Ahhhhhh, April…and a stable manager’s thoughts might turn to horse camp. And why not? Children will soon be out of school and parents are casting about for ways to entertain them. Camp offers kids a farm experience and introduces them to horses in a safe, controlled environment. Besides, camp can make good business sense as a much-welcomed money-maker and a wonderful source of new clients for your riding school.
But an out-of-control swarm of energetic, noisy, horse-clueless munchkins can challenge your organizational, educational and entertainment skills, to say nothing of upsetting your routine and regular clients. Herewith, tips from five summer camp veterans on how to keep the main business running smoothly while producing five- and ten-day riding wonders who keep coming back. (For details on our experts, see the sidebar on opposite page)
Show Them the Ropes
How do you keep the lid on and make sure everybody has fun? “We go over the rules the very first day,” says Roo Alcantar of Raintree Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. “The children know exactly where they can and can’t go and what they can and can’t do. We make it very clear that we have expectations and we won’t bend from them. For example, they’re required to wear camp tee shirts so that even if one of them gets lost in a crowd of regular clients, she’ll be instantly recognizable. And we give them reasons. When they understand that they can’t run and scream next to the dressage ring because it could scare a horse and get somebody hurt, they try very hard to be good.”
Adds Kenneth Torres of Hoopdance Hollow Farm in Litchfield, Conn., “If parents complain that our rules are a bit strict, I tell them, ‘This is not tennis camp where the worst thing that happens if you don’t hit the ball well is you look a little foolish.Your child and you need to understand that she can get seriously hurt if she overlooks basic safety around horses.’ And I hold the line. It doesn’t happen often, but I sometimes have to tell a parent, ‘No! I won’t sign up your kid again. She’s high-maintenance and uncooperative, and I cannot allow her to ruin it for the other kids.’ ”
But there’s still more than discipline to instill. Before the kids even touch a horse at Raintree, they watch a Washington State University Cooperative Extension video that explains safe handling and horse communication signals—what it means when a horse’s ears are pricked or pinned, for example. Using the accompanying Video Facilitator Guide and Lesson Plan, Alcantar leads the kids in follow-up discussions and hands-on exercises like learning how horses see by having the kids walk around with their fists between their eyes.
Get Them on Horses
Give campers a “leg up” by including a riding skills self-assessment in your enrollment form. Jan Smith of Saddlewood Centre in Bethany, Ontario, recommends you gather every scrap of info you can, from a child’s height and weight to the kind and color of horse she likes. It’s also important to know if she already rides (some will have never seen a horse outside of a picture book), what she does in lessons and what she does around the barn. Barbara McCarthy of Paxton Farm in Batavia, Ohio, suggests that more advanced campers also state long- and short-term goals so you can tailor some activities to their needs.
Then, says Hoopdance Hollow’s Torres, “assume nothing.” Put each child you don’t know on one of your trusted schoolies—on the longe if necessary—and “it’ll take all of eight seconds to see whether a kid can ride and even less to see that she can’t, no matter what Mom said on the form.” For such rank beginners, Torres then does as much no-rein work on the longe line as possible to get novices comfortable and balanced and to keep them off their pony’s mouths. Raintree beginners take a safety-first approach, learning to drop their reins, pick them up and to find dropped stirrups without looking down.
Dana Sachey, the owner of Raintree Ranch, has a not-so-secret “brilliant” teaching tool: two or three vaulting sessions a week. “Once they graduate from the barrel, mounting teaches them to put a little spring in their bodies when they’re getting a leg up, and dismounting teaches them to bend their knees, push away and not hang on or slide. Going “around the world‚” makes them more comfortable and relaxed on top of the horse. If a child is too nervous to trot or canter under saddle, she can safely get the feel of those gaits on the longe. Kids that know their diagonals by sight can start learning them by feel. And standing up on a horse’s back is a huge confidence-builder for anybody.”
Riding aids? A big help. For kids who are trying to figure out diagonals, spray-paint your horses’ hooves, put masking tape on their shoulders or do as Torres does and teach them at the walk, where the gait is easier but “the shoulder movement is the same.”
He also swears by two “gimmicks.” Rainbow reins—no pun intended—make things black and white (“When I used to say, ‘shorten your reins‚’ I’d get, ‘I did, I did,’ but when I say, ‘I want you in the red,’ there’s no argument.”) and the inexpensive, stretchy, bungee cord devices that attach reins to bits are “great for limiting wear-and-tear on your ponies’ mouths.”
Torres achieves two goals at once with his “Pony Olympics,” an equestrian variation on the old game of Simon Says. “The kids are bareback, so they develop balance and start to feel comfortable without the saddle and stirrups, but to keep it safe, they only walk and most of them we lead. They halt, we throw a horsemanship question at them like, ‘Where’s your pony’s poll?’ and they can only walk forward again if they answer correctly.”
For more advanced riders, Paxton Farm’s McCarthy recommends drill team or quadrille. “Kids who tend to think of riding as an individual sport learn to perform as a team, to regulate their tempo, to space themselves safely and to steer. Plus, they teach each other.” Finally, Saddlewood’s Jan Smith suggests you assign each child a specific horse, so “each girl gets to know one horse and to rely on what it’s going to do. If you put her on a different animal every time she goes out for a lesson, she’ll never feel consistency or progress.”
After the morning’s riding lessons are over at Raintree, Alcantar divides campers into basic and intermediate horsemanship groups, where they use workbooks, work sheets and Pony Club visual aids such as anatomy charts. They take little quizzes and do vocabulary word searches. And they discover that horsemanship needn’t be confined to the classroom. A tour of the feed room, where the kids feel the rice bran, wheat bran, sweet feed, pellets and supplements, demonstrates what horses eat and why. When the vet comes to stitch up a horse, the kids can watch. If he doesn’t happen to come on a visit, he can be invited to talk to them about vaccinations or worming. Ditto, the farrier and the equine dentist.
Hands-on stuff? Have at it! McCarthy’s kids practice (and get graded on) braiding, clipping and doing up bandages, leg wraps and galloping boots. They also go on a mounted scavenger hunt searching for certain leaves, grains and grasses around the farm. Raintree’s kids examine old hooves. They ride in the golf cart with two buckets of water to understand the principles of safe trailering, do saddle-fitting with baby powder and make natural fly spray out of vinegar, Avon Skin So Soft and eucalyptus oil. They mold saddle soap out of glycerine (and then use it to clean tack). And of course, they learn to groom, tack up and untack.
When There’s Nothin’ To Do
Raintree jump-starts creativity with 40 storage tubs filled with arts and crafts projects from stitching and stuffing tiny felt horses to the tried and true braiding of lanyards. “We have stacks of lyrics so we can sing camp and horse songs,” Sachey explains. “A huntsman brings hounds and we go out and hunt them on foot. We have dog agility demonstrations where the kids run the dogs through the course. We have a dressage rider do a freestyle and we have riders do hunter and jumper courses to show the kids the difference.
“We do at least one trail ride per session,” Sachey continues, “which gives us the opportunity to talk about riding up and down hills, putting on the emergency brake, keeping a safe distance, circling and so on. And occasionally we’re allowed to tour the organic farm next door, where the kids get to eat fresh-picked tomatoes and strawberries and see how horses even produce fertilizer for their food. And we grab any opportunity that comes along. Last summer we had a demonstration with one of the only zebras in the United States that can be ridden and jumped!”
At Hoopdance Hollow Farm, the kids love a board game created by Kenneth Torres’ assistant instructor. “The idea is to finish a cross-country course first by rolling dice and moving pegs. You may land on a square that says, ‘Take a shortcut—you’ve chosen the more difficult option’ or ‘Your horse refuses, move back three squares.’ ”
And activities can be startlingly simple. At Raintree, Alcantar unrolls butcher paper on picnic tables, distributes felt-tipped pens and the kids “Draw and create designs and try to list the names of all the school horses. It may take them a couple of days, but they work like crazy to do it.”
The bottom line to time-managing a bunch of kids? “Never let a minute go by when there’s nothing to do,” says Sachey, “And give them plenty of opportunities to blow off steam. We have 200 acres where they can run and jump and play. We hike them up ‘Heart Attack Hill’ to the water tower and when they look down on Raintree, they feel quite empowered. We number the cross-country jumps and give them courses to run. They ride dressage tests on stick horses—even the most beginner kids can do that. Everything is fun and it always makes its way back to the horses and what we do when we’re riding them.”
Your camp is sure to be a success, says Saddlewood’s Smith, if you “have staff you know and trust, safe equipment and good horses—and to me, that means the older the better.” Torres says you should never lose sight of what you and your clientele are trying to accomplish. “Summer horse camp is a combination of day-care, recreation and learning to ride. My job is not to put on a mini-school for future Olympians, it’s to provide a good summertime option where kids can be safe, have fun, be well-supervised and learn something about horses. If I make sure that happens, I’m going to get clients out of it and make some money. And I never let it bother me as a horseman that maybe the favorite part of the day is kickball. In fact, I’m usually right out there playing with them.” Adds Sachey with a smile, “Quite simply, we feel we’ve been successful if each kid falls asleep in the car on the way home everyday.”
Eight Top Tips for Camp Organizers
1) Pay attention to the nuts and bolts. Day-campers are best when between the ages of seven and 12 (although Torres says he has done well with six-year-olds that he knows). Sessions should be one or two weeks long (although many kids will sign up for an entire four- or eight-session summer). Four- to five-hour days allow children to have fun and learn something but keep them from getting bored or cranky. They also give your regular clients plenty of uncluttered, quiet time when camp isn’t in session. Five kids per instructor is a workable ratio, although two beginners per instructor may be advisable.
2) Kids can help help kids. You do need good adult instructors, but every successful camp program relies on “junior counselors”—Pony Clubbers or summer camp alumni. Depending on their age and proficiency, they can help with arts and crafts, crowd control, tacking up, bathing, leading beginner riders, spotting vaulters and putting horses away. (At Raintree, “C” Pony Clubbers or higher help with mounted sessions; “Ds” help with unmounted activities and horsemanship.)
3) See to the basics. Tell kids to bring lunch and a beverage. Require paddock boots or other stout footwear with heels and approved protective headgear (but have some helmets of your own to lend to beginners). Suggest that each kid bring a change of clothes, sneakers for on-the-ground activities, sunblock and a hat. Remind parents to be on time when dropping kids and especially when picking them up.
4) Variety is the spice of summer camp. You want children to progress through well-defined riding and horsemanship levels, but if you repeat all the other activities over and over again, you risk turning off many of the kids who sign up for multiple sessions.
5) Why stop at horses? “One of our most popular features,” says Jan Smith, “is Animal House—rabbits you can take for walks on leashes, a pet rat, a hedgehog, two pot-bellied pigs, a miniature goat, hamsters, guinea pigs. The children love those small animals. They’re a real plus and keeping them really isn’t very expensive.” Adds Alcantar, “Whenever I have a discipline problem, all I have to say is, ‘Okay, I’m locking up the dogs’ and the kids turn perfect.”
6) Let them struggle (at least a little). “If you try to make things run more smoothly by doing everything yourself,” says Torres, “all of a sudden, 10:30 rolls around and you’ve run through the program for the whole day. Let the campers work through the process a little. They do a better job of learning basic skills like grooming or tacking up, and it really helps eat up the time.”
7) Finish with a bang. Hoopdance Hollow features a pizza party on the last day of each session and kids are given certificates with a photo of each of them on their favorite horse in addition to a group shot. Raintree wraps things up with either a horse show or an overnight complete with campfire, toasted marshmallows, skits and howling coyotes. To make sure the kids don’t overstay their welcome, says Alcantar, “we have an early breakfast of juice and bagels, and their parents have to pick them up by 8 a.m.” Jan Smith, who used to put on a last-day horse show, now favors a demonstration. “The kids go out in groups with their instructors and show their parents what they’ve learned. It saves me about $2,000 in ribbons, but more than that, when a child has been in love with a horse for two weeks and suddenly feels the horse let her down because she didn’t get a ribbon, she goes home disappointed, and that diminishes the whole camp experience.”
8) Think BIG. Once you get into the camping mindset, let your imagination be your guide. There’s Thanksgiving camp, Christmas camp, spring break camp and, with a dollop of community spirit, camp for special participants such as at-risk youngsters. You might even want to consider Adult Camp or its alter ego, a Tiny Tot Camp for ages three to six. Sachey is putting together just such a program at Raintree for “my parent and me. We have special saddles, stirrups, leathers, rainbow reins, tiny brushes, little stepping stools and extra small helmets, and we’ll do a shorter day so they can get a taste of horse camp without the longer day’s burnout that can occur at that age.”—KG