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Horseplay: What Horses Teach Kids About Life

"Horses help children to focus outside themselves, to follow the rules that help them take care of the horses." — Ted Murthe

They may not be counselor of the week or be at their best telling a favorite camp story, but the horses who live year-round at Hoofbeat Ridge Camp in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, have captured more hearts and taught hundreds of campers the life lessons that last. The special bond between horses and children often begins at camp when for the first time campers get a hands-on opportunity to experience one of our greatest animal partnerships. Children easily start recognizing and responding to the needs of their horses — horses cleverly wait for them to catch on.

Just the Beginning

There’s a mist rising in the far paddock in late July, warm breath of the horses, the swash, swash of their tales shooing a fly, and the gentle neighing that says “We’re waiting for you.” For seventy horses and the girls at Hoofbeat Ridge, their day is just beginning — and the children are stretching in their bunks, restless already to get down to the barn and hop on.

Saddle Up

Sarah and her friends are busy learning the parts of the saddle and bridle. Soon, with the help of Scout, one of the camp favorites, they will place the saddle gently on his back in exactly the right spot and lengthen the girth to accommodate that last meal of hay and grain. The gentle giant stands ever so still while Sarah lowers the saddle pad — but not so fast — Becky smoothes the hair on his back — hair lying the right way makes Scout comfortable, hair lying the wrong way doesn’t. “One of the great lessons horses teach us is that our actions affect others,” says Ted Murthe, Hoofbeat’s director. “Horses help children to focus outside themselves, to follow the rules that help them take care of the horses.”

Helmets on, a leg up, and the right signal from Sarah and she and Scout walk into the riding ring joining the other riders and mounts for their first lesson of the day. After some athletic walking out just to warm up, they begin to trot. There are some giggles as the trot bounces Sarah, Becky, and the other riders up in the air and back down again — all about feeling the rhythm of your horse, getting to know that special way it moves.

Horse Language

More than a thousand miles away in Greenville, California, the children at Coppercreek Camp learn their horse alphabet early — A is for apple, B is for Body Brush, C is for Canter. Horses bring with them a special vocabulary, and all the children are anxious to learn. The very youngest or timid campers have a special role and special assignments when it comes to horse care; they are affectionately known as “Barn Rats,” scurrying to learn their way around these affectionate and formidable friends. “Learning about your horse’s needs is a first step in gaining security and comfort around such large animals — filling their water buckets, picking out their hooves, and learning the art of grooming all develop a special bond between horse and rider,” says Coppercreek’s director Lauren Allen. Hoofbeat’s director seconds this idea. “It’s wonderful to observe an introverted child combing the mane of her horse and talking away — sharing a confidence; it’s a chance to experience unconditional acceptance. And for the girls who may prefer horse care to riding, in addition to the ground work,” Murthe says, “we have Crackerjack and Minnie, our two Shetland ponies, who offer campers a chance to drive a pony cart.”

Listening to What Your Horse Is Telling You

In the saddling corral, it’s time to mount up and head off to the hills. There’s a special alertness that Samantha and John, age ten and twelve, recognize as they lead their horses away from the barn at Coppercreek. They are on their way to enjoy the crisp air in the trees and a ride up into the hilly country surrounding the camp. Samantha’s horse Hannah doesn’t even notice when a twig snaps loudly underfoot, while John knows that his horse Billy is going to need some talking to — a “that’s alright, Fella” — just when Billy asks for some reassurance. Children easily start recognizing and responding to the needs of their horses — horses cleverly wait for them to catch on.

Horsemasters Take Kids Over the Top

For all those young people who live, eat, and breathe horses, both Hoofbeat Ridge and Coppercreek are among the many camps offering advanced horsemanship instruction. “Channeling all of their enthusiasm into vaulting, jumping, showing, advanced trail riding creates an incredible partnership and sense of accomplishment,” says Coppercreek’s director. “Laying the proper foundation is a great way for us to watch children develop into lifelong riders who know from the start that horses require a great deal of care and attention, an attention and care that horses return in full — and this experience translates into responsibility and confidence in so many other areas.”

A Horse of a Different Color

Even horses like to get dressed up from time to time. At the close of camp season at Hoofbeat, there’s an event that the horses and campers gladly embrace, with mounted games, relays, even egg and spoon races (don’t ask what happens to all of those eggs) — and the campers gladly oblige with helping the horses to look the part — painting and glittering for the end-of-summer fun.

Horse Crazy — Kid Crazy

It’s a two-way street; horses take care of children just as much as children take care of horses. The lessons are simplicity itself — kindness, gentleness, respect, careful observation, and most of all — the thrill of independence — when you are up on the back of the horse, communicating what you want, and listening to a horse who is depending on you.

Every horse is a star — Black Beauty, Flicka, and Seabiscuit rolled into one, all with the largest eyes, the biggest hearts, and always room for one more child.

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Tags: Enrichment, Featured Story

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