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!