Summertime horse camps, then and now
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Especially for equestrians.
Six-horse summer 1965 was the single most fantastic season of life for two counselors and dozens of campers in the rolling hills near Grand Rapids, Ohio.
Camp Ladyglen was a Catholic, all-girls’ two-month sleep-over camp that occupied a castle-like edifice used as a boys’ military academy the remainder of the year. But on the hill above the main campus, higher up than even the grotto, sat two far more humble structures.
One was capped by a large, simple roof over individual mangers that could accommodate up to six hungry horses. No stalls, just built-in wooden feed troughs for hay and grain. Bedding was sand, and simple water buckets hung next to each manger.
Off to the side of that “stable” was a combination tack/feed room. Walking back from there toward the stone steps that wound down to the main campus, there was a combination pasture/riding ring with nice, big trees (two of which became the base for an impromptu hitching rail), and a gate that enclosed the entire charming setup.
The two riding counselors weren’t much older than some of the campers, who ranged from ages 8-16. Louise “Lou” Anderson, 18, was assistant to the 17-year-old head counselor. Out West, the two young women might have been called wranglers as they not only taught riding classes (English only, of course) but maintained the stable area, cleaned tack, and cared for the six horses the camp had for just the summer. Oh, such sweet, kind horses they were.
There was Windy, a gaited, dun gelding whose only vices were cribbing and windsucking, hence the name the head counselor gave him. But he was so smooth under saddle, smart and well-mannered that she chose him for her personal mount for the season. She even hoped to buy him after camp ended.
Beautiful bay Willie was a plump but long-bodied lover of all things children. He didn’t, however, like standing tied and inactive unless there were ample amounts of hay and/or grain in front of him.
The two counselors set up a transient hitching rail between classes, so as not to have to move all six animals back to the stabling area for 15 minute off-times. It was a simple, thick, very long pole wedged between the forks of two big trees. Nice and shady.
On just its second time up, Willie thought it his job to alleviate his and everyone’s boredom by endlessly bashing the poor old pole upward with his head until he dislodged that offensive rail. Crash. Down it went, complete with a tangle of reins on the ground —yes, still attached to bits in horses’ mouths. Oh, Willie. Who’s a good boy? (Hitching rail, final exit, stage right.)
Tex and Banner were always teamed up, although they certainly weren’t a match in appearance or temperament. Banner, a 16.1-hand sorrel and most likely a Saddlebred/Thoroughbred cross, was easy-going and considerate of even the most timid rider’s nerves. A true gentleman.
Little Tex was as his name implied: a small, quick, western cow pony type who thought nothing of sharing hairpin turns with any rider experienced and bold enough to match wits with him. A few were a good match for Tex and that’s when his somewhere-in-the-past training shined. The rest of the time, he preferred to go anywhere and at whatever speed he was asked to; so long as his nose was securely plastered against Banner’s side. As bold as Tex could be, he was almost embarrassingly insecure without his best bud.
A shiny, golden buckskin with four black stockings, white socks, and a bald face, Socks was the handsomest boy of the little herd. His beauty made him eye-catchingly prominent, but his ho-hum riding style evened things out with the others.
Oakey. This portly, pure white gelding certainly looked like a Lipizzaner; but no one knew for sure. No one knew anything about any of them except for those talents and personalities they displayed at camp; because these horses were leased from a dealer, a horse trader, and one with a far less-than-stellar reputation.
Sweet Oakey, on the other hand, gained a very stellar reputation as the camping season progressed, especially to one little girl named Kathie, who adored him.
Each lesson lasted approximately one hour each day. By the end of the eight-week session, young girls who’d never even been on a wooden merry-go-round pony had progressed enough to participate in a walk-trot drill team performance at an end-of-camp horse show. Parents were impressed, riders were floating in horse heaven, and the two counselors were super proud of what had been accomplished.
Equestrian camp in 1965 was simple in nature, complex in instruction, and memorable even 50-plus years later. Those memories include a special reward for counselors at season’s end: a group outing to a Bowling Green theater for the first local showing of a brand new but highly rated movie: “The Sound of Music.”
Again, the more things change, the more they remain the same. And love for horses isn’t bound by time or place. So, fast-forward to 2019.
The Equine Sciences Youth Summer Camp at Colorado State University was held in two one-week sessions during June. Different state, different era, different horses, different instructors, different kids. But the smiles were the same as those in 1965, as was pride of accomplishment.
CSU’s annual camp is open to children ages 10-15, said instructor Tiare Santistevan, who’s taught at the camp for 18 years. This year’s attendees were broken into groups by disciplines and abilities. Each camper could bring their own horse or use one of approximately 10 provided by the program.
Some classes included horsemanship, other hands-on activities, lectures on topics such as horse care and disciplines. Riding sessions were one to 1½ hours long, taught by seven instructors (including four camp counselors).
CSU’s Pickett Arena, site of the equestrian classes, was a beehive of activity on Friday, June 14. Riders occupied the main arena, a smaller ring within the stall area, one set up for jumping, and an outdoor fourth ring for mixed English/Western riders of varying abilities.
In that latter class of just four horses and riders, Cassidy Smith and Erin Kelly (both experienced instructors but each in her first year at the CSU camp) worked with girls ages 11-13. Two of the mounts belonged to Santistevan and two were CSU polo team horses.
Diego was the only horse under Western tack, and polo mare Reyna has only one eye. But, just as in the 1965 camp, neither riders nor horses seemed to care about differences nor challenges. The day was all about learning equestrian skills while having a great time to boot.
Meanwhile, over in the jumping ring, nine riders took turns popping their horses over a course of very low cross-rails. Intense looks of concentration were broken only by smiles when someone called out things like, “Great job. I knew you guys could do it.”
After classes and before lunch, the girls (sorry fellas, no guys this session; but four were signed up for Session No. 2) cleaned stalls and attended a lecture on bits. While unsaddling and then tidying up her horse’s stall, one of the happy campers shared some really good news.
HOPES AND GOALS
Hannah Chambers, age 12, has known her Arabian mare all her life. Hannah’s mom had bought now 20-year-old Sierra the year before Hannah was born. This was the horse and rider’s first year at camp, however, and Hannah was determined to accomplish her goal for the weeklong event. Although the pair had already won a Grand Championship at a Littleton, Colo., horse show, Chambers wants to be able to get her mare to easily clear 3-foot jumps.
Besides that, Chambers hopes to use knowledge she gains to work with her mom’s two-year-old. Poor Mom broke her foot and has been unable to maintain a steady course of training for the youngster, so daughter Hannah will lunge the green horse, lead him on walks, and possibly ride him a bit.
Amidst all the classes, there was still time for entracurricular fun. Chambers noted that camp included craft/movie/game nights, and more. Overnight campers, like herself, could share a CSU main campus dorm room with a friend (she did), or be surprised with a roomie selected by assignment, and eat in the dining halls.
Two other campers, one age 12 and the other 13, headed down the aisle to clean their stalls, jockeying rakes, buckets and shovels as they hurried.
The girls shared their hopes for equestrian improvement. One owns an 11-year-old OTTB gelding that had first been a dude string horse after leaving the racetrack. She’d had him for three years and was unable to consistently get him to take his right lead, likely because U.S. Thoroughbreds run counter-clockwise and, therefore, always on the left lead.
The girl was thrilled because after just five days at the CSU camp, her horse was taking both leads every time she signaled for them. Bravo.
The second girl had owned her 13-year-old mare for just six months. The OTTB was really well-behaved under saddle but “really bad” on the ground. After just those first few days at camp, the previously snarky mare was no longer trying to kick or get pushy in her stall, while being saddled, etc.
Sarah Matlock, program coordinator for two years, has been with CSU since 2008 in various equine sciences positions. She hustled about the stall aisles encouraging campers while keeping the pace quick enough so that no one was late for anything.
Other instructors helped get balking horses into stalls, continued sharing advice as campers cleaned, and just generally assured every part of the equestrian camping experience was upbeat, positive and fun. That sure brought back summer 1965 memories, which are never very far off anyway. How do I know?
Because I was that 17-year-old head riding instructor/counselor back in Ohio at Camp Ladyglen. Windy, Willie, Tex, Banner, Socks and Oakey will vouch for me. Right boys?
And although I don’t know any of the CSU instructors/counselors, campers, or horses, I clearly recognize each and every one of them. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Especially for equestrians. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.