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Spring cleaning your horsemanship program

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Camp horses.

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:

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!

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