If there’s a creature on earth that deserves a medal just for existing, it’s these guys. Imagine being a camp horse. You’ve got to cart around thousands of people each year, never getting the chance to stick with one person you like. You’re expected to stand still while getting kicked in the stomach, poked in the kidneys and thumped on the back. Every day, while your mouth gets yanked on, you’ve got to try to decipher the signals whoever’s up top is trying to send you. Kicking and pulling at the same time — does this kid want me to stop or go?!
Most camp horses are given the pleasure of a winter off, where they can just hang out with their buddies, eat hay and grow shaggy winter coats. But as springtime rental season is upon us, we’ve got to bring those ponies in from the field, clean them up and remind them how to do their jobs. Even if you’ve already had the job of being in charge of the horse program at your camp, it’s always good to start fresh each year. Who knows how the horses may have changed over the winter — health-wise or even just in terms of personality.
Here are a few tips on how to get your camp horsemanship program started off right this spring!
Take stock of your herd
Whether you’ve just got a handful of horses for pony rides, or you’ve got a full-blown herd of horses for running a lesson program, the first thing a horsemanship director should do is familiarize him-or-herself with the herd. Being well informed about what kinds of horses you’ll be working with can go a long way towards a smooth season of trail rides and lessons.
Try these suggestions:
- Take a look through the horses’ records. If your camp does not keep a written record of each horse and his pertinent information (such as dates of farrier, deworming and vaccinations), then you should definitely start one. Each horse should have a page describing his age, breed, height and markings, as well as a chart for keeping track of medical information. You can find some examples here, here and here to get you started. I also found this free online software you can use, but I’d still recommend having something in hard copy to consult while you’re down at the barn.
- Watch the horses in their pen. See if you can determine the pecking order. Which horses are more dominant? Which seem to get picked on? Knowing the personalities of your horses as they react to each other can tell you a lot about how they’ll react in other situations. I have a horse who is at the very bottom of the pecking order — as a riding horse, he is sweet and well-meaning, but can sometimes be a bit skittish in new or unexpected situations. This behaviour is not unusual for his personality in a herd. Knowing the pecking order will also help you down the line when determining the order of the string of horses for your trail rides or lessons. You probably shouldn’t put the most dominant horse right in front or behind the one who’s at the bottom of the heap. This knowledge can avoid accidents that erupt from horses biting or kicking each other while kids are on board. You can read a bit more about horse herd behaviour here.
- Give each horse a quick once-over. You don’t have to spend all day inspecting every inch of every horse, but there are some important details to note. Take a look at their feet and weight. Are a couple of horses looking thin while the rest are all fat? They might need to go in a pen of their own to eat. Does one horse have lots of marks on his body? He’s probably getting picked on, and you might need to put him in a pen with more amiable paddock-mates.
- At this point, I would take all of the information I’ve determined and start to come up with a farrier schedule and a feed plan. Some horses may have come out of the winter looking pretty skinny, so you might have to put them on a different feed or increase the amount you’re feeding them. Some might have to go on a diet. Having taken that cursory look at the horses, I’ll know which to group together for farrier appointments, feed schedules, and even the order in which I’ll put them in a trail ride.
Keep in mind that nothing is set in stone. As the season wears on, you’ll probably want to change some things. But it’s always good to have a solid knowledge of the general health and happiness of your herd before you start putting kids on them.
Take stock of your equipment
Go into your tack room and take a look at your gear. Do you have enough grooming supplies, like brushes and curry combs? What have you got in your medicine cabinet?What about important stuff for summer like fly spray?
You should have the right supplies for treating minor injuries or maladies. Things like Zev (a cough syrup for horses), clean syringes, an antibacterial wash like betadine or hibitane, clean bandages and vet wrap. Here’s a great list of ten items to have in your horse first aid kit.
After covering the basics, take a look at probably the most important pieces of equipment you’ll use all year: your tack. I think it’s important to try saddles on their horses each year, just to make sure everything still fits. The same goes for bridles. If you’ve got enough horses and enough tack, you’ll probably be able to do some swapping around until everything fits properly. Now would be a great time to clean and repair all that tack as well, so that it’s in good working order come spring.
Not too sure how to judge proper saddle fit? Check out this awesome video about how to tell proper fit of a western saddle. The principle is the same for English saddles as well, whether they’re close contact, all purpose or dressage saddles. Look for any pressure points, the range of motion of the horse’s shoulder blade and good clearance for the withers.
Start riding those horses
Try to ride as many horses as you can. While you ride, test the horses to see what they’ll tolerate. Think of how beginners tend to ride and do those same things. You’ll get an idea of what each horse will allow. If your main program is trail riding, try to recruit some other staff to join you to go on trail rides as much as possible.
I know you’re just one person, and it might be impossible for you to ride all the horses. Try holding several staff riding days at the beginning of the season. Get as many staff and volunteers as you can to come out and ride the horses on days that you schedule. You can be there to coordinate the day, while you observe the horses being ridden by people of various skill level. Get the riders to test the horses’ basic skills. Try getting them to play a game like one of these ones. Finish the day with a big group trail ride to see how the horses do following nose-to-tail amidst the tempting budding grasses and leaves out back.
Once you know the health, personalities and aptitude of your horses, you’ll be better equipped to develop your horse program. I hope you and your horses have a safe and fun summer!