by Lauren Allen
Equestrian day camps provide children with opportunities to ride and handle horses. Many campers may not have had much prior experience with this; for others, interactions with horses may have been restricted to structured riding lessons, where the horse is prepared, ridden and then deposited back in the stall within the allotted hour.
At camp, however, young riders often get to spend time playing with the horses: brushing, decorating them with ribbons and fingerpaint, riding bareback and just enjoying being close to them – even the oldest, most rickety equines get their share of love.
Margy Peterson, of Tweedberry Farm in Ridgeway, South Carolina, hosts a series of day camps each summer where small groups of kids enjoy swimming, playing in the creek, painting and crafts in addition to riding.
“I think that camp is a great opportunity for kids to get out in nature. They spend so much time inside, and with technology nowadays, that I think it is really important for them to get to slow down and just enjoy this wonderful earth.”
Ashley Haffey, who owns Haffey Dresssage in Troutman, North Carolina, runs five horse camps every summer, as well as during other school holidays or on teacher work days. The summer camps run Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
On a typical day, her groups of four to eight children might start out with a riding lesson, followed by a half hour of horse care, an activity such as painting or crafts, a scavenger hunt, and a lesson about veterinary or farrier care, followed by lunch.
“My kids don’t clean stalls unless they really want to,” she adds with a laugh.
“I break the kids into groups and do team challenges, so it’s fun,” she continues. “Sometimes I have younger groups that play unicorn bingo and build little shoe box horse stables. Some groups are more advanced and can ride and take care of the horses themselves.”
In addition, Haffey always stresses responsibility, including not just horse care, but finances. “Sometimes they have to earn monopoly money for their rides. Sometimes I give them Breyer horses that they have to keep and care for for the week.”
It does not always go according to plan, however. “Yes, last week, the kids failed to follow directions, and all the Breyer horses died,” she admits. “But the kids also really enjoy the camps because they get to do something real: help put hay out for the horses, or even take a horse to the vet.”
Learning to ride horses teaches kids how to be better partners. They learn to cooperate as well as to be assertive, to find balance, to have boundaries but to be kind—these skills are life lessons. Riding camp helps children grow as riders and as individuals, but also sets them among a group of others who already share the same inclination. Equestrians tend to share an uncommon grit and perseverance, in addition to an appreciation for horses.
Ashley Haffey says that many of her kids become good friends away from the camp as well and that they come back year after year until they become teenagers. “Then they fly away for a bit. But I am pretty sure they will be back when they are in their 20s.”
For children who have only had weekly or monthly riding lessons shoehorned into their schedule, equestrian camp can offer a chance to practice riding in a more concentrated way, sometimes even twice a day, and often on a series of different mounts. Immersion makes any skill stronger, and riders who attend camp have the gratification of seeing their abilities grow right in front of their eyes. Parents might be amazed at their progress and gains in confidence by the end of a week. Kids who may have had a passing interest in horses prior to camp may find afterwards that a lifelong flame has been kindled.
More than one parent has his or her own fond memories of horseback riding at camp, and by sending their children to summer riding camp they pass down a love that, even if it may ultimately be indulged only intermittently through the generations, is cherished nonetheless.