Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chosing the Perfect Riding Camp

With proper instruction, nothing is impossible!
Kids and horses= Teamwork

An instructor should always be close at hand.
A group of properly turned out students, waiting for instruction.

Summer is almost here, which means that parents will be scrambling soon to find camps that will entertain, educate and keep their children happy for any where from a week to several months.
If you have a horse crazy child, then finding them a riding camp may be the perfect solution. If your child is already taking lessons at a local stable, chances are, they already have a camp program lined up for their students.
But if you are new to the world of horses and are over whelmed by the options that are available, here is a guideline to help you chose the perfect stable. These guidelines will also aid you in chosing a local riding instructor, even if you are not looking for a camp at this time.

How to find a camp or instructor?

1. Ask for recommendations. Chances are, there are students in your childs school that ride. I frequently am about town in my riding clothes, whether I am shopping at Publix, running into Target, or even popping into the mall. It is amazing how many strangers stop to talk to me about horses, and ask for recommendations for instructors and boarding.
2. If you can't get recommendations, use the internet and phone book. Call around and ask what they offer. RED ALERT: If you visit a barns website and they show pictures of children riding WITHOUT helmets, please, quickly exit out of this website and cross their name off of your list.
3. Once you have a list of barns that offer camps and/or lessons, you need to visit each barn.

Once you are at a barn, here is what you need to do and ask:

1. First, inspect the barn. Are the stalls clean or are horses standing around in piles of manure? Stalls should be cleaned at a minimum, once a day. Are water buckets filled with clean water or are they dirty and smelly?
2. What is the overall condition of the horses? Are they fat with sleek coats or are their ribs and hip bones protruding over dull coats? Are their hooves trimmed or are they over grown and jagged?
The way a barn treats their horses, which is how they make a living, says a lot for a place. Barns that do not treat their horses well, really do not care about what type of service they are providing to you.
3. What is the overall condition of the facilites? Is the farm manicured and clean? Does it give the appearance of a safe facility? Is the fencing secure, the footing in the arena appear safe? The facility doesn't need to be a million dollar piece of property to be safe and secure and well maintained. All possible safety measures should be taken to avoid unnecessary accidents.
4. What are the safety requirements of their students? They should require ASTM approved helmet and paddock boots at the minimum. Helmets can be purchased for around $45 at the local tack store, as well as a pair of paddock boots for the same price. Bike helmets are not acceptable substitutes for a riding helmet, as the type of fall and potential injury to a person riding a horse is much greater and more significant than a fall from a bike. Sneakers are not acceptable either. Children need to be in a boot with a heel that covers their ankle and provides protection from a horse stepping on their foot.
5. What is the qualification of the instructor? In many instances, especially with camps, the barn will employ older teens, who have riding experience, to assist with the camp. How long has the instructor been riding and teaching? Are they ARIA (American Riders Instructors Association) or BHS (British Horse Society) certified, or are they a U.S. Pony Club graduate or USPC instructor?
6. What type of riding will be taught? What are the goals of the camp? You and your instructor need to be realistic here about goals. If your child is new to riding, your instructor should not be making promises that your child will be jumping a 3'6" course in 2 weeks. If they do make that claim, then they are taking serious shortcuts in your child's riding education, and compromising their safety. This applies to riding lessons as well. Unfortunately, we are a country that wants instant gratification. It is not uncommon to find students who within a few short months, are already going to horseshows and competing in jumping competitions at heights over 2'6". Unfortunately, what happens is that these children have not been taught the basics. In order for one to learn to properly jump, they must be taught how to have the proper seat and to give a proper release. These are things that take time to learn. If your child is going around a large course in a very short amount of time, chances are, they are riding what is known as a schoolmaster..a horse that is very educated and is going to take care of his young and inexperienced mount, no matter how much bouncing around and grabbing at his mouth they do. But disaster occurs when that parent tries to put that child on a horse that is not so forgiving, and suddenly, they discover that the thousands of dollars they have invested for their child's riding lessons have been a total waste, because in the long run, their child really doesn't know how to ride!
Goals should be realistic. If your child is participating in a 2 week camp, and has never ridden before, then he should be grouped with other children of the same riding skills. By the end of the camp, at the very least, they should be able to post at the trot and be able to guide their horse through some cavaletti's, which are small jumps at 6" to a foot above the ground. Some children may be able to canter by the end of 2 weeks and possible be able to trot around a small course within a confined arena.
7. And what about the suitablitly of the horses? Beginner riders should be riding horses that meet their experience level. The best horses for beginners are going to be horses in their teens or even in their 20's, that have been used for lessons and are used to kids bouncing around on their backs. Breeds such as Quarter Horses and draft crosses are the best for the inexperienced, because they tend to be more laid back and forgiving. Breeds such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians, tend to be more excitable and not as forgiving. As your child learns the basics and is commited to riding and wants to progress with their learning, they should learn to ride horses such as Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, and younger and more green or inexperienced horses, that will teach them to progress from a beginner rider to an intermediate and finally, become an advanced level rider.
8. Another important element to consider, is what is the schedule of the camp? Most camps offer riding twice a day, once in the morning, and again, later in the afternoon. What will the campers be doing inbetween? There are many aspects to becoming an equestrian, and only a small portion of it involves actual riding. Campers should learn to become all around horseman. When they are not riding, they should be learning about the parts of the tack and how to care for it. They should learn about what horses eat and the different types of feed and hay. They should learn about the horses anatomy, health issues and about the care of their hooves. A good camp will bring in guest speakers, such as a Vet and a Farrier (Blacksmith). Campers should learn how to muck their horses stall, but make sure that your camp is not planning on using your child to provide free labor during their time when they are not riding. It is acceptable for your child to muck his own mounts stall, but he should not be expected to clean the boarders horses stalls or clean out the hay loft! By the end of 2 weeks, the student should know how to tack up his own horse (and untack), rinse him off and cool him out after each ride, clean his tack and provide basic care such as feed and water and know how to groom him.

Camps may provide more options for the child who is more experienced. Some camps will schedule outings to go cross country schooling or will take their campers to horse shows. Trail rides, fox hunting and mounted games are other options.

So camp has ended. Hopefully, you were invited to the last day where your child was able to exhibit what they learned! You now realize that you have a hopelessly horse addicted child who is going to spend every waking moment asking for a horse of their own! Now what do you do?

I suggest holding off the tempation to run out and buy a horse! Horses are expensive and require a lot of time. Enroll your child in regular lessons. Your child needs to prove that he is committed to horses, through hot and cold weather, bug season, and even when the horse he regularly rides is suddenly sick or lame and cannot be ridden for several weeks (will your child still want to go out and groom and pamper the horse, or totally ignore the animal now that he cannot perform?). Is your child willing to perform all aspects of horsemanship? From tacking up a horse, to cleaning the tack (which is very expensive but with good cleaning, will last forever), grooming the horse and mucking the stall? Or does your child expect somebody else to do all the dirty work and they just show up to a horse that is already tacked and ready to be ridden? These are all important considerations before making that big leap into horse ownership.

The United States Pony Club (which despite its name, most members own and ride horses), focuses on horse management, team work and their Proficiency of Standards. You may want to consider a youth organization such as the USPC for your child to become involved with, which will also ensure that they are dedicated and commited to riding.

Riding horses is rewarding. Children who are involved with horses learn compassion, empathy, patience, responsibilty and so much more. These are all life long skills which are important to a child's development. With the proper research, finding the perfect barn will enable that these skills are developed and nurtured.