I’ll always remember the summer before fifth grade with fondness. It was the year my parents allowed me to attend sleep-away horse camp. It was a weeklong stay on a big ranch in the North Georgia mountains, and I was assigned a big, chestnut Quarter Horse mare.
Looking back now, the horse was probably a little much for my abilities at the time. I had had a few years of formal lessons, but I didn’t yet have the leg strength to push her forward and keep her at a trot. She embodied the sass that the horse world associates with chestnut mares, and when she got tired of my flyweight self squeezing futilely away at her hefty barrel as I tried to get her out of the walk, she’d just lift her front legs off the ground ever so slightly and nonchalantly deposit me onto the arena sand before ambling off.
Yet, despite the recalcitrance of my equine partner, I still look back at that week as one of the most fun experiences of my childhood. It was the first time I got to spend that much uninterrupted time around horses, and it helped grow my interest to a passion that has persisted through the years. Later camps at another farm allowed me to make great strides in my horsekeeping abilities and to ride horses I probably wouldn’t have gotten to sit on otherwise. Now, it’s my turn to shepherd the next generation of horse crazy kids through camp, and the prep work for making it an experience from which I can say I sent everyone home safe, happy, dirty, tired and horsed out begins early.
I’ve already fielded messages from enthusiastic parents who want to give their children the gift of horses. Equines are expensive. They literally never stop eating, and routine farrier and vet costs add up quickly. And that’s during a good year when there are no emergency vet calls or surgeries. Therefore, the horse camp price tag is a little higher than some parents are used to paying for summer experiences. So, of course, I am feeling the pressure (from myself, as usual) to make this year’s crafts and horsekeeping activities the best they’ve ever been and to come up with fun rides that will allow riders of all levels to progress significantly in one week. And I’m planning to do all this while fulfilling my ultimate responsibility, which is to keep riders (most of them novice) and horses safe and relatively comfortable in the summer heat. It’s a lot to think about.
In fact, the approach to horse camp kind of feels like the second half of “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” when the Fellowship accidentally awakens the orcs in the Mines of Moria. The distant drums begin echoing up through the deep, and the Fellowship collectively flees through arched hallways only to discover they are surrounded by small but relentlessly energetic beings running beside them and climbing the massive support columns. And these beings can and will overpower the Fellowship if given half a chance. The only way out of the situation, the travelers find, is through it.
And while I’m certainly not likening my camp visitors to orcs, and I’m very much looking forward to having them here, I am saying there are a lot of them, and they will take over if I don’t maintain order and most of them seem to enjoy climbing. Since my main priority is safety when I have young people at the farm, I find myself intoning things like “Don’t climb on that pile of lumber!” and “Don’t climb on the hay!” and “Don’t climb on the trailer hitch!”
And perhaps the most common warning is “Stay out of the kick zone!”
While it would be unlikely that any of my trusted camp steeds would actually kick a person, campers do need to be aware that horses are livestock animals and they must always stay at a safe distance from the powerful back legs. Said steeds are usually dozing in the crossties, flicking their tails idly at flies when I’m lecturing about the kick zone, but I do apparently strike a healthy fear in my human charges as they often screech at me about the risks if I walk anywhere past a horse’s shoulder during a demonstration.
And that’s what horse camp is all about — a structured introduction to the equine world that children can build on afterward if they so choose. And I have to say, once the anxiety of balancing children and livestock wears off, I have a blast recreating some of my own camp experiences for the next generation and inventing new ways to enjoy horses with them. More than one camper has asked to live here at the farm after the camp horse show is over and children are climbing into cars for the last time. I’ve had to turn them all down, because, well, their parents want them back and I really wasn’t planning to use horse camp to expand my family.
So, as I head into horse camp season, despite the Moria drums, I am once again focusing on my ultimate goals: safe, happy, dirty, tired and horsed out!