
Hmm. “Oh. And you offer riding as part of the resort experience?”
Mr. Marsland laughed. “No. No riding. Only ponies.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a bit confused about—“
“We’re a fetish ranch, Oliver. Pony play. Human ponies. In leather harnesses and other…accoutrements.”
I blinked quickly, my eyes flitting from the tomato to the glass of water on my desk as my mouth went dry.
“Oh. I see,” I said.
Holy. That was not where I thought this conversation was going. A fetish ranch? My mind conjured up strange images of people in horse costumes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Adam laughed again. “Look, why don’t I text you the link to our website, where we have some older images, and you can call me back if you’re interested. And just text me a ‘No, thanks’, if you’re not.”
That…made sense. My mind reeled from the information but also honed in razor-sharp on the fact that this would be a very different assignment from anything I’d done in the past.
“All right. That sounds fine.”
“I hope to hear from you within the next hour. But if I don’t, no harm, no foul. What we’d be looking for are updated, artistic images for the website and our brochures—maybe a selection of shots to sell in our gift shop. Have a look, and if you think you can work with us, call me back. At any rate, it was great to speak with you, Oliver.”
“Same, Mr. Marsland.”
“Okay. Thanks, Adam. I’ve got your text, so I’ll have a look.”
“Excellent. Hope to speak to you soon.”
I closed the call and clicked the link in the text from Adam. My browser opened, and a ‘Welcome’ page loaded.
The Braided Crop Ranch scrolled in elegant but readable script overtop an idyllic scene of what looked like a regular farmhouse and barns, in a woodland setting. Then a Warning window popped up, informing me I had to be eighteen or older to enter the site.
Hmm. Well, I was thirty, so I clicked it.
Welcome to the Braided Crop Ranch
A fetish farm for pony play enthusiasts…
And, okay, wow. I didn’t even finish reading the intro because my eyes were drawn to the photos below it. Photos that turned my initial intrigue into outright fascination.
The images were pretty good, honestly, but a bit on the amateur side. Anyway, it wasn’t the style of the photos that grabbed my attention, but their subject.
I was no prude, and I had been involved in some fetish shoots in my time in this business. But those had been at cheesy, publicized events in the straight community, featuring stereotyped costuming and traditional BDSM props. It had been challenging to take photos that didn’t reflect on that fact and also didn’t sensationalize the subject matter.
But this…this looked like a pony play ranch for boys. Well, men, of course. But the word captioned on the images of these gorgeous young guys in very unique fetish-wear, was ponyboys.
I’d be lying if I said the word itself didn’t send a thrill down my spine and straight to my tightening balls.
Holy fucking shit.
So this was The Braided Crop Ranch, where Adam Marsland wanted me to spend my summer photographing ponyboys, and all the things they got up to?
I spent a few more minutes examining the photos of naked men in leather harness, with full horsehair tails cascading from their asses, and shiny, steel cages on their penises. They were entrancing in their uniqueness and the edgy, casual way the kink was presented. They weren’t trying to be horses. They were men submitting to being treated like horses. And that made all the difference.
Absolutely, I wanted to take photos of these pretty boys all summer at The Braided Crop Ranch. Who wouldn’t? Especially because I did happen to be a gay man, and I couldn’t imagine a more arousing spectacle than watching ponyboys prance around in the gear I’d seen.
But I had to contemplate having my professional name associated with this kind of project. Did I want to expose the people I’d convinced of my worth in this business, to something so on-the-fringe and exotic? Or did I want to do the work for Adam anonymously, using a made-up name?
It should be possible to do that. Adam was the only one at the ranch, as far as I knew, who was aware of my identity.
I tapped my fingers on the desk, wondering if I had time for a quick wank after I spoke to Adam. Those photos were really doing it for me, and they weren’t even that good. Imagine what I could produce.
I called Adam. He picked up after the first ring.
“Oliver. I’m so glad to hear from you.”
I pulled my wheeled chair out and sat down.
“Adam, I’ve gone through the photos on the website. They aren’t bad, but I could definitely produce something superior, especially if I have six weeks to follow some individual ponyboys around and document their daily activities.”
When Adam replied his voice was light and excited. He already seemed like a stand-up guy and I was already looking forward to working with him.
“Amazing! I was hoping you’d be interested. We’d have to ensure that no identifying features or marks were visible in the photos, of course. Privacy is a major concern for us here.”
I picked up a pen and started to doodle on my gas bill. “Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that actually. I’d be willing to do this for you, Adam, but I’d like to visit the ranch under a different name, and publish the photos under a pseudonym.”
“Of course. I don’t have any issue with that.”
I felt I had to explain. “I just don’t know if I want to associate my professional body of work with this kind of thing. I believe it’s just as valuable a pursuit, but I’m worried I’ll lose work if someone less flexible sees that I take these kinds of photos, as well as mainstream stuff.”
“I completely understand,” Adam replied.
The words I’d said didn’t sit well with me. I ran a hand through my hair and walked over to the window. “I’m not ashamed to take photos of beautiful boys, Adam.” I cleared my throat. “I assume they’re all of legal age to consent to this?”
“Yes, of course. We have a minimum age requirement of twenty to sign up as a ponyboy at the ranch. We don’t think people younger than that, have the mental maturity to handle the experience, since it’s so immersive.”
“Okay. Good. Anyway, as I was saying, I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to do this work. Not at all. And, those harnesses, and the cages…I mean…Jesus. Do the ponyboys wear those things day-to-day?”
Adam chuckled softly. “They do. Almost every day.”
I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “Every…day? Okay, you’ve got to tell me. How does the Braided Crop Ranch function, exactly?”
“I’d rather explain that to you in person, Oliver. When you arrive in July.” He paused. “All I can say, is that four years into operations, the ranch works beautifully. I’d like you to come and take a photographic record of that.”
If I passed this opportunity up? It would be a huge regret. There wasn’t any reason I could think of not to go.
“What sort of compensation are we talking about?” I asked, getting down to the nitty gritty. Perhaps I should have led with that. But my brain was blinded with pictures of pretty ponyboys, so…
We went over what Adam was willing to offer.
He’d house me, feed me, entertain me, as long as I took a good amount of photos and tried to make the ranch look as professional and exclusive and exciting as it really was. He also offered me enough money to make the venture worthwhile, even if I chose not to add the work to my professional portfolio. His confidence in the workings of his ranch was contagious, and by the end of the discussion, I was eager to see the place.
“All right. I’ll do it.” I said, tossing the pen across the table and rolling my chair back. Fuck you, stupid red tomato. I gave my computer the finger, grinning ear-to-ear.
“Fantastic!” Adam said. “The summer session begins on the 12th of July. The ponyboys will be arriving over the weekend and getting settled, so if you come on-site midweek, that would be perfect. It’ll give me time to let everyone know you’ll be wandering around, taking photos, as long as they agree. Consent it very important at my ranch, even for something as seemingly benign as this. But I don’t think we’ll have a problem with a lack of participation. Most of the men who play pony here, are very much into exhibitionism.”
I could only fucking imagine. “Sure.”
“When you arrive, I can give you a quick orientation and you can dive right in. That work for you?”
“Yes. That’s fine.”
“Text me your email address and I’ll have Connor send out our standard welcome letter with attached directions and information. We usually send it to incoming staff, so just ignore the parts that aren’t relevant. We do have a no-cell-phones rule that I will ask you to abide by. Phones are kept at the main house, where you’ll be staying, and aren’t allowed anywhere else on the grounds. It solves the problem of unofficial photos circulating and helps everyone maintain their focus. Not that I think you would take any personal photos, but it wouldn’t look very good if I allowed you to keep your phone, and no-one else.”
“I understand, Adam. That’s a good policy.”
“Then I’ll see you on July 12th. Thank you so much for agreeing to my request. Jaden couldn’t say enough positive things about you.”
“Bye Adam. I’m looking forward to it.”
We ended the call and I texted Mr. Marsland my private email address.
While waiting for Adam’s letter, I decided to use my real name while at The Braided Crop Ranch, because I couldn’t imagine responding to a pretend one, and I didn’t want to insult the people who worked and played there, by acting as though I was ashamed to join them.
But the idea of using a pseudonym later, or simply publishing the photos under an Anonymous tag, remained appealing. I didn’t want to second-guess every image I took at this kinky ranch, and wonder how it would reflect on my professional, public, profile.
I found myself unable to stop thinking about my summer contract. Time couldn’t pass quickly enough, and when I finally found myself a week away from my planned assignment, I could hardly believe it.
“What do you mean, you’re on a secret assignment?” My friend, Grif, said, when I explained that I’d be out of town for six weeks at an undisclosed location. “You’re not going to one of these new-age monastic retreats, are you? You know they’re all money-grabs, right?”
“Uh, no. That’s not where I’m going. And I’m being paid well for my time.”
He side-eyed me and sipped his beer. “Well, I just hope I eventually get the inside story. Seeing as I’m your best friend, I really do deserve to know where you’re going. I assume you’ll be reachable by cell?”
I hesitated. “Well…”
“Okay, come on. Where the fuck are you going and why is it a big secret?”
“Fine. But you cannot tell anyone. I need you to keep quiet, because I’m doing this assignment with a made-up name, because it’s a little out of the mainstream.”
Grif’s eyebrows flew up. He was older than me by a couple of years, but still looked like he was twenty-five. He didn’t have any trouble getting laid and he thought I was overplaying my concern at turning thirty. But I didn’t have the genes to look boyish my entire life, like Grif apparently did. I was starting to get lines beside my mouth and eyes–barely visible so far but they were there–and I’d already found a couple of grey hairs
I thought for second. “Actually, it’s way out of the mainstream. And I don’t know if I want my professional name associated with this.”
Grif sat up straighter. “Now I’m going to die if you don’t tell me.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“But you’re going to tell me, right?”
I tapped my fingers on the wood of the tabletop and smiled, staring at it and wondering of telling Grif was a good idea or a bad one. I knew he’d keep it a secret if it killed him, but, knowing Grif, this secret might just kill him.
“I’m going to be photographing men at a kinky pony play ranch in the Muskokas,” I said.
Grif stared at my profile silently for a few seconds. Then he slammed his beer down so hard, the liquid sloshed over the sides.
“Shhh, Jesus, this is supposed to be a secret.”
“Did you just say—“
“Kinky ponyboys at a ranch in Northern Ontario. Yeah. That’s what I said.”
“Ponyboys?” He whispered, grey eyes glinting dangerously, breaths becoming ragged. “Ponyboys!”
“Griffin, are you having an asthma attack?”
“Maybe? I can’t breathe all of a sudden. Are you fucking kidding me?”
“No, I’m completely serious. You know I’m a photographer.”
“How? How did you finagle this? And why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “You can’t come with me.”
“Even just to visit?”
“I won’t have my phone most of the time.”
“I can’t even call you?”
“I’ll have it, I just have to leave it at the main house. So, I can call you, on occasion.”
He stared at me. “You better fucking call me. I’m going to want to know every fucking thing you do there.”
“I’m just taking pictures, Grif,” I shrugged. “That’s all.”
He sat back in his chair, regarding me quizzically. “Apparently, you’re going to live at this—ranch?—for six weeks. Maybe you won’t just take pictures.”
“You’re telling me, you’re going to spend your days photographing half-naked, kinky men, playing pony for sexual kicks, and that’s it?”
I nodded. “Yeah. You know, I’m a professional. I can be professional at a kink ranch, just like anyplace else.”
He seemed dubious.
“I’m not going for pleasure, Grif. I’m going on a professional assignment.”
“So, you’re not going to get any pleasure from taking intimate photos of naked men in the pony barn? Wearing bridles and harnesses, and who knows what-the-fuck else, and you’re not going to get any pleasure from that?”
I levelled a meaningful stare his way.
“I’m sure that–look, I’m obviously going to enjoy this. What gay guy wouldn’t?”
“But it will be a vicarious enjoyment, because I’m going to be there as a professional photographer, not a member of this very exclusive fetish club. I’m going to have to keep a professional distance, in order to do my job properly.”
“If you say so.” Grif took a gulp of his beer, put it down, and laughed softly. “Wow. I’m actually really excited for you, Ollie. Sounds like an incredible way to spend your summer.”
I grinned, lifting my beer. “Let’s drink to that. And not a word to anyone about where I am. Just say you don’t know, that I needed a vacation, or something.”
“Of course. I can keep a secret. But you have to promise you’ll call me and let me know what it’s like.”
He clinked his glass with mine, and we drank to half-naked, kinky men, and a secret, summer retreat.
I didn’t know what to pack.
Adam had said the summers were hot, dry and sunny, and to bring shorts, boots and flip-flops, comfortable cotton shirts, and a few nicer pieces to wear to the communal suppers, and the annual Canada Day bonfire. I also might want to go off-site to the bars and restaurants in Huntsville on occasion, or the resort hotel attached to the ranch.
But I’d never had to prepare for such an unusual assignment before, and I found myself wanting to bring clothes that made me look, not only professional, but…hot. I would be taking pictures of incredibly good looking young men (if the photos already on the website were anything to go by) for six weeks. Even though I planned to maintain a professional distance from my subjects, I wanted them to think I was a passably attractive man.
I’d hit the ripe old age of thirty several months ago, and it had taken some of the wind out of my sales, to be honest. True, it wasn’t that old. And I had been able to make a good name for myself in the business of digital photography. I was established and rarely had to go looking for work anymore, which was a huge accomplishment at my age.
But as a gay guy, I hated to admit there was a stigma about men in their thirties—that we weren’t any fun anymore—that we were over the hill. I felt stuck in an in-between land of gay stereotypes. I was too old to be a twink, but too young to be a Daddy.
I know, I know, it was ridiculous to think in terms like that, but I couldn’t help it! My social feed was full of posing twenty-somethings who’d throw out offhand comments about gay men over thirty, and it…stung.
Maybe the problem was who I followed on Twitter and Instagram – largely, men who were younger than thirty. So, yeah, maybe I had a thing for cute twinks with biteable asses and an affinity for drama. And it hurt that maybe they wouldn’t be attracted to me anymore, because I’d reached the expiry date for fellow twink-dom but wasn’t yet ‘daddy’ material. Even though I felt like a ‘daddy’ most of the time, since I’d become responsible and predictable due to my entrepreneurial business, and need to earn an actual living.
I’d be the first to say those preconceptions and assumptions were unfair. But it still seemed they existed.
Anyway, I ended up with one suitcase and my camera bag, both of which I stuffed in the trunk of my eight-year-old Toyota, before locking up my house and heading to the highway for the two and half-hour drive to the Braided Crop Ranch on Skeleton Lake. In exchange for occasional bits of information from my secret mission, Grif had agreed to look after my house, and feed my fish every few days.
I’d jacked off twice the night before, to the photos on the website. So yeah, I was excited to observe the ponyboys at The Braided Crop Ranch in person. But I wondered how long my professional distance would hold, once I found myself deep in the world of kinky pony play.