The popularity of the mythical western has seen a resurgence in recent years due to hit shows like Yellowstone and 1883, or the homegrown favourite Heartland. But when it comes to the publishing industry, and Harlequin romance novels in particular, the western genre has always been a staple.

And while you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, a beautiful horse set against a scenic landscape can entice many a reader and horse lover to pick up a copy. “The western cowboy covers have always been pretty popular. They’re considered to be a perennial category; it’s a trend that sticks around,” explains Erin Craig, the creative director for Harlequin Trade Publishing (HTP). “And having television shows like Yellowstone with those types of epic cowboy visuals also might drive people a little bit more to the genre.”

As to what makes a great Harlequin western romance cover, the answer won’t come as a surprise. “You want to make sure that you’ve got a really sexy, strong hero on the front,” Erin explains. “If we’re dealing with couples, we want to show a really nice engagement between the two of them and an image that people can picture themselves in that situation.”

And of course, an essential component of the western mystique are horses, and Harlequin includes many horses on its covers. “Horses are a sort of mystical creature,” she says. “They’re beautiful. They have a soul to them. And I think people, even like myself, I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I always been captivated by horses when I’m out seeing them. There’s just something really almost magical about them. So, I think that makes people sort of gravitate to them.”

A stack of Harlequin books.How the cover images come to life is a multifaceted process that involves several teams, the publishing arm, the photographer, and the horse wrangler. But first it all starts with a concept. “When we’re coming up with the ideas for cover, I get a lot of inspiration by just taking a look at different websites,” says Erin. “I don’t just mean stock photography websites, but also people who photograph actual cowboys or advertisements that have cowboys in them, or real people who live the western lifestyle. Obviously if there’s something big out there like Yellowstone, then we may take some cues from what’s popular in their visuals. And then we will go out and shoot a look that we’re trying to emulate.”

Once such inspiration is found, Erin and her team will put together mock covers with type and lay it out as a kind of blueprint before they go and photograph it. Brandon Allen has been producing and shooting Harlequin covers since 2015. He receives the cover concept from Erin at Harlequin, then it’s his job to put it all together for them. And when a horse is involved, Allen sends the concept to horse wrangler Vanessa Warren, who together with her husband, Cary, owns The Ranch,  a trail riding operation in Oakville where casting begins.

“Normally we cast the [human] models by sending out a casting call to model agencies and I kind of do the same thing with Vanessa,” he explains. “I tell her a little description of what the horse should look like. That being said, it’s a very loose description because I can always change certain things in post.”

The description includes details such as colour and markings, especially if a specific horse is described in detail or is a character in the novel. “Every once in a while, the author hasn’t really written too much about the horse. So then we have a little bit of leeway,” he explains. “But a lot of times they have already described the horse in the novel. So we’re casting them the same way we cast the models.”

Vanessa Warren says that when she receives the description, she looks at the whole concept and tries to match the perfect horse. “If the cover is a man and a woman together and has a wistful vibe, then I might suggest a taller, finer horse,” she explains. “Or depending on what the book is, [Harlequin] may say ‘we want a dark horse or a light horse or something with a great mane that moves around.’ I go with that.”

During the horse casting, Vanessa sends Brandon image of the horses she feels work for the concept, as well as a description of how they are to work with. “Another thing I consider is matching the [human] talent. So, if we’ve got a shorter hunk, you don’t want a giant horse or he looks way less hunky.”

Vanessa also says the choice of horse can come down to logistics. She once got a call asking for a horse that would tolerate riding in a freight elevator up to a photography studio.

And on cover shoots that takes at least two hours, a horse’s temperament is vital. “We want to make sure that the horse is comfortable and then we can achieve what we’re looking to capture in the cover image,” Brandon says. “A cover concept has a specific angle, and we are aware that we may not get it, but we try our best to achieve it.”

Due to the extensive work involved in casting and producing a Harlequin cover shoot, the crew – a minimum of five or six people including the photographer, art director, hair/make up person, stylist and of course Vanessa working with the horses – tries to shoot multiple covers in a day. To capture a horse in motion, say with the hero galloping across the ground, Vanessa will lunge the horse in a large circle for Brandon to photograph. In these situations, it’s helpful if the model knows how to ride. During the casting process the modeling agents are told that the models need to either ride or at the very least be comfortable around horses, but of course, since everyone wants the gig, few ever say they can’t ride. To offset this type of risk, Brandon says they tend to return to the same talent roster. “We work a lot with the same pool of models so we learn who’s done this before and who’s comfortable around horses,” he says.

After the photoshoot, Brandon uses Photoshop to create the final cover and this can include changing the background, for example, to the mountains of Montana or a desert, depending on the setting of the novel. He also must frame the image so that there is room for the title and author’s name on the cover.

There are also seasonal issues. “Just because we’re working on a book that takes place in the summer doesn’t mean we’re shooting the cover in the summer,” he says. “Normally we work with a six-month minimum window before the book comes out. If we get asked to do the shoot and it’s November but the story takes place in the middle of the summer, we have to go out there and work with whatever elements we have and make it look like its summertime using the lighting and then finishing it up in post to take out anything that doesn’t look like summer.”

Working with animals being what it is, everyone involved understands that you have to roll with the punches, and sometimes there’s magic in the unexpected. “Obviously, the horses have their own personality, so you have to go with what happens on set,” explains Erin. “Sometimes you get exactly the shot that you were looking for, and how you envisioned it, and sometimes you don’t, and you work with what you’ve got. And sometimes you find something even better than what you’d planned, because it happened to come together when you’re on set.”