Learning to care

Regular readers will know that last summer, I worked in the US at a summer camp for children teaching horse riding. The camp I worked at (and will return to this summer in the same role) is theatre-focused, but has a surprisingly large horseback programme: we have 25 horses, riding classes take place during all of the six hour long “periods” which make up every day – campers can choose English or Western riding and are grouped by ability (beginner, intermediate or advanced). In addition to riding lessons, there are three hours of each day where kids can opt to participate in “horse care” sessions.

When I arrived at camp and found out that we offered horse care as well as riding, I was quite excited – I loved the typical “own a pony” days that I was able to participate in at riding schools as a child, and I envisaged these sessions as being like miniatures of that (particularly as campers are allowed to “adopt” a horse of their choice, and look after said horse every time they attend horse care). I was disappointed in what the sessions actually were.

Part of the problem was the staff (myself included!), and part of it is the difference in level of keenness of the children. Some kids want to just brush a horse – fine, but pretty tedious for the instructors! I’m possibly not adequately explaining the challenges here, so I’ll try to break it down:

  • Most of the kids who do horse care are the younger ones (aged 7-10)
  • Younger or older, most of the horse carers are inexperienced around horses
  • Combine these first two facts and the kids require a lot of supervision
  • The kids are all wonderfully different, and many of them don’t like to focus on one thing for too long. They also don’t expect (or want!) a heavy lecture on anatomy, feeding protocols or horse husbandry
  • Many of them will attend once or twice during a three week session – we generally get kids come a couple of times or every day, there is no inbetween! So we have incredibly frequent flyers or drop ins, basically
  • We also have a limited supply of horse paraphernalia – no bandages, wraps, demo first aid kit, no varied feed, no electronic resources… our kit last year was limited to: saddles (English and Western) and bridles (all with standard cavesson nosebands and loose ring snaffles – no martingales, breastplates or anything additional) plus tack cleaning equipment; basic grooming kit (hoof picks, sweat scrapers, body and dandy brushes, plastic and rubber currycombs, mane combs, plaiting bands); the horses are fed only hay, grass and pony nuts – no sugarbeet or extra rough or hard feed!
  • The horses live out overnight – we have 12 stalls to keep some horses in during the day, and they are all very thinly bedded with shavings (we don’t have enough to do proper banks and set nice beds – thankfully the horses don’t generally lie down)
  • Activities I’ve done: supervised hoof picking; how to lead a horse correctly; bathing a horse; grooming a horse; tying quick release knots (aka slip knots)

We’d occasionally get as far as teaching points of the horse, colours of horses and markings. That’s pretty much it. I don’t think I ever even went into basic anatomy of the hoof. Kids were interested in learning how to groom horses, and we’d teach them the correct brushes to use, but not once did I go through rules of feeding, first aid or even WHY we groom horses (what length a tail should be, why horses have tails, why horses have whiskers etc). Easily the most frequently asked question I got was what a chestnut is and why horses have them.

My question to equestrians and teachers alike is this: how do you engage these kids successfully and what can we teach them? What do not-so-horsey kids want to learn about caring for horses? Can I inspire non-horsey kids to become horsey (even for an hour)?

This is something I struggle with, because I always wanted to know everything about horses and how to look after them (partly because I still don’t!). My final word is this: I’m frantically gathering pony magazines and scouring them for tips and resources to take back with me. I’d happily take bandages and boots etc, but it’s a case of getting hold of some (ideally for free!) and not having so many that it takes up too much of my precious luggage allowance on the journey out to the US (I’d leave anything I took at camp, so I’m not worried beyond that!).

That’s your challenge, HorseHour. Look forward to hearing from you!

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11 thoughts on “Learning to care

    • I’m gearing up to ask him, because I think the answer I get could be very long-winded! It also means he’ll spend the next four months coming up to me at random intervals and suggest things like trying to teach a horse to play football.

      Might take you up on that, please do have a think! I’m actually pretty sure Emma and I have at least one tail bandage lurking in the garage somewhere – time to dig it out!

      • Warning, Mama H did a lot of “sorting” in the garage not so very long ago. And you know what that means.

        But I was thinking the same thing about making it a game. I seem to recall races of putting bridles together? (Tricky when the buckles are particularly stiff…)

  1. Kids love games and competitions, and a chance to show you how much they remember.
    I’m thinking a little bit outside the box (or inside the suitcase) here. How about making something along the lines of pin the tail on the donkey – but with pictures (and words) of boots, markings, items of tack, brushes, points of the horse etc, if you had a couple they could have little competitions in teams. I love captainblackjack’s idea of bridle races too!

    • thanks for the input! I had to ponder the bridle idea for a bit, because we can’t use “real” bridles (it’d be chaos using ones which actually belong to a horse which is working pretty much constantly) but I *think* I could scrounge together enough pieces/broken/unusable parts to make two makeshift ones so that I could at least teach them how to do it and let them race. Let me know if you think of anything else 🙂

  2. We play a good game called ‘bring me something. …’ eg bring me something beginning with letter b, bring me something green, bring me a saddle cloth etc you can make it easy or difficult as you like. You can lay items out ready or make the hunt part of the game depends on yard layout/safety. Winner is the one who brings most items. Can play in teams. Great for teaching the names of the items too. The kids LOVE this but can get a bit over zealous!

  3. I’m going to ask some experts tomorrow at school. Kids know best what motivates other kids. Love RockMySocks idea of pin the tail (or blaze or saddlepad) on the donkey. Stickers for rewards for competitions is very motivating.

  4. So, the verdict is. . . have the kids make a “how to” horse video. How to pick a hoof, curry, put on a bridle, etc. You could maybe do a video yourself with other horse counselors (so the kids have an idea/model). This could be done on a smart phone; have a few teams. If there is a way to hook it up to a computer/TV you could show it the last day. Kids love watching themselves on screen. So even if they aren’t that into horses, they might like hamming it up in front of a camera.

    • Thank you so much, I can’t believe we didn’t think of this! They’re theatre kids, they LOVE being on camera, and there’s a video department at camp (and if we can’t involve them you’re right, we all have smartphones/digital cameras we can film on). I’ll add it to the list 🙂

  5. Pingback: Learning to care – update | Kicking On

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