Horseback riding has deep roots in the history of American summer camps, but stereotypical images of the expense and elitism of riding may get in the way of a full appreciation of the benefit and relevance of this activity today. Children need activities that foster empathy and compassion, responsibility and self-control. Skill-based riding programs provide for the development of a set of competencies that contribute to self-esteem and physical fitness. And achieving a working "friendship" with a horse remains a particularly empowering experience for both boys and girls. But there are countless marketing campaigns hard-selling what's "hot" to buy and what's "cool" to do with those precious summer hours, so parents and prospective campers may need some help to discern the benefits of learning the finer points of equitation, beginning barrel racing, or roughing it in the wilderness on horseback.

For example, a child who plays video games knows that the faster her reflexes, the faster she can manipulate the controls and master the game. But horses are not video games. There are no buttons to push, no joysticks. With good school horses, a rider needs to communicate, maintain balance, and be responsible for giving the horse direction in a safe manner. It may not be easy to entice children to do something that requires them to slow down and pay attention before they can ask horses to jump fences or canter. Safety and success depend on awareness, patience, and respect for another being — the horse. A good program of instruction and a good instructor teach a child to be gracious as well as graceful in the saddle.

Fundamentals of Successful Horsemanship Programs

Then, there's the culture of celebrity. A horse show is not a rock concert; a rodeo is not MTV. And although riding can be athletically challenging, it isn't football or soccer. Unlike tennis, golf, or figure skating, you won't easily find role models competing on prime time television or collecting product endorsements. Nevertheless, far from shopping malls, theme parks, multiplex cinemas, and product tie-ins, there are many successful summer programs teaching children the pleasures and skills of good horsemanship. The variety of programs reflects the regional and cultural diversity of the nation, but successful programs do have a few fundamentals in common.

  • High quality horses, instructors, and facilities. Some camps own and board horses, and others allow campers to bring their own horses. Some camps contract with nearby stables for instructors as well as horses. All seek to have the safest yet most capable horses to meet the needs and interests of campers with different levels of riding experience.
  • Comprehensive safety program. Safety is a top priority and is reflected in all of the camp's printed publications and Web site materials. This may include listing the background and credentials of program directors and instructors, indicating an appropriate level of fitness or experience, recommending proper clothing, requiring the use of safety equipment, and articulating clear behavioral guidelines.
  • Identification of program elements and costs. Available hours of riding instruction, access to horses, barn responsibilities, and extra fees if applicable, are clearly articulated in all print materials and Web site information so that misunderstandings and disappointments are minimized. Whatever the structure and intensity of the program, communicating it clearly contributes to success for both the participant and the camp. In horseback riding, as in many things, if you put together a group with skill levels that are not reasonably matched, you run the risk of going from one extreme to the other — boring some campers but potentially humiliating others.

In every region of the country, there are many choices. Some programs solely focus on horses and riding and have been operating for many years. Some include horseback riding as the "core" of a program that includes other activities. And for some, riding is just one part of the camp's array of traditional activities. There is no formula, no one model that is more popular than others. Camps around the country offer a variety of riding disciplines, program elements, and levels of immersion into skill development, horse care, and purely recreational trail riding. In addition, geography and regional culture play a role: Western in the West and Midwest, and English in the East. But that is not to say there are no dressage programs West of the Mississippi, and no Western trail riding programs in the East.

Common Goals

Summer equestrian programs have the same goals as most overnight camps. If you are fine-tuning an existing program or developing a new one, it helps to recall the basics. Paraphrasing The Summer Camp Handbook by Christopher A. Thurber and Jon C. Malinowski, good goals for a summer horse camp might aim for the campers to:

  1. Have fun!
  2. Improve athletic, artistic, and intellectual skills related to riding and the care of horses.
  3. Nurture independence and responsibility.
  4. Make friends and develop social skills not only with people but also with horses.
  5. Experience a new environment that involves developing skills with horses.
  6. Learn from positive adult role models how to be respectful and compassionate with another species — the horse. Learn not to be mean and to exercise power with grace.

As Thurber and Malinowski make clear, these goals are true to the core ideas and ideals of camp pioneers William and Abigail Gunn, who envisioned camp as a wellspring of "priceless memories and the spiritual growth of children." In today's world of specialty camps, summer riding programs deserve a fresh appraisal and perhaps a fresh "spin" from those who administer and market them. Some parents are looking for programs that combine summer fun with academic, athletic, or artistic enrichment. But equestrian programs offer enrichment of a different kind. Children have a chance to spend time with horses, learn to care for and communicate with them, and gain riding skills. They meet and live with adult role models and peers who share the love of horses, trail riding, or equestrian competition. For parents who are looking to "unplug" their kids from popular culture, computers, TV, and the shopping center for a few weeks, summer equestrian programs present an accessible and affordable alternative.

Alpengirl Wilderness Horse Camp, Manhattan, Montana
Six years ago, Alissa Farley, owner and director of Alpengirl, started her adventure fitness camp in the wilderness of southwestern Montana with six girls. She has doubled enrollment every year since. The success of her program is evident in the evaluations of parents and campers and the high rate of returning campers.

Adventure and fitness are at the heart of a program that promotes the positive lifetime effects of good eating, exercise, wilderness, and friendship. Morning yoga, good wholesome food, daily adventure sports, group entertainment, Leave No Trace wilderness living, natural science education, leadership development, and personal training are methods of meeting the program goals. The philosophy of the camp is to connect teenage girls with the mind, body, and spirit.

There is a strong commitment throughout the staff to fostering the development of the "mind-body connection" as the key to promoting physical and emotional health in teenage girls. One of the strengths of the program is the maturity and continuity of the staff: 75 percent of the returning Alpenguides are over the age of twenty-seven, and the camp has been able to contract with the same outfitters for the pack trip for the past three years. Director Alissa Farley says it is important to be able to "rely on the expertise of the outfitters." The Alpenguides have a higher level of medical training than the outfitters, and that increases confidence in the health and safety of participants in the activity.

The Wilderness Horse Camp is in its second year. Twelve girls ages fourteen to sixteen participate in a two-week program in Montana. No experience is necessary, and Western riding is the choice, of course "because it's Montana," Farley says with a smile. It includes a three-day pack trip on the Continental Divide near Yellowstone National Park. Campers also work on rodeo events in the indoor arena at the Gallatin River Ranch in groups of six. Other activities include rafting, hiking, cavern touring, visits to Yellowstone National Park and hot springs, yoga, and canoeing on the Lewis and Clark route near Three Forks, Montana.

Who comes? "Teen girls who want adventures matched with riding," Farley says, adding, "They learn to pack all the gear on the mules, to bridle and saddle the horses, and to find the trail/routes. They practice Leave No Trace camping on horseback, and participate in an Alpengirl BBQ and Rodeo with prizes for traditional rodeo events such as barrels and poles."

Camp Nashoba North, Raymond, Maine
Located in the beautiful Sebago Lake region of southern Maine, Camp Nashoba North is a traditional residential camp that offers a variety of fun activities including water-skiing, sailing, rock-climbing, soccer, performing arts, tennis, and pottery. But it also has an intensive English hunt seat riding program. Two hundred boys and girls ages seven to fifteen come from all over the United States and abroad with a wide range of riding abilities. Success is measured on an individual basis. Classes are evaluated daily for riders' abilities within the group lesson. Beginners start with one-on-one lessons, and advanced classes have a maximum of four riders.

"We have riders who are just learning to steer up through riders who are on the competitive show circuit," says camp Co-director Sarah Seaward. She and her sister, Janet, have owned and operated the camp since 1987.

"Nashoba riders strive for levels of achievement that are very similar to the U.S. Pony Club levels," Seaward explains. "Historically, Nashoba has ten riding staff members each summer. Every instructor brings a unique personal history with horses. Most have spent their careers competing in various disciplines and understand the true meaning and responsibility of horse ownership and safety."

This program was developed in response to a "need to provide hands-on experience to riders." According to Seaward, "Unless a camper is involved in Pony Club, 4-H, or owns a horse or pony, it's hard for riders to learn proper grooming, tacking, feeding, and equine first aid. Here, campers learn firsthand how to groom, bathe, and care for their mounts. If experienced, a rider will tack up his horse or pony and lead it out to the assigned riding ring and instructor."

Nashoba offers one or two hours of in-the-saddle instruction and an optional additional hour of stable management lectures. The facilities are impressive: two stables that can house thirty horses and ponies and four riding arenas. In addition, Seaward emphasizes, "We are pleased to own our own lesson horses and ponies; this ensures quality and a good match for our riders."

Camp Koronis, Paynesville, Minnesota
For eleven years the riding program at Camp Koronis has appealed to Christian youth by offering a mix of traditional summer camp activities and five horse programs for different age groups and levels of experience.

Wayne Walther has been the executive director of Camp Koronis since 1999. The camp is owned and operated by the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

"I'm also the horse camp bus driver," he adds modestly. "We offer a beginners, intermediate, and advanced horse camp. We contract with Flander's River Ranch in Paynesville for our horses and instructors. The program is very popular and fills up quickly."

The campers get to spend either the morning or the afternoon with their horses each day for four days. They learn to saddle and bridle the horse, to brush and feed them, and to clean the stall.

"The campers fall in love with their horses," Walther says. "Near the end of the week we have a hay ride with a tractor-pulled hay wagon. We end the ride in the corral where the horses are, so we can feed them some hay and have a photo opportunity. Then we gather at a campfire for s'mores, Tonka pies, and other treats. The last day of camp, we have a lunch cookout and present the awards for the week. Each camper receives an award for completing the camp and a certificate for a special quality of skill. For advanced horse camp, the riders practice a team precision drill that they perform to music for the other campers. This presentation is videotaped for later viewing by the riders at the home of Mike and Jo Flanders."

Camp Koronis depends on the expertise of Flanders River Ranch "a small family-run business," Walther notes. "The family knows each horse and is good at matching the rider to the horse." According to experience and evaluations, this increases the safety and quality of the experience for the campers and the confidence of their families.

Mike and Jo Flanders and their children Camille, Travis, and Dugan all contribute to the success of the Camp Koronis program. Mike Flanders explains that the program developed from a very simple premise, "We imagined a child getting a horse of his or her own and tried to design a program that would teach the necessary skills to successfully care for and handle the horse. This includes everything from catching the horse to balance and control while riding."

The program is delivered by four instructors for each group of eight to nine students. Camille Flanders clarifies, "We teach students to communicate with and handle horses in natural settings through hands-on horse care, trail rides, and outdoor arena drills. All riding is Western style. We measure our success in the high numbers of returning students and the early filling of the camp registrations. Also, on the last day of camp, we can see how much progress the riders have made and how satisfied they are with their progress."

There is a degree of flexibility in the program, Jo Flanders explains, "No one camp is exactly like another. We tailor the camp to each particular group of students. To do this, we rely on feedback from the students — both directly (through verbal feedback) and indirectly (by judging progress and enthusiasm). For example, some groups are more interested in arena activities and learn best this way, while others excel faster through trail experiences."

Camp Skyline, Mentone, Alabama
Sally Cash Johnson has been with Camp Skyline since 1977, as a camper, counselor, and staff member. With a background in early childhood education and elementary education, she has been directing the camp since 1997.

"Our regular riding program was not enough for some of our campers. So, five years ago, we introduced the equestrian program for girls who love horses and everything to do with horses. We market the program to beginning and intermediate riders ages nine to sixteen, separating them by their riding abilities. The campers care for the horses and tack. Most come from the southeastern part of the U.S.," she explains.

Camp Skyline has made adjustments in the program based on experience. Johnson noted that the program "started out too advanced for the girls wanting to take it, so we modified the program to target beginning and intermediate riders."

There are usually two to four instructors for fifteen to eighteen riders every two weeks for eight weeks. "They have to have a strong riding background and an equally strong horse knowledge background," Johnson emphasizes. "The director of the riding program has been riding since she was a young girl. She has competed most of her career and is currently competing at the college level."

The camp has beautiful trails winding through acres of woods and three large oval riding rings where English riding is taught. Instructors lead and follow all the trail rides. The equestrian program ends with a camp-out, including a long trail ride, swimming, and fishing, which are popular features of the program.

Camp Laney, Mentone, Alabama
While it's true that mostly girls are attracted to summer equestrian programs, many boys ride and love horses. Many boys are more likely to ride as part of a broader, traditional camp program. Camp Laney offers a summer equestrian camp for boys. The camp's horseback program is run by Whitney Chapman, who has been coming to camp since 1977. He spent his summers as a camper, junior counselor, and senior counselor, graduating from the University of Alabama in 1994. After almost ten years of running the program, attending CHA (Camp Horsemanship Association) workshops, seminars, and conferences with teachers and staff from girls camps, Whitney observes, "Females are far more interested in horses than boys are. I can't begin to tell you why. If I had to guess, part of the reason boys shy away from horses is that they don't want to look ‘uncool' or scared in front of other boys or girls. It's interesting because the younger boys (eight- to ten-year-olds) don't have that fear of embarrassment or fear of the horse. As soon as ‘looking cool' becomes important that is when they shy away."

Camp Laney is located on top of Lookout Mountain in a quiet wooded area. The mountain climate provides warm days and cool nights, and the Little River runs through the camp. The facilities include stables, a riding ring, and horse trails. The camp has fourteen of its own horses. Horseback riding is a daily part of the camp program. Campers begin in the ring and are taught safety and basic Western riding skills. Campers must wear riding helmets. When the instructors feel a camper can safely handle his horse, he progresses from the ring to supervised trail rides.

"We work on approaching the horse and feeling comfortable around the horse," Whitney says. "We cover mounting and dismounting and controlling the horse using the reins. Our trail rides allow the campers to test their skills a bit by venturing away from a controlled environment. We have several trails that differ in length. They all are basically giant loops in the woods that bring us back to where we started. Seven or eight boys go on each ride, with one counselor in the lead and another counselor in the back with a walkie-talkie and first-aid kit. All of our campers participate in the horseback riding program, unless they are allergic or just don't want to ride."

Coppercreek Camp, Greenville, California
This summer program has been running for thirty-nine years. Greenville is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains about ninety miles north of Lake Tahoe. Lauren Lindskog Allen, one of the owner/directors of Coppercreek for the past fifteen years, describes a very responsive approach. The lesson program focuses on grooming, tacking up, and then riding. At the Saddle Club level, the campers learn how to clean tack, clean stalls, feed and care for the horses, as well as riding lessons.

"We've always taught English riding, but we added Western to meet the interest expressed by many campers. Lately, we've added vaulting when a donor gave us a vaulting horse. The campers loved it so much, we expanded the program. This year we're adding miniature horse driving since it's something we do for fun in the off-season, and the campers want a shot at it." Allen explains.

The camp's facilities include three riding arenas, a 2,500 square foot barn, a small cross-country course, and a surrounding forest with hundreds of miles of riding trails. The campers range in age from seven to seventeen with about 60 percent of the participants at the beginner level, but there is also a strong group of fairly advanced riders in each session. Participants come primarily from California, but the camp attracts riders from other regions and abroad. Each summer session includes forty-five to sixty-five campers a day. Summer class size is usually no larger than six campers.

"We try to have a one-to-three ratio in the arena. We offer trail rides about three times a week and usually take about seven campers at a time," Allen notes. Clearly, Coppercreek invests a lot of time and effort in monitoring the progress of the campers, tracking the return rates of campers each summer, and doing weekly surveys when camp is in session. In addition, the directors believe that quality of instruction is critical to the success of the program. Each summer, Coppercreek hires five to seven instructors who are certified at least to CHA Level 1.

Allen elaborates, "We really look at which riding instructors are successful with the campers and hire or fire accordingly. Our head instructor, Kalli Bowles, has run our program for five years. She is a master instructor with CHA and also an ACI. She competed for Fresno State on a full equestrian scholarship and won numerous regional and national awards. Last summer, we had two other instructors who were Level 3 or better. Many of our instructors have grown up riding and showing horses. We recertify every summer and encourage our instructors to upgrade their credentials."

Kathy Thurber is a freelance writer with an M.F.A. in theater. She has recently combined her love of writing with riding horses, writing for national and international equine publications. She will be spending this summer coordinating performing arts programs at Camp Neshoba in Raymond, Maine.

Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.