I was sitting in an airport trying to decide which behavior was more disturbing. Was it the three teenage girls who sat next to each other for 45 minutes without ever engaging in one word of conversation or making eye contact with anything but their phone screens? Or was it the preteen boy and girl whining incessantly at their mom about buying more candy?
I was reading the notes head trainer, Katie Hagen, had sent me about the purpose and organization of the summer camp held every year at Deerfield Farms. I would have given anything for the power to instantly transport all five of those youngsters to Issaquah, Washington. Whether they were into horses or not would have been beside the point. Those kids would all benefit from the life lessons and personal awareness that Emily Dengler, another of the instructors, had described to me as daily life at Summer Camp at Deerfield Farm.
The philosophy and talking points I was sent concerning Summer Camp at Deerfield Farm read like a manual on how to mold and develop a balanced, conscientious, calm and responsible young human. An email and phone conversation with Katie intrigued me as to what was happening and what sounded very different from any other horse camp personal I had talked to. It seemed like way more than horsemanship was being addressed here.
The summer camps held at Deerfield Farm are made up of both overnight and day campers. The ages may vary from 6 to 14. Some campers are members of the farm’s Regional Show Team and own or lease their own horses. Others are very beginner and participate on one of the stable’s 6 lesson horses. A separate camp is held for the more advanced members of the World Show Team.
Katie talked me through a typical day at camp. “First thing in the morning, all the campers meet at the yoga studio for a yoga and meditation session.” She would have continued, but I stopped her right there. I made her clarify that she meant a real yoga studio right there on the farm. “Yes”, she assured me, “complete with yoga mats and qualified Yogis to lead them.”
Katie resumes, “We keep it light and fun. The kids learn to wiggle and then to be very still. In meditation, they learn to be very loud and then to be very quiet.” The message the kids take away from the yoga sessions are reinforced instantly as they go to ride. Campers are encouraged to stop, breathe, and quiet themselves before entering the barn.
Katie acknowledges that with any group of children comes big boisterous energy, which will be embraced later in the day, during games and outdoor activities. But while dealing with the horses, peaceful energy is the focus.
You would be hard pressed to find anyone at a national level Appaloosa event who wasn’t fully aware of the prowess and success of the Deerfield Show Team. Sue Cummings-Schulz and her extremely capable staff always arrive as well prepared as anyone on the grounds. It is awesome to realize the same expertise that produces such competitors is available to these entry level campers. They receive riding instruction, take part in stable management, and play games that expand all they are learning. A camp favorite is running patterns on Stick Ponies.
Katie shared her insight on Gratitude, “It is amazing how this changes as the week goes on. At the beginning of the week, the kids may be saying I’m grateful for this fork that I’m eating with. But by the end of the week they are much more mindful and start to really acknowledge important things, like their parents for allowing them this opportunity, or they may say ‘I am grateful for my instructor who pushed me to do something they knew I could do, but I wasn’t sure’”.
After lunch, the kids participate in Leadership Games. I asked for an example and Katie described “Lava Island”. “We divide the kids into teams and they have to figure out how to get across the arena, which is the lava, using 3 feed bags. They must be standing on the feed bags at all times and cannot talk. The teams may be made up of both kids and counselors, as many as 8 per team”. I thought that sounded fun and of course, I instantly wanted to play. The afternoons are made up of lower key activities such as trail rides, showmanship lessons, bathing horses and craft projects. In keeping with the thoughtful and compassionate theme of this camp, one of the craft projects is Gratitude Rocks. Campers paint a rock with something they are grateful for and then place it somewhere around the farm.
“I love to come up on a beautifully painted rock that has a horse or a pet’s name on it as I move around the farm”. Katie also talked about how the mindfulness that is being promoted from the onset, starts to show up in all aspects of the campers interactions. “It shows in something as simple as how they store their boots and shoes. At the beginning of the week, it starts out as a huge jumbled pile, by weeks end, they are placing shoes and boots neatly where they belong.”
A new thing the staff at Deerfield Farm is starting this year is Environmental Journals. The kids will be asked to write down their observations on nature and changes around them as they take nature walks around the farm. This echoes what they are being introduced to during Meditation. It also flows with the exposure to nature the campers experience during their involvement with the organic garden.
A big organic garden provides some fruits and vegetables that are served during camp meals. Blueberries for pancakes are a huge hit during the berry season. Participation in the garden’s care mirrors everything these kids are being made aware of during this empowering summer camp experience.
Deerfield Farm has created a nurturing atmosphere that produces very cool human beings that can do way more than ride and communicate with their horses effectively. Their alumni have become leaders in the community.
There is a small logo on the Deerfield Farm website that says “Have a peaceful ride.” There is no doubt that is happening daily for the lucky participants of this very best horse camp.