School’s out, which means that the day campers have descended on the barns of America. If you ever went to riding camp, here are eight memories that will give you all the feels.
My first riding lessons were at the age of eight, after waiting
patiently for several years — and my first lessons were actually in the barn’s summer day camp program, my mother apparently opting for the total-immersion method of getting me started in the saddle. From there, we got into a regular lesson schedule, but every summer for the rest of my childhood, I spent as many weeks as we could afford doing day camp: one week, then two weeks, then three weeks, then teen camp for the 14+, then a volunteer assistant counselor/general camp servant position in exchange for free riding time.
Camps differ from barn to barn, but a few things seem to remain constant.
1. Arriving at the barn already wearing your helmet, which is likely a pastel color with matching stretchy faux-suede half-chaps.
Cars would regularly turn up the barn driveway with a small child bouncing around in the back looking remarkably like a ping-pong ball with the bulbous plastic helmets of our youth. Helmets have come a long way in recent years to be more streamlined, but I definitely remember sporting a sky-blue Troxel for several years. For awhile, all of us at the barn would vie to have the brightest, most distinctive color — partially for looking really “cool” and partially for being able to identify your helmet in the jumble of camper gear up in the clubhouse.
2. Instantly spotting the pony you want to ride, and then being really jealous of the girl who gets assigned to that pony.
I vaguely remember falling instantly in love with a perfect dapple gray specimen of Welsh pony on my first day of camp, and was promptly assigned to the beginner-friendly generic black and white pinto who proved to be everything I needed at the time. I also think I vaguely remembering the talented little girl who got to ride that Welsh pony getting dumped off on the first day, and I think the veil may have been lifted early on that looks aren’t everything.
3. Becoming best friends immediately with all of the other girls in your riding group (even the above girl who got to ride the pony you really wanted).
Why do we not do this any more, horse people? We should just go back to our 9-year-old horse camper selves and realize that we’re all here because we’re horse crazy, and that’s the only basis you really need to get along in life.
4. Horseless horse shows.
Years later, when I became an assistant camp counselor in exchange for a sort of part-lease scenario on one of the lesson horses, I learned that the most beloved camp activity of horseless horse show was in fact a great tactic for wearing out wild campers all hyped up on their brown-bag-lunch dessert.
5. Riding bareback after going swimming.
This one needs some unpacking: first, you had to figure out how to change into your swimsuit up in the loft without getting a bunch of hay down your suit. Then, when you were done swimming, you’d have to figure out how to change back into your riding clothes, or try to cheat and pull you jodphurs on over your wet suit and then look like you had an accident all day. The horses never seemed to mind if you were still damp from the pool or not, but your parents definitely were not impressed when you were ready to get picked up at the end of the day simultaneously both soaking wet AND plastered in horse hair and arena dust.
6. Recognizing that the hayloft is the deep dark land of mysteries and that special place you go to eat lunch when it’s raining outside.
I’ve since revisited the hayloft of my childhood barn and even though it’s just a normal two-hundred-plus-year-old bank barn, it STILL seems like the cavernous, cathedral-like loft stretches up forever and the rafters are miles away, the barn swallows darting in and out of the big open doors and the sweet smell of hay heavy on the air. On those rare days when it would rain and we needed a dry place to eat lunch, our trainer would lead us up into the loft, climbing up and down the bales carefully, and we’d all sit together on various tiers of hay, safe and dry, listening to the patter of rain on the roof.
7. Helping to feed the horses at the end of the day.
This was a serious rite of passage at my barn’s summer day camp: the entire camp would line up single file, and my trainer, standing on a wooden block so she could lean all the way over into the grain bin, would impressively just keep measuring and dumping grain in a fluid, repetitive motion all by memory and rattle off to each waiting camper which horse she was to go feed.
Inevitably, about a third of those grain buckets would end up poured into the water bucket, which was a whole separate rite of passage in which we were made to tote the full bucket out the manure pile to pour out. And at the age of eight to ten, there’s nothing heavier in the world than a full water bucket, weighed down now with water-logged grain.
8. The end-of-the-week horse show.
In true American spirit, everyone got a ribbon and no one knew what was going on, but all the parents who lined the rail were always so proud, and that was really all that mattered. And then you got to go home, pin that ribbon up on the wall, and dream about going back to camp the next year…