The term “horse camp” conjures up different images for different people. They take place at sleek riding academies, rustic wooded sleepaway camps, small neighborhood barns and discipline specific training stables all over the world. The atmosphere and activities at each camp may differ tremendously, but if the camp is being run right, the common denominator is that riders, beginner through advanced, are having so much fun, they forget how much they are learning. Some barns run weekly “clinics”. It may be just so as not to be confused with the juvenile sounding term “camp”, but believe me, they can be quite similar in content…and I mean that as a good thing. Because to me, there is nothing better than HORSE CAMP!!
The dictionary defines CAMP as “a place offering recreational activities and skill development for children, usually during the summer”. This is a very basic description of every horse camp I know. Many camps have expanded to winter camps, weekend camps, adult camps, etc. At most stables, horse camp differs from riding lessons in that more emphasis is placed on the whole horsemanship experience, not merely riding. It also encompasses the fun and playful nature of just hanging out at the barn, without subjecting the barn owner to the potential nightmare of unsupervised kids ripping around the barn.
When prior students come back to visit their childhood stable as adults, most of their vivid fond memories happened during camps. For the non-horse owning students, it is a time for them to become immersed in the daily exposure to this passion they are discovering. It also does a lot for inter-stable camaraderie. It is the first time the child who rides every Saturday at ten meets the child who rides every Tuesday at four.
Why “camp” for the beginner rider?
It is measurable. The beginner who starts with a camp week rather than weekly lessons engages quicker, both with the barn staff and the sport itself. The improvement from Monday to Friday is more well-defined to them and to their parents than would be evident in five weekly lessons.
It is rare that in a weekly lesson, the beginner would be exposed to the terms and stable management skills that the time in camp allows for. Well run camps are looking to produce the whole horseman rather than just the great rider. We have found that starting a child in camp opens their expectations of what this hobby should be. It is not all about just the time in the saddle, they learn to enjoy the grooming, saddling and bathing as a normal part of the participation.
When beginners partake in camp, they are surrounded by all levels of riders immediately. Nothing compares to the motivation of wanting to be as good as one of the advanced riders. Many times a beginner rider will pick out one of the advanced riders on their own as their personal mentor.
It is surprising for beginners to realize that sometimes younger and or smaller kids than themselves are already completely proficient at riding and all it entails. And, of course, the fact that boys and girls compete on the exact same stage is an unexpected, but delightful awareness.
Sometimes a disappointing, although equally important discovery, during a week at camp is that a child may find this is not for them. They get too hot, too dirty or too tired, or amazingly enough, they just don’t find it as awesome as the other kids seem to. It is so much more efficient to find that out in a week than in ten hourly lessons that may not reach same conclusion as clearly. Both parents and stable owners should be pleased to find this out sooner rather than later.
Why “camp” for the more advanced rider?
Have you ever watched a child who is very successful in the show arena go out into the arena and ride? Does it ever make you wonder when you see them go round and round practicing the precise thing they do at every show, if they are having enough fun? Does the painfully bored expression in their horse’s eye tug at your heart just a little? Way too soon in their competitive careers, show kids forget how to play with their horses.
By the third day of a camp week, the most seasoned of show horses are showing a brightness that surprises, as they lope the outside of “the wheel” in a drill team maneuver. Along with serious lesson time, camp reintroduces play time for horses and riders. I refuse to believe any show horse has ever been made less competitive because he played a game of Egg and Spoon.
There is nothing like a good summer camp game of Horse Jeopardy to reveal that the big kids still need a little review of Parts of the Saddle or Common Equine Ailments. The challenge of coming up with stimulating projects and educational materials for advanced riders is the inspiration that drives most camp directors and was the incentive for the creation of BestHorseCamp.com.
It is a great time to inspire the more advanced riders to take part in the development of the younger kids. Almost every camp I’ve talked to uses the mentoring system effectively and agrees it is good for both parties involved. It may seem self-serving, but there is no question that we are growing our own counselors every summer. The unexpected thing about this is it isn’t always the most talented rider that makes the best counselors. Sometimes the kids that have struggled a little bit are more nurturing and patient with younger riders. Kids that have been raised with camp being a traditional part of their summer have an easier time transitioning out of it by being involved as a counselor or helper.
Why “camp” for the trainer?
Mention the word “camp” to each trainer you encounter and you will get extreme reactions. A good number will roll their eyes and exclaim “No way!” Others will groan and grudgingly admit it’s a necessary evil… and then there are those of us whose eyes light up. We can tell you how many weeks till camp starts and that we have already discovered the best prizes ever for this year’s Camp Olympics.
I have found that if you ask the regular kids in a barn about their barn’s summer camp, you can tell right away what the trainer’s feeling is about it. The more a trainer enjoys camp the more their kids do too. It is right behind Christmas for me and these kids know it. Why? Because I talk about it from February on.
“Wait till you see the new game we’re going to play this year!”… “You won’t believe the fun project we have planned for camp!”… “You better be studying your parts for “Pin the Part on the Horse game…the prize is totally worth it.” “I can’t wait for you to see this year’s big surprise.” Sometimes I’m telling the truth and sometimes I’m just building the hype. But it works.
When I put the summer camp sign-up poster up in April with 15 slots per week, I always tell the parents to please wait till all the regular boarder and lesson kids get their slots before they tell their friends about it. Nothing works better than thinking they are getting something not available to everyone.
Most of my year is spent scouring the internet, books and magazines looking for games, crafts, projects that can be reinvented as a horse related learning tool that will be perceived as fun. Everything we can teach them at camp pays off during the year. It makes for a better more efficient barn when each child knows how to clip their horse, clean a bridle or put on a standing wrap. And what lesson horse doesn’t benefit from Apple and Carrot Bobbing day?
The real secret is running a camp reminds us as trainers that riding has got to remain fun. If we have taught a person to ride, but not to love the noble beasts who grant us this privilege, have we done the best thing for our industry? Who among us doesn’t need some relief from the pressure of succeeding in the show pen? What if that kid never steps foot in the show arena, but just proudly showed you how she can put on a halter all by herself? It’s all part of what we do.
It is understandable that not everyone is cut out to run a camp. I know I am going to work harder for that month of camp than I do the whole rest of the year. But it also gives me a chance to watch the newest crop of young stars separate themselves into the ones to watch. I am usually blown away watching a young teenager, who was that tiny kid not so long ago, encourage the timid new young rider to let go of the horn for just a minute.
And I’m not ashamed to admit, I also know it affords me a lovely summer vacation when I am done.