When Is a Camp a Camp?

Know the rules before you turn your stable into a camp.

Instructors and trainers have found that offering horsemanship camps can add significantly to the profit of their horse operations. Not only do camps directly affect the bottom line, they promote the stable and draw in new customers from outside the regular horse community. Young horse lovers, whether raw beginners or seasoned riders, can find the camp experience one of their most rewarding and memorable activities, and many campers become long-term clients.

But whoa up before turning your lesson barn into a camp—it is a whole different business. What some stable owners don’t always consider is that their state, county or city might require a license or have certain regulations that govern camps, rules that extend beyond those which govern normal riding programs. Many of these regulations fall under the jurisdictions of the health department or child services. Under some circumstances, a camp can be even considered a day care facility and come under very heavy scrutiny by state lawmakers. It’s still easy enough to enjoy the benefits of running a camp, as the benefits outweigh the regulatory burden. But be aware of what your local governments require.

A perfect example is Virginia, where the Department of Health regulates sanitation issues that include the location of the camp, food handling, and rest room facilities. In Maine, one must apply for a license at least 60 days prior to opening the camp. Some of the requirements for a camp license are written plans that should include, among other things, what the camp will do in the case of fire, a lost camper, and even traffic control.

Maryland’s “code of regulations” has, in addition to general camp rules, a list of rules concerning riding. Under Item 23, Specialized Activities, Horseback Riding, the state requires that the camp hire competent riding instructors, the riders wear protective headgear and shoes with heels, and the horses be healthy and well cared for. The director must be present during all hours of operation, and the instructor must have a helper for every ten campers. On trail rides, the instructor must have two helpers for every ten riders.

Kansas requires a license to conduct any program for school-age children, including camps. Again, most of the rules concern health and safety, covering the facility, food handling, behavior management, the staff, and written plans for all programs offered.

North Carolina, on the other hand, has no licensing requirements as long as the program’s duration does not exceed four months. Children’s programs that exceed that time period are then considered day care facilities and are subject to regulations for day care operations.

Adam Boyd, director of Camp Merri-Mac in Black Mountain, North Carolina, says that even though North Carolina doesn’t require a license to run a camp, there are a number of local ordinances and zoning issues to consider. He recommends a prospective camp owner seek accreditation from the American Camp Association (ACA).

Some states, like Oklahoma, exempt a camp from getting a license if they are accredited by a national standard setting agency or if the program is one of a specialized, single activity (such as horsemanship) and not designed or intended as a child care facility. The American Camp Association’s strict requirements for accreditation will more than likely satisfy most licensing boards. To receive their seal of approval, a camp must be inspected and meet a long list of health and safety criteria including fire safety, water quality, sanitation inspections, playground and transportation safety, written emergency procedures, hiring policies and staff training, and a written program design. For a horseback-riding program to be accredited by ACA, the camp must prove the staff is skilled in that area. This is in addition to the prescribed safety orientation program the whole staff is required to take.

In addition, only the staff may handle horse medications, and the meds must be stored under lock and key. For the campers, it is mandatory they wear an ASTM safety helmet, sturdy shoes or boots, and long pants when riding. continued

Camp Versus Program

The distinction between a riding camp and a riding program is fuzzy. A riding program can simply be a block of lessons offered in a prescribed time, or daily times at the barn when students will also be involved in learning horse management skills. In such a case, the program may simply be considered an expanded lesson program.

Can you get around some of the rules by calling what you do a “riding program” instead of a camp? The answer is, “No.” The determining factor is not what you call the operation, but what you do. Regulations that include the duration of the program, what activities are included, whether or not food is served, and how many and what kind of activities are offered determine whether or not you may need a license or have to submit to inspections and approval by a governing agency.

Finding out what, if any, rules must be observed before hosting a horsemanship camp can be mystifying. One might be tempted to follow the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” rule, but that could be costly. This approach could result in a fine or even having your stable shut down.

One good place to start the research into licenses and permits is The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). This organization provides free business counseling. Go to for a link to your state’s chapter. Check also with the chamber of commerce, county commissioner’s office and county planning or zoning boards.

All this fuss about licenses, permits and regulations shouldn’t discourage anyone from offering a horsemanship camp, because the rewards for both the camp owners and staff, as well as the campers, far outweigh the inconvenience. Boyd of Merri-Mac sums it up like this: “We are made to live life together. Camp is the best place I know to do this, and the result is learned skills, a growing sense of adventure, and life-long friendships combining to create a place where children have the freedom to enjoy being themselves.”






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