Off To Camp

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These days, a growing number of camps exclusively provide horse-related learning activities, which draws horse-loving kids by the droves.

The horses at these camps are the bread and butter to camp owners. Consequently, their selection and care are of the utmost importance.

The Right Horse

Camp horses are special. They need to be sound and sturdy, yet also quiet and obedient. They need to maintain their good attitudes despite the fact that they don’t work all year, and when they do, their hours are often long. They must be able to tolerate young and inexperienced riders.

It’s not surprising, then, that when camp managers are looking for a suitable horse to add to a camp string, they consider disposition to be the number one criterion. The source of the horse is also important, since this can often determine the animal’s attitude. Most camps own the horses they use, which allows them more control over the animal’s well-being.

Reba Martinez, camp director and owner of Blue Streak Stables in Seguin, Texas, has 18 horses in her program, all owned by the camp. “We often get our horses when nearby owners call us and say they have a horse that may fit our summer camp program,” she says. “We always purchase our horses from individuals, and never from a sale barn.”

In order to evaluate a horse’s temperament, Martinez finds it necessary to take the horse on a trial period. “We consider purchasing a horse only if the owner lets us try out the horse for two weeks,” she says. “We want to make sure the horse doesn’t have any bad habits like kicking or biting, as we consider these unacceptable behaviors. The horse must also stand still and let us pick up his feet, must saddle well, and must tie quietly. We also want to make sure the horse doesn’t have any dangerous habits like bucking or running toward the gate. The horses we purchase and keep are the ones that are extremely kind and very patient with our beginner riders.”

For camps that provide lessons for both beginning and experienced riders, the criteria for suitable horses can vary.

“Since our program goes all the way from beginners to show riders, I have to search for horses at one time for all categories,” says Amy Edwards, co-owner and trainer at Cedar Lodge Stables in Lawrence, Michigan. “On the average, our biggest needs are usually for good walk/trot/rank beginner babysitters and walk/trot/beginner canter and beginner cross-rail horses.

If I am looking for a babysitter for a beginner rider, I want a horse that is dead quiet and broke well. All of our horses go in snaffles, so he can’t run or lug, but he has to tolerate contact. I usually end up with horses 15 years and up. Often old show horses and 4-H horses are great.

“As I move up into more advanced horses, my tolerances change,” she continues. “A walk/ trot/canter cross-rail horse needs to be sound. This is probably my hardest group to find. Age, again, matters little as long as they are sound and can keep the weight on. They have to be able to work three to four hours a day like the beginner horses, but their rides are going to be harder. They must be good with other horses and kids, as once again they will be handled primarily by the riders.

“Conformation is much more important. They have to have reasonably decent gaits, especially the canter, and a safe jump. They must be able to hack on a loose rein and not be spooky or excitable. A good horse in this category has a home for life. If they aren’t broke very well, but are excellent in some of the other areas, we may keep them and try to put the mileage on them they need.”

When it comes to breed, age or gender, Edwards has no preferences. “I cannot allow myself to be prejudiced against any breed, color, age or sex,” she says. “I have had too many good horses come through that break the rules about what breed won’t work out, or what sex is better than the other. You have to be willing to weigh each horse individually.”

Work and Care

Camp horses are expected to do a lot of work in a season, and then often have much of the rest of the year off. Maintaining their fitness and attitude with this kind of schedule requires planning from camp managers.

Emily J. Caswall Devey, camp owner and director of the Falcon Horse Camp in Carrollton, Ohio, manages her 35 to 38 horses plus ponies in different ways during the on and off seasons.

“At our traditional overnight camp, the horses are worked two to three hours a day, Monday through Friday, and are turned out in our 80 acre pasture on the weekends. At our Falcon Horse Lovers Camp, which accommodates 10 girls a week, the horses work four hours a day, Monday through Friday, with turnout on the weekends. We rotate our horses so no horses are in horse camp for two weeks straight.”

During the off season, the majority of Devey’s horses are turned out on a 400-acre farm, with round hay bales and barns for shelter.

“We turn out as much as possible,” says Edwards. “We believe horses are happier when turned out in larger groups, larger pastures, and as often as possible. Many show horses have come to us that have been unruly or unable to deal with the showing world. I have seen show horses make a complete transformation when they were turned out and socialized in a large herd.”

Bringing the horses back from a winter lay-up takes some effort, since they need to be in condition for long work days once camp begins.

“We start every camp season with Certified Horsemanship Association riding instructor clinics for our staff, so horses start the season being ridden by staff in a lesson type format,” says Tara Bricker, equine program manager of Black River Farm and Ranch in Lansing, New York. “Most of them fall right back into the program. Those that need a little more attention may be ridden by senior staff members, or put into training. All of the horses are ridden and handled by staff before the kids get to camp.”

With good care and good selection, camp horses can keep your business profitable and safe.