Beyond Milk and Cookies

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Camps are a great way to boost your stable’s income in the summer months. But if your vision of summer camp is limited to little people happily brushing ponies, maybe you should expand it to include some camp sessions for big people.

Just like kids, adults thrive on the camp experience—the chance to be immersed in riding and horse care for days on end, and to meet and make friends with people who share their passion. But most aren’t eager to ride with kids (especially hotshot kids), and off-the-horse activities designed for kids don’t meet their needs.

Tap this market by running adults-only camp sessions and clinics. What are the secrets??Listen to some professionals who have successfully run adult camps explain how to schedule these events, what to offer, and more.

Season Stretchers

Many barns schedule adult camps in early or late summer, when kids are wrapping up or heading back to school. In effect, the adults extend the summer like a resort “shoulder season.” For example, at Fox Chase Farm in Middleburg, Virginia, owner/director Maureen Hanley runs five-day adult day camps in late August. At Paddington Station in Potter Valley, California, adult camps run in mid-June and mid-August. While Paddington offers weeklong sessions, owner Helen Johnson says weekend camps are increasingly popular with adults who work and have trouble getting away for a week.

William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, has an adult camp session in mid-June. Director Laura Ward says the university used to run adult and children’s camps in the same Monday-to-Friday format, but enrollment in the adult session doubled when it switched to a long weekend. Campers now arrive on Wednesday night and stay through Sunday morning.

Who Will Come

“Most adults in our camps are beginners who want to improve their basics,” says Johnson of Paddington Station, where the program is geared toward eventing and dressage. “More experienced adults are more likely to go to a clinic,” to receive more intensive instruction in a specific event.

But the camp-clinic distinction isn’t always so clear—some “camps” are really clinics. And both formats attract adults.

At William Woods, the adult camp draws beginners, riders returning to the sport after many years, and people who are thinking of buying a horse, says Ward. Campers can choose among three disciplines offered by the university staff—hunt seat, saddle seat or Western. But William Woods also hosts a three-day-weekend Adult Rider Dressage Camp, sponsored by the Kansas City Dressage Society (KCDS) and the Columbia Combined Training and Dressage Association (CCTDA). This camp offers intensive instruction by several clinicians and draws more experienced riders.

What to Offer

Your particular program depends on your facilities, your staff—and what you want to deal with.

Fox Chase runs day camps only; at this hunt-seat barn, campers arrive at 9 and are gone by 5. Johnson, whose 75-acre ranch is set in a picturesque part of northern California, offers overnight stays in cabin-like tents with cots. Campers shower in her house and get breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and an evening meal.

At William Woods, kids who attend junior camps stay overnight in dorms and eat in the campus dining hall, but adult campers find and pay separately for their own meals and lodging. This arrangement is less trouble for the school, and the adults prefer it. Ward includes information from the local chamber of commerce in her information package and also offers personal suggestions for restaurants.

Your horses or theirs? Most of Johnson’s campers ride her horses, but she’s happy to work with those who bring their own. At William Woods, adult campers ride university school horses, even if they have horses of their own. “Given the short time we have, and the variety of levels and disciplines, dealing with horses as well as riders would be too much,” Ward says. But riders at the KCDS weekend camp bring their own horses and stable them at the university.

Your facilities and staff will also determine the number of campers you accept. Six to eight seems to be a workable number for many camp sessions. Johnson generally limits groups to eight, so that she and her assistant instructor can give riders individual attention. Hanley likewise keeps groups small. William Woods had 20 riders in its adult camp last year. But Ward notes that the riders were more or less evenly divided into three smaller groups, each with its own instructor, for the three disciplines offered at this camp.

Riding Sessions

Most camp programs schedule morning and afternoon riding sessions, with a variety of demonstrations and activities sandwiched between rides or, in some cases, in the evening. While that format isn’t really different from a children’s camp, the content often is. Adult camps are more in-depth and informative than kids' camps.

“Adults get more involved with questions and try to figure things out a little more than children do,” Hanley observes. “The adults also ride much more and really get a good workout.”

At Paddington Station, Johnson says, the riding portion of the program is not that different for adults and children—the focus is on developing the basics of position and an independent seat. The amount of riding is the same. But where kids are horse-crazy, adults are more thoughtful. “Adults are geared toward improving their riding, making their bodies work, and understanding the horse,” she says. “There’s more discussion.”

Adult groups usually include a broader spectrum of riding levels, she has found. She adds that many adult riders are nervous about jumping and hesitant out of the arena, and she doesn’t push them. “No one has to do anything they don’t want to do. We want to build confidence,” she says. “We do aerobics on horseback to help them get supple, work without stirrups and on the longe line, and ride to music, which both adults and children enjoy.” Both groups also play mounted gymkhana-type games, which help them relax. Weeklong camps end with a just-for-fun show.

In the William Woods adult camp, riders split up into their hunt-seat, saddle-seat, or Western groups for riding lessons but come together for other activities. The KCDS dressage camp is run in a round-robin format, so that each rider gets a chance to work with each of the clinicians teaching at the session. Riders get two lessons a day, and the schedule allows for both private and group instruction.

When the Riding’s Over

Evening sessions flesh out the program, and are especially valued by adults. William Woods campers meet in the evening for demonstrations and lectures by university students and staff. One night might feature hunt seat and dressage demonstrations; another, saddle seat and driving; and a third, Western events, including reining. One year the sessions focused on the racing industry. The dressage camp features evening lectures and often brings in experts in various fields. A saddle maker has demonstrated saddle construction and fitting, for example.

Unmounted sessions at Paddington vary with the interests of the group, says Johnson. “Adults are more interested in theory—why a certain bit is used, for example,” she notes. The sessions might focus on soundness problems or some aspect of care, and include a visit from a veterinarian or a farrier.

A visit from an Olympic gold medalist was a hit with adult campers at Fox Chase. “They got to hear firsthand what it's like to live and breathe horses and riding,” says Hanley. Her camp’s ground sessions cover lots of basic horse care and stable management—wrapping legs, grooming, braiding, blanketing, nutrition, recognizing illnesses and so on—as well as the differences among various riding disciplines and the type of horse needed for each. The instructor may also have the riders keep a journal about their riding expectations.

One advantage adult camps have over children’s camps is that adults don’t have to be supervised and occupied all the time. You don’t have to hire counselors to baby-sit them or provide them with crayons. And especially with overnight camps, it’s important to give the adults some free time.

“For many of the riders, the camp is also vacation,” says Ward. Her riding sessions end at 3, and evening sessions start at 7. “Riders have plenty of time to clean up and go antiquing, read a book, or do ­whatever they want.”

Johnson also builds downtime into her schedule. Campers can go swimming or just hang out and relax. At the end of the day, they can even soak in a spa before retiring.

Figuring Camp Costs

If a camp will absorb all your attention and basically take over your facility for a week, it should bring in enough to be worthwhile. Figure the costs of your staff, your time, your horses, and your supplies; add a reasonable profit, and divide by the number of campers you expect. Then compare your pricing with similar offerings in your area—what’s reasonable in some parts of the country won’t fly elsewhere.

For example, day camps at Fox Chase in Virginia, which is in the heart of one of the East Coast’s top horse spots, are $695 per person for five days. At William Woods, four-day long weekends are $325 without room and board. The two-day KCDS dressage camp costs $650, which includes room and board and stabling for one horse. And Paddington Station, in northern California, charges $150 for two-day weekend camps and $825 for full weeks; both rates include meals and tent accommodations.

While the kids may be your future, adults are a big part of your present. Often, adults introduce their kids to riding because it was an activity they enjoyed when they were younger. And they ultimately pay the kids’ bills. Why not invite them back?