“My happy place”…everyone has one, whether real or imagined. There was no question in my mind, as I walked around SJ Riding Camp in Ellington, Ct. that I was witnessing 36 girls living in their own personal happy place. Driving down the long wooded driveway into a secluded world of girls, horses, nature, and cozy cabins, I wished to be 13 again.
It is astounding to me that the more camps I visit, the more I recognize the individuality of each place. From afar, it may look like each camp is doing the same as every other camp. While the dedication to the safety, education and improvement of their riders seems universal among riding camps, the distinct personality of SJ Riding Camp shone through in the cheerful and vivacious character of every person I encountered on my visit. Of course, as I looked around, how could anyone be anything but gleeful in this particular setting?
The white fences lining the driveway, pastures, and riding areas were neat and in good repair, but just the right amount of worn for me to know this wasn’t a stuffy pretentious riding academy, but rather a real working riding stable. The simple efficient barn with its well-kept tack room and organized bins of individual horse’s grooming equipment promised lots of requirements on pitching in and immersing themselves in the horse world that so many girls dream of.
The morning riding lessons were just getting ready to start when I arrived. I watched as girls of all sizes groomed and tacked up patient horses that were secured at hitching posts, complete with the horses’ names. There was a lot of interaction between age groups helping each other. Before long, the herd of riders and horses had separated into three different groups and were each headed to one of three arenas, the lake ring, the pasture ring or the main ring.
After we watched some of the lessons that were happening in each ring, Alex Thomas, the camp director took me on a tour of the camp. I was impressed to see the other riding spaces the camp had, both a dressage arena and a cross-country course. Besides the course that went out through the woods, there was the most perfect little field of small,
but very legitimate obstacles. They were so inviting looking, the very opposite of intimidating and I could just imagine the thrill each girl would feel as she progressed through to the level that would allow her to begin cross-country jumping.
The camp’s waterfront is on a tiny lake that is private to the camp. It looks like Mother Nature had SJ’s needs in mind when she designed and located this lake. There is a great dock and swim area, a place for kayaks and paddle boats and the biggest boon of all, a separate pond for these campers to take their horses swimming. Between the beautiful woods and this waterfront, summer heat is not much of a problem for these campers.
As well as riding twice a day, each camper gets to choose other activities to fill up their days. Besides swimming and boating, there is also archery, arts and crafts, stable management classes, theater activities, all kinds of sports and a mini-farm.
The covered open air Art area was lined with bins, shelves and drawers of all kinds of crafting materials. At the rustic tables, girls were braiding friendship bracelets, some were playing cards, some were painting and a few of them were singing as they worked. It was all I could do to not just plop down and join in.
The tennis, volley ball, and basketball courts were all beautifully maintained, but I could hardly take my eyes off the coolest thing ever in the sports area. On the surface of the tennis court was a painted blue line that depicted a small dressage arena, complete with letters at the edge. Someone (or maybe everyone) on this staff knows how horse girls think and play. I wished I could have witnessed the determined young equestrians prancing around on foot practicing and memorizing their dressage tests.
The dining hall and cabins that serve as home to these girls for either 1, 2, or 3 week sessions are welcoming and comfortable. The small rustic cabins are all tucked into a wooded glen. In the center of the cabin area is a fire pit that made it so easy to envision endless summer nights of girls singing and laughing around a crackling campfire.
While most of the CHA certified instructors I watched were former campers themselves, some of the counselors are young women from European countries working for the summer. I noticed the counselor running the art area had a beautiful accent. Director Alex told me not only are some of their counselors international, so are a percentage of their campers. What a delightful way to immerse a child in the English language…kudos to those progressive parents!!
It was in the tidy dining hall that I discovered the source of the truly special spirit I found at SJ Riding Camp. Old framed newspaper articles on the wall tell the story of Mary Haines, the founder of this camp. On my arrival, Alex had given me a brief history of the camp. In 1956, Mary Haines, being the mother of six kids, wanted to give them the experience of horses. She started a small co-ed Western summer camp for her children and their friends. Over the years, the camp grew and became the excellent facility I witnessed personally this summer. Pat Haines, Mary’s daughter is still involved in the business to this day. But starting the camp was just the beginning of the remarkable story of Mary Haines. She started running at the age of 68 and became passionate about it almost immediately. She went on to compete successfully in over 20 Senior Olympic Events all over the world. When she started to lose her sight, Mary continued running with her guide dog, Verna. At age 92, Mary Haines took up sculling, which she stayed with until she was 97. This extraordinary advocate for senior fitness and wellness lived fully and joyfully until her death in 2012.
The happiness I found in all aspects of everything happening at SJ Riding Camp are a perfect tribute to its founder. It was extremely evident that every camper, counselor, staff member and horse were content in knowing this was the Best Horse Camp for them!!