Thursday, October 21, 2010

What makes a great camp horse. [The CFA Definitive Guide]

In my office, I have a piece of paper that's been photocopied a few times. At the top it reads "New Horse Evaluation" and the Times New Roman print carries on with phrases like reaction to injection simulation and ground manners and demeanor while saddling and hoof condition, and so forth. It is a solid document I cannot take credit for, full of equestrian jargon that means a lot to us weird horse people and probably not a whole lot to the average kid who just wants a chance to ride. I take a copy of that paper with me and make sparse notes whenever somebody calls me out to see if their horse would be a good fit for CFA.

The truth is, really, that there is no black-and-white criteria by which a true Camp Horse can be judged. They are each unique and their own "person," if I can borrow that particular species' term. A few common threads appear when you take a look at those in our herd who have given some of the greatest years of service to children in camping— for one, rarely is the truly Great Camp Horse beautiful by the textbook standards of equine confirmation. There is often a long back, sagging with age (see "Charlie) or particularly creaky hocks long tired from years as a competitor in a more taxing equestrian sport (like "Dixie" in her roping days.) We possess a short little fellow who looks more like a grouchy, stubby-legged white rhinoceros than a glittering grey Welsh pony. His name is "Salty," or "Salty Dog," and the grizzly personality matches the name. Luckily, his signature whitish coloration makes him an immediate favorite of almost every little girl who sets her eyes on him, assuaging their dismay when, upon mounting, they realize he's a hard mouthed, cranky pony with a strong desire to eat instead of walk. He would still never dump a child or leave them stranded; he just takes the long way around on his own accord.

That said, onto Common Trait #2.. and I have to contradict myself here. Should you wander through our pasture and take a look at our 27-horse-strong herd, you would see quite a few handsome stock horses, stately Thoroughbreds, flashy paints, and even an Arabian or draft or two. But no great camp horse goes without some personality quirk or flaw that relinquishes them to a life best spent allowing children to climb over their backs and play cowgirl or cowboy. "Hannah," for example, hasn't spent many months with us here at CFA, and you wouldn't peg her as a camp pony very quickly. She has the lovely, stout, functional confirmation of a foundation Quarter Horse and an overwhelming desire to "crib" or "windsuck," meaning she takes about any straight, hard surface in her mouth (think fencing, mainly) and bites down on it and sucks air in through her lungs. The action releases endorphins in her head, which ease some of her lingering social anxiety— Hannah tends to prefer the company of people, especially girls, to most other horses. Yet despite her good looks and being young by camp standards, she carries her charges with grace and care and almost a delicateness in knowing that she has been given something important to watch over. Tall, thoroughbred, elegant "Marquee" was purchased off of the racetrack to join the ranks of competitive eventing horses— the kind most often associated with Olympic horsemanship. An injury in his joint and consequent issues thereafter meant he had to find work elsewhere. Normally, an enormous beast of a very young Thoroughbred horse would be a terrible addition to any traditional camp setting, but Marquee's overwhelming curiosity and desire to be a part of activity and adventure means he excels in the camp environment, normally carrying more advanced riders but nearly always behaving gently for the greenhorns as well.

There are other tests a camp horse must pass beyond having good hooves and a generally quiet disposition. A great camp horse doesn't flinch when a learning challenged child attempts to scuttle from their back in a great wave of panic on a mountainous trail ride. A great camp horse may never have seen a barrel in their life, but performs admirably around three of them while carrying a little girl with the hopes of someday being a champion barrel racer in the National Finals Rodeo. A great camp horse not only stops for particularly tasty grass, but for the stray barn cat who finds themselves a hair's breadth away from getting stepped on. A great camp horse doesn't kick when presented with an errant seven-year-old who attempts to hug their "horsey" via their back legs. A great camp horse protests only very modestly when a Saddle Club student attempts to put a bit in their mouth and misses altogether, clashing with the poor horse's forehead. A great camp horse puts 25 years of hard work and tired bones behind them, and canters home on the last leg of a speed event for a kid who just wants to win something, "for once." A great camp horse enjoys the long hug at the end of a lesson, tolerates kisses on their sensitive velvet nose, and accepts a treat as politely as they can muster.

Lucky for us, we have many great camp horses. They are far from faultless but good-natured creatures. We could learn from their honesty and the faith they put into their often unskilled riders.


  1. This is lovely and so true! A solid camp horse is more than worth its weight in gold.

  2. I must be emotional today because that last bit made me tear up. Oh those camp horses who put up with people like me who pretend to be not scared while I try to get in a hug here and there!