Thirteen-year-old Delaney Katopodes tried horse camp for the first time in 2014. She was surprised how nervous she felt during her first ride. Delaney’s dad—a former park ranger in Boulder—had a patrol horse named Jack. “My dad had sat me on his horse before, and walked me around,” Delaney says, but she’d never really ridden until saddling up in the arena at Tomahawk Ranch, an overnight Girl Scout Camp near Bailey.
Delaney’s heart raced as she worked up to a trot. “I wasn’t panicking, but I was nervous,” Delaney admits. After a few minutes, though, she calmed down. “Once I got used to it, it was fine,” she says.
It was better than fine, actually. Delaney loved her trail rides at Tomahawk Ranch so much that she enrolled in a second horse camp that same summer, this one a dedicated riding camp, where campers “really got their hands dirty,” as Delaney puts it. In addition to daily rides, young equestrians worked the stables, feeding, grooming, and saddling their horses. “We’d even scoop their poop,” Delaney says.
There’s No Substitute for Hard Work
Stable chores aren’t just for kicks. There’s a sense of personal responsibility that comes from caring for a horse, and chores provide real-world opportunities for campers to learn discipline and work ethic.
“Working with horses provides a great opportunity for children to stand on their own two feet,” says Lynn Walker, director at Colorado Mountain Ranch near Boulder, offering a horse-focused day camp for adolescents and teens ages 10 to 16.
Since learning to ride at Tomahawk Ranch, Delaney has spent the last four summers attending various horse camps in Colorado, and she agrees that all of the hard work “has really helped with responsibility.” Becoming a proficient stablehand has facilitated some serious father-daughter time: Now that Delaney knows how to do barn chores, she is able to help her dad whenever he cares for Jack.
Work Hard, Play Hard
Horse camp isn’t all work. Over four summers, Delaney has had a blast developing tons of practical horseman skills, from trotting and galloping to posting. She knows firsthand that the best way to develop solid riding skills is to get out on the trail and ride.
After they finish their chores, campers should have ample time to ride. At The Colorado Mountain Ranch, campers enrolled in the Horse Focus Camp ride the organization’s gentle horses every day, developing all of the skills needed to go from being an introductory to an advanced western-style rider.
Cheley, a month-long overnight camp in Estes Park, also teaches western riding form to participants ages nine to 18, along with handling skills and control. “They’ll learn how to maintain correct leads, walk, trot, and canter, and how to sit well in the saddle,” says the camp’s owner and director, Jeff Cheley.
Because the camp is cradled by national parks and national forests, campers spend time exploring breathtaking backcountry trails by horseback, on half-day instructional rides. They also have options to participate in overnight “horsepacking” trips, where they’ll really get a chance to see the horses in their natural element.
More Character Development Opportunities
Cheley says the camp’s trail rides are a great way for youngsters to learn patience and flexibility. “Horses have personalities, and you have to learn to work with them. You may go for a ride on Monday with a horse, and he’s in a good mood, and then on Tuesday you go for a ride with another horse, and it’s more challenging,” he says.
Cheley’s campers get the unique opportunity to train horses when they sign up for a special Colt Program. “It’s a lot of work, and the kids learn perseverance as they’re asked to meet the young horses in their space,” says Cheley. “They’re learning about horses, but really we’re teaching them a lot about themselves, and about what it means to be a team player.”
No matter which camp children attend, there’s a sense of teamwork that’s deeply felt when riding with a group. “Horse camp definitely helped with teamwork,” Delaney says. “If your horse stops when (you are) on a trail that’s only wide enough for one horse, you have to yell back to the next person in line, and work together to avert a horse collision.”
Kids usually come home from horse camp exhausted, but they might even come home a little kinder. Horses are “big gentle giants,” says Walker. “They teach people to put their nice face forward.”
5 Things to Look for in a Horse Camp
- Look for camp programs that are licensed and registered with the American Camp Association, a leading authority for summer camps. Check online to see how long a camp has been in business. Cheley, for example, celebrates its 98th anniversary this summer, and has been family-owned since inception.
- A camp director can make or break a summer camp. Always inquire about a director’s experience and credentials. Mike Walker has been running the Western Riding programs at The Colorado Mountain Ranch for more than 35 years, and he studied with well-known trainers, including Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt.
- Look for camps that are dedicated to hiring experienced riders and coaches. Cheley also recommends asking camp directors what sort of training staff members undergo prior to working with campers.
- Make sure the camp your child attends caters to his or her skill level. Cheley accommodates entry-level and advanced riders, whereas previous riding experience is required at the Horse! Focus program at The Colorado Mountain Ranch.
- Look for an organization that offers a well-rounded summer camp experience, keeping in mind your child’s interests. For campers at The Colorado Mountain Ranch, a typical day includes roping, western art, and more.