About now, your summer camp rosters are probably starting to fill with excited riders. The hard part about camp—marketing your program—is over. Now the fun part of deciding what events to offer begins.
Your barn’s focus will obviously dictate the bulk of the activities—a competition-focused facility, for instance, will likely offer more advanced riding classes, while a recreational riding stable might appeal to an audience with less experience. But, whatever your purpose, kids are kids, and there are hundreds of ways to make camp a fun and enriching time for all.Here, we asked six experienced riding camp facilitators to share their favorite camp activities.
Horsemanship and Life Skills
“I run my farm during camp season the same way I run my farm during other times,” explains Tammy Sterling, owner of Hidden Creek Farm in Ruckersville, Va.
She believes kids are best served by learning what life on a horse farm is really like. They help feed, show horses to potential buyers, assist with vet work, and even go to the sawmill to pick up shavings.
“It’s very different for each week of camp,” Sterling says.
Whether or not your farm adjusts its schedule for camp time, instructors agree that any rider’s success at camp depends on having a good match with the horses they ride.
At Mountain View Ranch in Danby, Vt., campers are paired with the same horse every day. By the end of the week, co-owner John Sisters finds, the kids have a bond with their horses. They’ve learned how to read them and how to work with them.
Blue Streak Stables in Seguin, Texas, also matches each student to a horse for the week. They assign two teammates to the horse as well, so the three riders can assist each other in caring for the horse. “We promote a lot through teamwork and responsibility,” says Reba Martinez of Blue Streak.
Education is a large part of the camp experience, too.
Michelle Freiberg offers six weeks of camp at her First Step Farm in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Two of those weeks are half-day sessions for kids seven and under.
Activities are carefully tailored to match this group’s intellect. “They love to get quizzed,” Freiberg says. They learn various horse facts, colors, body parts, and tack, and “by the time they’re eight or nine, they’re smarter than I am,” she admits.
Campers at Big Dog Horse Stables in Oregon City, Ore., also learn a lot about horses and horsemanship, thanks to a booklet that co-owner Judy Herson-Hord developed. Each page contains information about that day’s activities. The campers record their goals for the week so they can continue to refer back to them.
These riders learn the parts of the horse—which are also illustrated in their workbooks—by placing labeled sticky notes on their camp horses. Similarly, this year, Freiberg looks forward to bringing out non-toxic paints to identify the horse’s body parts, muscles, and bones.
Learning pieces of tack and their use is just as important. Taking it a step further, tack cleaning and assembly is a part of Blue Streak’s curriculum.
While you and your staff have a wealth of information to offer your riders, outside professionals can provide valuable education, as well. Misti Chastain brings in veterinarians, farriers, and other guest speakers to talk with campers at her Chastain Mist Equestrian Camp in Olympia, Wash. This benefits both the speakers and the students.
“For the people who do the speaking, it helps them generate business and create awareness in the community,” Chastain says. And for the campers, “it gives them the opportunity to talk one on one with a vet, and that’s something they don’t often get to do.”
Field trips can open the students to areas of the horse world that they hadn’t considered before. Just down the road from the Herson-Hord’s farm is a veterinary hospital. The campers tour the hospital to help connect the dots on the horse-health topics they’re learning.
Fun On Horseback
To enrich not only your students but also yourself and your staff, consider trying something different than what you normally teach.
“For me as a hunter/jumper trainer primarily, teaching the kids about barrel racing and hot potato and all those games is really fun,” says Freiberg. Likewise, if your discipline is western, it could be exciting to work with the kids to create a dressage-style musical freestyle.
Flexibility is key. “A lot of games, you just kind of make them up. Sometimes they’ll work with one group of kids, and the next week, (the kids) are like, ‘that’s really dumb,’” Sterling says.
One mounted activity she has found that works across the ages is an Easter egg-type hunt. She came across a collection of rubber ducks one year and thought she’d try hiding them for the riders. She puts some ducks up high so the kids have to maneuver their horses to grab them. She also puts some down low so the kids have to improve their mounting and dismounting skills. The rider who collects the most ducks wins a prize.
While you present these “games” as fun, you can design them to have a horsemanship impact, as well. Among the games presented by Herson-Hord is a variation of the child’s game red light, green light. When an instructor yells out, “Red light,” explains Herson-Hord, “it’s not how quick you can stop your horse, it’s how well you can.”
A rider who yanks on her horse’s mouth for a red light or who kicks her horse for a green light is sent back to the starting line. The activity can be adapted for every level and teaches feel, timing, and transitions.
Ending camp on a good note encourages riders and parents to come back again. Depending on campers’ ages and abilities, though, hosting a show on the last day could bring more problems than you’d expect. Freiberg used to host a mini horse show for her students, but she found there were too many tears. Instead, on the final day of camp, Freiberg’s students invite their parents to the barn and do a demonstration of something they’re proud they have learned. With the demonstrations, she says, “No one cries at the end.”
Sisters also found a traditionally formatted horse show wasn’t working. Especially in camps where kids have mixed abilities—not to mention the differing strengths of the horses—there were unfair match-ups. Now, Mountain View Ranch campers have a horse show where each rider competes against herself. All week long, times for barrel racing, pole bending, and other activities are recorded, and their aim is to best the average of their top runs (or walks, in some cases). “It gives them a reason to really cheer on the other kids,” Sisters says.
From time in the saddle to time resting in the shade, one thing Herson-Hord says she’s learned is efficient planning: “The biggest mistake I’ve made was to make my days too long.” When her camp days were running 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., “it was physically and mentally too much stuff that they were doing.”
Proving that longer isn’t better, now days are shorter at Big Dog Horse Stables, and campers—not to mention staff—go home even more fulfilled with the fun and education they’ve experienced. Keep that goal in mind, and the rest follows easily enough.