You wouldn’t call the place fancy, but if you stayed for more than five minutes, took a good look around, and really listened to what was taking place, you would have to agree the experiences taking place here at Horse Camp at 4M Farm are what you would wish for any kid. Nothing can elicit jealousy in a horse kid’s heart faster than hearing a classmate say they have a grandmother with a horse farm. I think every kid in the vicinity of 4M Farm kind of does.
I had just missed a train. Granted, I hadn’t take into account unpredictable New York City traffic. So instead of heading to Vermont, I was heading upstate to Albany to crash at a friend’s house. There was a time that may have stressed me out. Not anymore. Now, it meant one thing. I’d have a chance to find and visit a horse camp in an area I hadn’t planned to visit.
A quick Google search lead me to 4M’s Farm in Castleton, New York. The website was inviting, the pictures showed that familiar joy of kids immersed in horse play. I emailed Mary Garcia immediately to see if they would mind me stopping by the next day. I received a short polite email back that basically said, we’ll be busy, but come ahead. The short, but kind and to the point answer was a preview of the woman I was about to meet.
I parked and made my way up the driveway toward the sound of a teaching voice, the kind that carries easily without yelling. When I got to the arena, there were 17 mounted horses all lined up side by side with a few older kids acting as handlers at the head of a couple of the horses. Mary Garcia was explaining the presentation the children would be making for the parents later that afternoon. Each child announced their name, who they were riding and a brief description of their mount.
Bingo, Daisy, Maggie, Rosy, Cocoa, Midnight, Thunder…all the names of childhood horse dreams. The gentle horses alone would have sold me on this place. They were all sizes, colors, and shapes, but the common characteristic was the soft kind eye of aged school horses. They had the well-worn, well-loved, and wise to the bone look that melts any instructor’s heart. Although the kids aboard ranged from proficient to extreme beginner, you had the feeling instantly that every rider was as safe as could be. That point was driven home when Mary told them all to dismount and proceed to their “stations”.
Being a Horse Camp veteran, I expected at least a little chaos as seventeen horses were led by their tiny charges to various places in and around the front of the barn. I was a little shocked at how flawlessly it went as Mary pointed and gave brisk commands. Soon all steeds were neatly parked, untacked and being brushed enthusiastically by the army of camp kids.
At that point, I got a few precious minutes with Mary and she explained about her camp and her program. It turned out that of the large group of kids, ten were actual campers and at least ten others were “workers”. She beckoned a couple and soon I was surrounded by the small mob of kids who proudly call themselves workers. I had seen an offer of working for lessons on her website and I was very curious as to how that worked. It couldn’t have been any simpler or any more efficient.
One of the girls, Nicole, got out a large binder that all workers use and showed me her “page”. She told me she signs in whenever she comes and proceeds to do whatever needs to be done around the barn whether it be cleaning stalls, turning out horses, cleaning tack or even helping Mary plant flowers. When she’s done for the day, she logs her hours and Mary assigns her “points” depending on what Nicole has accomplished. Nicole assured me Mary was very fair with her designation of points. Then Nicole showed me the chart where kids spend their points. Points could be used for lessons, free rides, trail rides or even participation in a local parade.
I asked about coming to camp and Will, another worker and the only boy on the grounds that day, explained, “We all come and help and participate during camp. Sometimes we’re just helping the beginner kids and sometimes we are doing the activities right along with the campers. But we’re always ready to just do whatever Mary needs of us.”
Besides all the chores these kids seem willing to do, they could also be on staff as Mary Garcia’s PR team. It would have been impossible to write down every devoted thing these kids said about their instructor, but the general consensus was these kids feel loved and appreciated and have the utmost affection and respect for this woman who has found a way to allow them to have horses in their lives.
Jess, who has been coming to 4M Farm for a year, told me, “Mary may seem like she’s a little tough, but she pushes us to do our best.”
Nicole interjects, “She is so good to us. In the winter, when it’s really cold, she always makes sure there is hot chocolate in the barn.”
I am always very interested in how these camps come to be. What started the journey? Mary’s story of how her family got into the business is especially sweet. Her daughter, Michele, wanted a pony as a child. Mary and her husband Mike told Michele she would have to save the money herself. One day when Michele was nine years old she took her life savings of a hundred dollars, got off the school bus at a local stable, and purchased a pony. Then proceeded to walk it a mile home.
That started the ball rolling. The family purchased the current farm in 1985. Michele competed very successfully on Shane, that first pony. The path that led from casual owners to a professionally run place was gradual, but well-orchestrated.
In Mary’s own words, “My need to keep my horses fed and food on my table started my business. We scheduled many clinics at the farm, learned from other instructors and talked with many judges at local shows. Besides what we learned from them, we learned from our own mistakes. My goal has always been to keep it simple for students to learn about horses and basic western riding.
Mary’s other job as a school bus driver keeps her in touch with children in the district. Many of the kids I talked to said they met Mary on their school bus and she told them she owned a horse farm. There is a sign hanging outside the barn that says “My Barn, My Rules”. I am quite sure the same would hold true on her bus. This woman handles large groups of kids with an air of ease and authority that seems to come very naturally.
After lunch, the kids all pulled saddle pads and hay bales into the alley of the barn and sat quietly while Mary read from a stackful of horses for sale ads she had printed from the Internet. After each sentence she would stop and ask what that line meant. It was a great way to review horse terms and introduce new ones. It was also easy to see young minds dreaming of the day when this would be shopping they were doing for real.
There are also quite a few kids who partially lease horses from 4M. In all the interaction I had with Mary, it is clear that she works extremely hard to keep things rolling along in the black. She talks candidly with the camp kids about the costs involved in keeping horses and shares that partially leasing these horses is how she can afford to keep the large number she has.
Eventually, it was time for the campers to saddle up for the exhibition for the parents. Small pieces of ribbons and some creative braiding had been proudly added to the horses since the morning ride. Hooves were shiny with Hooflex and the kids lucky enough to have them donned their 4M tee-shirts. Again, I was impressed as the kids effortlessly divided into helpers and those needing help. Before I knew it, 17 kids were mounted and walking around the ring.
Cars streamed up the driveway. One mom I talked to told me there were 3 carloads of supporters coming to watch her daughter. That same mom told me she had signed her daughter up for one week, but after that 5 days the child was so utterly in love with the farm that the family had relented and let her sign up for a second week.
Soon the fences were lined with friends and families, waving and taking pictures. The arena is loaded with what might look like clutter to a non-horse person, but to a horse crazy kid it must look like the best horse playground in the world. There are barrels, poles, rails on the ground, cones, a basketball hoop, a bell on a stand, four mounting blocks and some small jump standards. Each of these represent one more way for a child to learn about steering and maneuvering a horse without realizing how much work is actually happening. It is all disguised as fun…or this kind of work just feels like fun to these horse crazy kids.
I left 4M Farm that afternoon grateful for the circumstances that had caused me to miss my train. I will keep thinking about those lucky kids that have access to this haven in Castleton, New York. There is no doubt in any of their minds…4M Farm is the BEST HORSE CAMP.