“It isn’t just a trail ride through the Pine Forest. It’s an empowering moment that will stick with campers as they encounter roadblocks and challenges ahead.”
We know who they are. We usually know their hesitation before they do. They hang back at the end of the line, the last to put their helmet on. They are the ones questioning their decision. Fear and doubt are slowly taking over.
“I don’t know if I want to do this. They are too big.”
These words are often heard at the barn. Roughly 7,000 weekend guests and 2,300 campers will take a 20 minute walking trail ride through our pine forest each year. It’s a great beginner trail ride on our flat gravel trail as many of our guests have never ridden before or only ride while they are at camp. It’s a safe way for a younger rider to learn to guide their horse when they’ve only been led by their parents on a pony ride. But however easy this trail ride may be, the impact it can have is immeasurable. John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyways.” For us, it isn’t the saddling up…it’s about putting your foot in the stirrup.
It’s our goal as an equestrian department that every guest who steps foot in the saddle has a safe, enjoyable, memorable experience. We often hear stories from the adults who are apprehensive to ride because the last time they rode, it was at “Grandpa’s house and his old horse started running and I ended up falling off. Ever since then, I haven’t ridden a horse.” One bad event can turn into fear that will stay with you the rest of your life. That fear will stop you the next time you are thinking about trying something new. You’ll think back to how scary that event was and reluctance will creep in and keep you from experiencing something that could have ended up being the most memorable event of your life. It’s scary to try what you’ve never done before, but camp is a great place to try the “new” in a safe, positive, encouraging environment, whether it’s horseback riding, going off the high dive, or climbing the rock wall.
We spot the nervous ones before they even speak. We can see the apprehension in their eyes.
They’ll ask us, “Which one is your safest one?” to which we’ll answer, “We only keep the very best horses here at camp. It’s their job to take people who’ve never ridden before and give them an awesome time.”
“Can I have a small one?”
“Tell you what. We’ll give you the most perfect one for you. And we’ll stay with you along the way.”
Whenever we have a crying child, we’ll talk openly about being scared. We’ll acknowledge that it’s okay to be scared when you try something you’ve never done before but it’s all about what you do with that fear. Maybe it’s just getting them to come up and touch the horse.
“You want to feel the horse? Awe, Minnie is so soft, you have to come up and pet her!”
The next step involves getting them to step up onto the mounting block and put their left foot into the stirrup. Maybe they get all the way on and the reality of what’s about to happen sets in and panic starts to well up in their eyes.
“Just try it out. You see that red gate down there? If we get to the gate and you still want to get off, we can go back but I just want you to try it. Can you just try it?”
More often than not, they’ll silently nod their head yes, sometimes through the tears. We’ll talk briefly about what it is going to feel like when the horse starts to move and what they need to do to keep their balance. Then we proceed to talk about anything except horses and riding. We’ll talk about their favorite subject in school, the last program area they were at in camp, if they have pets. We talk about anything and everything. Pretty soon, we’ve already passed that red gate and are well on our way through the forest. They start to relax and look around and take in the sights and sounds of the pine forest. There is magnificent beauty hidden in the back of the pines. They’ll start to notice that all the trees are planted in rows. They’ll glance up at the rays of sun making their way through the canopy of pine. They’ll marvel at what could possibly sit in the Giant’s Chair. Amazing things start to happen as we wind ourselves through the trails. The fear starts to melt away. They start asking the questions instead of answering them. They tell us things we already know but we let them guide the conversation and discover words for the feelings that are swirling around inside.
“You know what?”
“I was really scared to get on the horse.”
“Yeah? What are you feeling now?”
“Well, it’s not really all that bad. I’m not sure why I was scared except I’ve never done it before.”
“It’s okay to be nervous about something new. But I think you’re super brave for trying it anyways.”
“You know, it’s actually kind of fun once you get used to it. I think I could even do this again. I was scared but I did it anyways.”
These are all comments and conversations we’ve had with various riders along the trail over the years. Nothing warms our hearts like hearing a kid verbalize their fear and then their journey to overcome it. Those trail rides end with a high five, big smiles, and the camper running up to their parent yelling, “I did it! I did it!” It wasn’t “just” a trail ride through our pine forest. It was an empowering moment in their lives that will stick with them as they encounter more roadblocks and challenges ahead in life.
So what happens in those 20 minutes on a horse for our campers? Our campers try something new. They discover something they think they won’t like is actually something they love doing. They gain confidence when they conquer their fear. They’ll remember that they can be brave and do scary things the next time life presents a scary situation because they have done it before. They gain empathy and can guide others through their fear and uncertainty because they understand what it’s like. Our camp horses are amazing creatures, able to take the tiniest 7 year old or the most timid adult rider on a memorable, occasionally life changing, experience that will teach them more about themselves and their capabilities than they may have discovered in their life.