For some kids, horses are the main reason to go to camp. But as parents ponder summer camp choices, adding horses to the mix introduces a whole new level of inquiry.
We asked experts and parents of horse-loving kids for pointers on how to choose a horse-riding camp .. long the way, we found out why families are thankful for the lessons learned from time spent with equine friends.
Teenager Sophie Wilsdon, who now owns her own horse, shares what she’s gained from horse camp: Over the years, she says, “I’ve learned about deadlines and responsibility, how to treat animals and people with respect, and that hard work pays off.”
- Make sure the instructors are experienced
“How many years have they been in business? The horse world is rife with people who say, ‘Oh, I have been riding for a long time. I can teach people how to ride horses,’” says Jim Hutchins, the president and director of education at the NW Natural Horsemanship Center. “It’s important to find a place where the main instructors are over the age of 18, they have insurance, and they have some experience teaching; Obviously, the more experience, the better.”
Christina Wilsdon, author of the book For Horse-Crazy Girls Only: Everything You Want to Know about Horses and mother to a teenage daughter who has been smitten with horses since she was small, suggests finding out if the instructors are certified by an organization such as the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA).
- Volunteer teens add to the camp experience
Wilsdon says it’s great if teens or tweens work as volunteer helpers. “Younger kids really look up to these volunteers, and can look forward to training as volunteers themselves if they remain interested in horsemanship,” she explains.
- Kids should learn about horses on the ground first
How to “be” in a horse’s presence is vital understanding for beginning riders, says Hutchins. “Our focus is on more full understanding of a horse. You don’t come to our place to hop up on a horse and start riding. You first have to understand the language of the horse, how to be a leader for the horse, and how to understand lightness, which is the way you use light energy and pressure to guide a horse.”
- Horses 101 should be part of camp
A reputable camp teaches children about how to behave around horses on the ground and skills such as leading, grooming , and tacking and untacking (saddling), says author Wilsdon. “Ideally they’ll also have some class time during which they teach kids about horse psychology and behavior, horse anatomy, and such.”
- Research horse camps online but visit them in person
With the web at their fingertip, parents can easily “see” camps online for a cursory review of the facilities. Still, take a close look during pre-camp visiting days and when you drop your child off. “Are fences sturdy? Is it tidy? A barn’s a barn, of course, but it shouldn’t be a sty! It should smell pleasantly of hay and horse and not like a super-sized version of a litter box,” says Wilsdon. “It should look well cared for, and the horses and ponies should be friendly, curious and contented. Older animals are fine, so you might not see lively, alert and energetic [horses] on display — but the horses and ponies should definitely appear well cared for.”
- Find a camp with an activity balance that works for your child
Understand what you want as a parent from the camp experience and what your child wants. “Does your child want to learn about horses, how to care for them, how to ride them, or does she just want a pony ride?” says Julianne Bishop, mom of a girl who loves horses. “Look at the training of the instructors and what the program is trying to convey to the camper. A lot of camps sell horse experiences, but that may mean riding a horse on a lead around a ring. Other camps teach horsemanship: How to care for a horse, how to tack a horse and how to actually ride the horse. It’s a big difference.”
Teenager Katy Witeck has attended Camp Sealth’s horse camps and appreciates that the camp includes non-horse activities as well. “Camp Sealth isn’t all horses. Every day you get to do a new thing like archery, paddle boarding or a nice long hike. Of course you get to ride horses every day, and learn something about them every day, but you have a lot of options to choose from with your group,” she says.
- Camps should emphasize safety
Helmets are a must. “The camp rules should insist that children wear helmets when riding and when working around horses. These helmets must be horseback-riding helmets that are properly certified. If any camp tells you that it’s okay for a kid to ride wearing a bicycle helmet or any other type of helmet, run away, run away!” says Christina Wilsdon.
Wilson notes that a CHA-certified instructor has described how a bicycle helmet’s design could actually make a fall from a horse more, not less, dangerous. Campers should be able to bring their own riding helmets, and camps should have a variety of helmets for kids to use at camp and staff will help kids find one that fits properly.
- Note the benefits of horse camps for children
Horse camp can bring many rewards beyond horse handling and riding experience, say experts. Wilsdon says in addition to horse handling skills, her daughter has learned skills like how to work with a wide variety of people, the relevance of science to everyday life, respect for and understanding of another species, responsibility and organization, and consequences of actions. “Being horse-crazy has given her an interest that has sustained her during the turbulent years of adolescence.”