Confessions of a Summer Camp Instructor, Part I: Summer Camp vs. The Real World

Teaching riding at a summer camp is an entirely different ballgame than teaching at a riding school. Camp instructor Chelsea Alexander explains.

Top photo: Flickr/Martin Eltzroth/Creative Commons License

From Chelsea:

Instructing at a camp is a unique experience in the equine world. If you are interested, however, in taking on a position, there are a few things you should know about the difference between working in the ‘real world’ at a barn, and working at a summer camp.

1. Mindset

The kids come in with an entirely different mindset than they do in the ‘real world.’ In the real world, most kids are taking lessons because they asked. Sometimes, you get a kid whose parent is pushing them into it because they rode, or because they like the idea of having a kid who rides, or whatever the case may be, but in my experience those cases were few and far between, buried beneath the deluge of enthusiastic children. They will still have varying comfort levels, abilities, and talents, but generally even if they are a little bit scared, they are excited too.

Not so at camp! At camp, you will get kids who are excited, kids who are petrified, kids who have gone through a few obligatory lessons or trail rides at camp and have decided definitively that they hate it—and you still have to teach all of them and have an individualized approach to allow them to have the best possible time they can. Good luck!

2. Horses

In the real world, kids who learn to ride start with a private lesson on a trustworthy old lesson pony. In my experience, the horse was usually a retired show pony, a well-trained animal that could do the job in his sleep. The horse is well enough trained that you do not have to worry about much; the horse will stay on the rail pretty well whether or not the kid actually steers, for instance. The kid learning to jump should be fine because Ol’ Faithful will happily plod over the crossrail whether or not he’s really given the right cues. This of course can be a disadvantage in many ways—it offers the opportunity for a kid to learn in the WRONG way and get it cemented if the trainer is not doing their job. However, it also offers the opportunity for an instructor to isolate and focus on one thing without worrying as much about the other. Two-point position for instance can be practiced and perfected while the horse moves at a trot along the rail with little difficulty—two point is harder to learn with a horse moving in zigzags and a beginning rider tugging ever so lightly at the reins.

There are some camps blessed with fabulous lesson horses. These camps have great funding and probably operate year-round. There are also camps with decent lesson horses, and if you are used to teaching with fabulous lesson horses, decent will be an incredible difference. The decent lesson horse knows his job well enough, but is not used year round. He’s rusty. He will wander off the rail, he’ll pull kids to the center, he won’t trot no matter how hard that sixty-pound person kicks, he’ll stop to eat on the trail. He is in no way bad, and he is certainly a great learning experience, but he will make your job just a little bit more difficult.

3. Individual Attention

In the real world, the first few lessons a kid has are, generally speaking, private. Many barns do not allow group lessons until the child has reached a certain level of competency. You have the opportunity to work one on one with the kid, without worrying about what anyone else in the arena is doing—in fact, the arena is probably often completely clear. You can focus entirely on individual needs.

At camp, unless you are at a riding specific camp or one that miraculously does offer private lessons, you will always be working with a group. You will teach a group how to walk and steer, how to sit the trot, and how to post. You will teach a group the start of cantering, you will teach a group how to jump a crossrail. In the advanced classes, it is not much of a problem. In the beginning classes still working on steering? It can be a nightmare. Trying to keep six horses properly spaced and moving smoothly whilst trying to keep the kids in proper form can be an utterly daunting task, even if you have another instructor with you. If your horses are only decent, your job just got even harder.

4. Time

In the ‘real world,’ how much time you get with any kid varies. For the beginners, it is often once a week, and over a period of months or years. Progress for the once-a-weeker is slow, and you may not always notice it happening. More importantly, your kids may not notice it happening.

At camp there are a variety of options, depending on what your camp is like. For us, we had the kids signed up for the riding program three to four times a week, and everyone else once a week. We had most kids for about three weeks, but a select few we had for seven. Progress is much more obvious at camp. With the more frequent practice, the kids get more familiar in the saddle faster. It can be really great to track a kid’s progress from beginning to the end—often they have passed real milestones. But unlike your once-a-weeker in the real world, you have the knowledge that when the summer ends, you have to say goodbye—maybe forever.

Camp life is very different from ‘real life.’ It has its pluses and its negatives, but it is important to realize, before jumping right in, that it is different.

Chelsea Alexander is a twenty-one year old final-year student of English and History at Queen Mary, University of London. She has worked as a riding instructor both at a summer camp and a year-round stable, and worked as barn manager at summer camp as well. She has an unreasonable attachment to paint horses, entirely the fault of the little bay tobiano paint named Toby who taught her how to ride.



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