Confessions of a Summer Camp Instructor, Part II: The Job Description
Chelsea Alexander explains why trouble-shooting skills are a camp instructor’s best asset.
Top photo: Flickr/YMCAHCwk5/Creative Commons License
I have never, for financial reasons, owned a horse, but I have had 13, all at once, temporarily. I worked as the barn manager and lead instructor at a summer camp. Managing a barn for the first time is a bit like being pushed into the deep end of the pool—you are under no illusions that you are not prepared (no matter how long ago you learned to swim, no matter how good you are at it, no matter how much practice you have had) and yet are still surprised when you come up gasping for air. Why? Well…
1. Everything is on YOUR shoulders.
I had worked as an instructor for one summer. I was at the barn all day every day. I organized and executed the day camp, looked after much of (thought not all) the daily care of the 12 or so horses at the barn, and conducted beginner through intermediate lessons for all ages. My own instructor, however, was also there every day, doing the other work that needed to be done and teaching the advanced students. While she did not supervise me, per say—I was set loose to conduct my own lessons and the camp, and there were a couple of occasions on which I had full run of the barn for the day—I could still count on her to know what the best move would be. If a horse’s gait looked funny to me, I needed only to alert her to it, and she would follow the proper course of action. There is a sort of relief in working under someone—there is always someone else to turn to, and the final decision is on their shoulders, not yours. In many ways, it frees you from anxieties.
So going from always having someone else making the big decisions to making those big decisions yourself is a little terrifying, and we had the misfortune of encountering numerous tiny medical problems—a persistent cough, a swollen eye from a bug bite, a bad capped hock, anaplasmosis, and a horse given to us fresh off the trailer with 80 ticks on his body (surprisingly, not the same horse with anaplasmosis), not to mention the various cuts and scrapes we patched which they accrued from herd life. We ended up calling the vet in twice (once for the capped hock, once for the anaplasmosis which was presenting colic symptoms).
2. Exhaustion gets redefined.
Quick, what happens when you have twelve hungry horses in the barn, have not yet had lunch, have a lesson to teach in an hour, and a horse with colic symptoms being walked in the arena, and hay being delivered at an unknown hour? Well, you don’t eat, you stay with the horse while someone else leads a trail ride, you wait for the vet to get there and pray that hay doesn’t come during dinner (it will).
The thing about being part of the riding staff of a summer camp is that no one else is qualified to do your job. If you are a cabin counselor, floating from activity to activity, you can usually get someone else to fill in, but teaching riding and working with horses is not something you can pick up in an afternoon, and if one of your staff is sick or injured or just on their day off? You have to pick up the slack. As the one in charge, it’s doubly on you.
3. You can plan all you want, but can’t count on it.
What’s that? You were planning to lead trails today but last night a tree fell and blocked the main one? You can’t get around it? The guy with the chainsaw can’t get out there until after lunch? Quick, new lesson plans!
Plans never pan out. You promised a girl last week she could ride a specific horse today? Specific horse will have a capped hock. The hay was supposed to get delivered and everyone had cleared space in their schedules? It will rain and have to be rescheduled for the next day, which no one has clear. You always have to prepare for the worst—Murphy’s Law is an actual law at camp.
So why on earth would any crazy person ever willingly sign up for this job? Well, it also happens to be one of the most rewarding jobs, no matter how insane it gets. Watching a girl go from never having sat on a horse before to mastering cantering and joining the drill team at the end of seven weeks is truly inspiring. Seeing a girl with very low self-esteem gain confidence as her riding improves to the point where she can join the advanced class is heartening. The job might be a little crazy, but the kids will always make it worth it in the end.
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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