Richard Dunwoody's path to professional photography has not been the most straightforward, but it is certainly one of the most intriguing.

Born into a horse-racing dynasty in Belfast, his father the trainer and rider of many point-to-point winners, and his maternal grandfather a celebrated trainer at Epsom, Richard knew he would become a jockey from the age of four. His obsession with riding – eloquently captured in his compelling autobiography, Obsessed – drove him to superlative success in a 16-year career which saw him win the Grand National twice, the Cheltenham Gold Cup once, and the King George VI Chase four times, including twice on the legendary Desert Orchid. He was three times Champion Jockey, became an MBE in 1993, and by his retirement in 1999 had amassed nearly 1,900 wins worldwide and beaten Peter Scudamore's record for the most jumps wins.

Retirement wasn't chosen but thrust upon him by a neck injury, leaving him searching for something new to push him to the limit and beyond, as riding had done. He found it first in extreme travel and sports, in 2003 completing the inaugural 350-mile Polar Race to the Magnetic North Pole, and in 2008 becoming the first person to reach the South Pole via a route originally attempted by Earnest Shackleton, as well as leading riding holidays for adventure travel company Wild Frontiers in offbeat locations including Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Regular exposure to incredible landscapes on his trips rekindled a childhood fascination with photography and, since 2012, he has been gathering acclaim as a professional photographer. His images have appeared in publications worldwide, including Tatler, Four Seasons Magazine and The Racing Post, and he held his first exhibition in 2014, featuring the work of the Brooke Hospital for Animals, at St Martin's In The Fields in London.

How does being a photographer compare to being a jockey?

It's not quite the same as riding a winner, but I'm very competitive, so competing against myself to improve my images gives me a real buzz. And I love travelling, I really have a passion for it. I used to live and breathe racing, but you move on, and I don't think back on my racing years much now.

What sparked your interest in photography?

When I was 12 I discovered the school darkroom and used to enjoy developing my own black and white prints, but racing took over. After I retired from horseracing I did a lot of travelling. In 2002 I started leading riding holidays in far-flung places like Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan's North-West Frontier for Jonny Bealby at Wild Frontiers – we originally met through his brothers, whom I knew from the racing world. I also competed in the Arctic race in 2003 and did the expedition to the South Pole in 2008, and when I was out in all these amazing places, it was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to get better images of them. At the time I only had a compact, so eventually I bought a Nikon D70 and a couple of lenses I'd seen in an advert in a local café, and my interest grew from there.

Why did you decide to train as a professional photographer?

Through a friend, I'd got to know the award-winning war photographer Jason P Howe, and I spent a couple of days with him while on a trip to Kabul. We travelled to the Panjshir Valley, then to a Buzkashi match, and he was telling me the settings he was using and giving me really good advice, and that gave me even more of an interest. Around the same time I had a friend at the Spéos Photographic Institute in Paris, an intensive, full-time photography course, so I decided to give it a go, and signed up. Luckily, the lectures were in English! I was out there for nine months, specialising in photojournalism, and I totally recommend it.

Your photographic inspirations?

Salgado, whom I studied at Spéos; the war photographers – including Tim Hetherington and Don McCullin – and photojournalist Steve McCurry. Wildlife photographer Chris Weston is another; he's a top guy. I assisted him recently photographing the wild horses of Camargue on one of his Magic Is photo trips with a group of clients, and learned a lot from him and Simon Weir, another of the Magic IS leaders.

What’s in your kit bag, and why does it work for you?

I've got the D4S, an older D4 and a D810 – they're all great cameras. With the D4S and D4, I particularly love the frame rate. That 10fps is very useful and essential for action, especially at place like Birdsville – a two-day race meeting in the Australian Outback which I visited last September for Gallop Magazine – and it's great for wildlife, too. It has taken a little while to really get to grips with D810, but I love it for its resolution, particularly when photographing wildlife or taking landscapes.

The high ISO on my Nikons is very helpful, too. For example, it's been particularly useful for my ongoing Patients' Journey series, where I'm largely photographing inside, covering the work of Professor Noel Fitzpatrick, the Channel 4 'Supervet'. ISO 3200 still gives fantastic results – some of the images have been enlarged to around 2m by Metro Imaging – and they have been very well received. And working with Noel is a revelation. Talk about work ethic, he doesn't stop – he regularly operates in the middle of the night on dogs and cats. It's a really interesting project, and I'm hoping there will be an exhibition at some stage.

Lens-wise, I've got the 14-24mm f/2.8, the 24-70mm f/2.8, the 70-200mm f/4, the 200-400mm f/4 and the 50mm f/1.4. For the photojournalism side of my work, the 24-70mm is essential. But my go-to lens is definitely the 70-200mm. Its focus and sharpness are incredible. I enjoy using the 200-400mm and have achieved some great results with it, but because of its size I rarely travel with it.

Does your neck injury pose any issues with photography?

Five years after I had to retire as a result of nerve damage to my neck, I had an operation to sort it out. So it's not an issue now, not even for carrying kit – although I'm very glad they don't always weigh your carry-on luggage at the airport. In fact, to be on the safe side, I've just bought one of those photo vests, so if I do ever get caught out, I can stash my lenses in the pockets!

Talking of airports, how much time do you spend travelling, and what have you been up to recently?

Usually I'm away for around half the year, but I've been travelling a bit less in the last six months as my girlfriend Olivia has just had a baby girl, Emilia – our first! My schedule is usually pretty varied, though. In the autumn I was on the judging panel for the Travel Photographer of the Year awards – the prizes will be awarded in the summer. We looked at a huge amount of images online, literally hundreds of portfolios. Even when it had been cut down to a shortlist, we still had a mass of images to go through.

Then in early December I spent a weekend at the Jungle in Calais for a charity. It was cold, wet, dreary, and there was a major fire one night – this was all before they started knocking it down. I've been to Kibera in Nairobi, one of the largest slums in Africa, and some parts of the Jungle were in a worse state. Without the humanitarian assistance that's going on there from volunteer groups like CalAid it would be terrible. It's a sorry state of affairs.

This August I'm covering the Mongol Derby for the fourth time. It's the longest and toughest horserace in the world. They have one training day in Ulan Bator, then off they go onto the Steppe to race, swapping horses every 25 miles. It's non-stop from the moment you get up to the moment you go to bed – photographing, editing, captioning, sending. They cover 1000km in seven days, and it's hard enough doing it in a Jeep, never mind on the back of a horse!

Do you have a favourite location, and any still on your bucket list?

Mongolia is an amazing country; I've been there every year bar one since 2008 and I love it. Kyrgyzstan and the Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan are two of the most beautiful and remote places I've ever been to. Ethiopia has always been high on my list and when I went recently it didn't let me down; it's quite inspirational being on the top of the Simien Mountains, and the wildlife is amazing. I've led riding holidays in South America, including Chile, Ecuador and Argentina, and I'd like to spend more time in Central America next.

And we have to ask – how did you end up on Strictly Come Dancing?

It was 2009, I was out in the middle of Mongolia leading a trip for Wild Frontiers, and I got a call asking me if I'd like to be on the shortlist for that year's Strictly, with a definite place the following year. I thought, OK, I've got a year to practise my moves… and then someone dropped out so I was bumped up the list to compete. It was a tremendous experience, with a great team, and it was very interesting to see how it all worked. But it is a bit of a pantomime – Phil Tufnell, who was also taking part that year, said it was more frightening than facing a fast ball from Glen McGrath. It certainly made me feel more nervous than I'd ever been. And I also found out that I couldn't dance whatsoever – despite my partner Lilia Kopylova's best efforts. I only lasted two weeks but I am very glad it was not an experience I'd passed up on.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given – and that you’d give?

You have to be ultra self-critical. If Mark Prüst, one of my lecturers at Spéos, didn't like your photo he'd literally tear you apart, and his criticism in particular made me much tougher on my own images. You've really got to look at what you've shot and not be sucked in by the thought that 'it looks OK'. I find revisiting images very useful – one photographer I came across would live with her pictures pinned up on her wall. I've been in this game five minutes compared to everyone else, so I want to keep learning and keep getting better images.

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