One of the major features of BestHorseCamp.com are the contests that we run for our participating camps each summer. This year, one of the contests was “Before and After.” We asked camps to send us two pictures that were examples of extreme changes. We gave the following examples to explain the contest concepts… 1.) A furry pony before and after he gets clipped, 2.) A dirty rusty horseshoe that gets turned into a beautiful piece of art, 3.) A rescue horse that gets rehabbed. We left it wide open and were hoping camps would come up with their very own idea.
This summer, our winning entry came from Windemere Stables in Jacksonville, Florida. Their entry was a perfect example of why summer camps are so amazing. Every day, at barns all over the country, kids who are taking lessons are improving. But those children who start their riding adventures with a week at a horse camp make remarkable progress in a relatively short time.
It was the story behind the pictures that won this contest. It represented the wonder everyone involved in horse camps has experienced. The giant leap into a sport never before tried…and then giant step forward in improvement.
The Monday Camper vs. the Friday Camper
I set out to visit Windemere. I didn’t really believe my GPS. I was checking into a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida right off the interstate with a plan to visit the farm the next morning. I was in an area surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and car dealerships and my navigation system was telling me I was within 3 miles of my destination. As I looked out the window, that didn’t seem possible.
Sure enough, the next day, a few stop lights down from my hotel I took a turn onto Morse Avenue and everything got greener and less commercial. Then, right there in the middle of suburban Jacksonville was a large barn with an expansive green lawn and an elegant sign that assured me I had arrived at Windemere Equestrian Center. A smaller sign just inside the gate said, Drive Slow, Old horses, Blind dogs and Unruly children. It gave me just the right feeling. I was entering a place dedicated to its charges, but with the required sense of humor.
I was greeted with a hug by Kim Kutch, a non pro rider and the mother of Joan Kutch, a former student at Windemere who has gone on to be assistant to Teresa Pennington, the head trainer at Windemere for the last 21 years. Kim was helping out as a volunteer during camp and was in charge of my tour.
Just inside the barn doors was a large glass trophy case packed with National and World Show trophies. It was a great visual suggestion to these young new campers of what was available and possible for them, once they entered this door. I watched the stream of campers file in, wondering which would be the ones to grab on and realize there was way more to this than a week of summer horse fun.
The barn’s set up is extremely conducive to holding summer camps. To the left and right of the entrance was a clean wide aisle way lined with 24 good sized stalls. Through to the back of the barn is a large comfortable lounge with generous spaces for tables and chairs. The back of the lounge was open to a beautiful view of the riding arenas.
Nothing really says equine versatility as well as a ring filled with jumps standing next to a vast roping arena. That was the surprising, but very impressive sight as we walked out behind the barn. That is about as all around as you can get and both arenas were extremely accommodating to their specific discipline.
The camp day was well organized. I stood back and watched a Parts of the Horse lesson that involved sticking labels on an actual horse. Then, it was on to horse assignments for the days ride.
It tickles me that, at every camp I’ve been to, this is met the same way…mostly squeals of delights, but also always some groans or pouts. I wish I could pull the letdown kids aside and assure them, that when they look back 5 or 10 years from now, they will realize the horses that offered distinct challenges were the ones that made them better riders.
I enjoyed watching the small herd of mannerly horses in all shapes, sizes and colors carry their riders of various levels of proficiency around the arena. It wasn’t just the horses who were polite. I was struck by how respectful each of these kids were to both trainer and each other, as well as how neatly turned out they were. But that night, when I sat down to dinner with “Miss Teresa”, it all made sense.
I’ve known Teresa Pennington for many years, so as she shared the story of how she built her business, her gracious humbleness did not surprise me. But her tenacity certainly did. She explained simply and with no malice in her voice, how each seemingly impossible obstacle she met and overcame, led to a new opportunity.
Her eyes lit up as she talked about a very special student, Alicia Rapp Thames, whose family have been her business partners for 21 years. Twenty-five years ago, six year old Alicia was a participant in a lesson and camp program Teresa ran as an independent contractor at a local stable. Alicia watched Teresa getting one of her own personal Appaloosas ready to show and told her parents “I want to do that too.” She wasn’t kidding, either. To this day, Alicia is a very accomplished horsewoman who continues to enjoy an extremely successful reining and non-pro career.
Luckily, Barry and Teresa Rapp believed their young daughter at the time she said that. They jumped in with both feet, purchasing the farm that became Windemere Equestrian Center. It speaks to the honesty and mutual trust that Teresa Pennington and Barry and Teresa Rapp have shown each other, that this partnership has endured 21 years. It doesn’t happen very often in this business.
After we talked about how she added reining and then roping to her already well rounded program, we got around to a much more personal subject, Teresa’s son, Luke.
Of all the great achievements in this hard working single mom’s life, Luke is the solid proof of what this woman is made of. Teresa admits Luke wasn’t initially crazy about horses and riding, but she knew her tightly packed schedule wouldn’t allow for a lot of driving around to baseball or football practices. So she bought him a pony and spent the next couple years trying to convince him it was what he wanted to do.
When Luke was in high school, Teresa became worried about her son’s direction and made another brave and selfless decision. Without hesitation, she made every sacrifice necessary to send her son to Camden Military Academy in Camden, South Carolina.
Again, her tenacity has paid off and Luke has excelled both academically and personally. He was named Platoon Sergeant of Delta Company and was the first member of the newly formed IEA team at Camden Military Academy.
In a recent phone call, Teresa told me how badly she wanted to go to watch his first competition, but she is scheduled to take 25 kids and horses to the county fair. If it were anyone else, I would have thought I heard the number wrong, but I know her. That is Teresa. And for the lucky kids around Jacksonville, Florida, they will always know where to find their Best Horse Camp and Miss Teresa.