Holding a plastic egg on a spoon in one hand and a halter with the other, each child led a horse from one side of the barn to the other.
After all eight completed that task, they did the same thing but couldn’t touch the horse. They had to rely on the trust they had developed with the horse to make it walk alongside them.
Then, it was time to work in pairs. With a ball between them, the kids had to again guide the horse from one end to the other. If the ball dropped, they had to start over.
These are examples of the exercises seven girls and a boy ages 8 to 13 experienced this week during a five-day horse camp at Reins to Recovery Inc., a therapeutic riding center near Seymour.
“We want them to grow as a team but also grow individually out here, so we try to switch that up here with all of the things we do,” said Calli Johnson, executive director of Reins to Recovery.
For most of the year, the center conducts private and group lessons once a week for 10 weeks for children and adults with mental, physical or social disabilities. There also are programs that solely involve groundwork, including equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning.
Those lessons and programs are done in each of the four seasons with two weeks off in between. In the past, the staff took that time to prepare for the next session.
But this past week, for the first time, they decided to offer the camp — from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day — for children who love horses.
Johnson said she wanted to have no more than nine kids so the staff could have more one-on-one interaction.
“We get a lot of phone calls and inquiries from our therapeutic riding program, either siblings or relatives and just the communities in general, that say, ‘Hey, do you offer recreational this or that?’ and we normally don’t,” Johnson said. “Therapy is the primary focus, so it was just like, ‘When we have our break weeks, why not do something that we can bring in some of the community members?’”
Respect, trust, honesty
The camp allowed children to participate in the daily responsibilities of feeding, grooming and caring for the horses, while learning about breeds, colors, horsemanship, showmanship, veterinary care, farrier work, riding disciplines and how to ride. They also participated in arts and crafts, educational activities and games.
At the end of the week, they received a binder of educational materials to take home with them.
Johnson said learning how to take care of a horse is good for kids.
“We stress this all week, and we stress this just as Reins to Recovery anyway, horses are very good to us, and so we have to in return take good care of them,” she said. “Getting to see them want to see that side it, not just the fun, there’s work involved … they get the reward of riding the horse, and that’s what we want to teach them.”
While working with horses, another big focus at Reins to Recovery is respect.
“You’ve got a 1,000-pound animal, and if they don’t trust you as their handler or their rider, you’re not going to get very far on their back or ground with them,” Johnson said. “Kids this age, what better character building than respect and trust and honesty with their horse? It’s great for learning that, too, out here.”
Some of the campers had been around horses before, but it was new to others.
“We’re on Day 2, and I’ve already seen in the beginning group that the confidence has just skyrocketed today,” Johnson said toward the end of Tuesday’s session. “We worked on bumping their horse up to a little faster pace so that we can hopefully get them to trot (Wednesday). There was a lot of high anxiety with that, but it just kind of went away.”
‘Not so scary after all’
Johnson said it was good to see the confidence and trust grow, and she was excited to see those levels at the end of the week.
“For some kids, the fear, I think, is being down on the ground with the horse,” she said. “Once you get on and you realize, ‘Hey, my horse is going to listen, I have their respect, I know that I’ve earned it,’ I think it’s kind of changed up.”
That’s especially true for the inexperienced riders, she said.
“They are realizing now at this point that they can control this animal because they are learning how to through us, and it’s not so scary after all,” she said.
Shemiah Elkins, 10, and Grace Ann Compton, 8, both of Columbus, both had been around horses before.
“I went to a horse day camp. It was only a day, and I got to meet horses,” Shemiah said. “I like horses now because I know how they work and stuff.”
Grace Ann had been to a five-day camp.
“I’m around horses a lot at my mamaw’s, and when I was (at the camp), we rode on horses all around,” she said.
Shemiah said attending the Reins to Recovery camp helped teach her patience while working one-on-one with the horses, and Grace Ann said she learned a lot about the breeds of horses and liked playing games.
“I want to do something with animals, and I thought this would be a good start to just kind of get around animals,” Shemiah said, noting that she is involved in 4-H and might someday pursue an animal-related career.
“I might start my own horse camp,” Grace Ann said.
‘Fun in the barn’
Johnson said she hopes all of the campers picked up a passion for the horse industry.
“What we do out here at Reins to Recovery I like to think is unique, but there’s a sense of passion and understanding that goes along with that line of work,” she said. “We’re trying to just open their eyes to the world of the horse industry.”
And it’s not all just about riding horses, she said.
“There’s so much more that they can do with how horses can help others,” she said. “So hopefully, they take away that there’s room to grow at this age in the horse world; and if they truly have a passion for it, there are avenues that they can take and learn more.”
Johnson said she and the staff members and volunteers had a good time at camp, too.
“It has been fun getting to use our imaginations and plan some of the fun relays and games and just have fun in the barn,” she said. “It’s fun to not get in that work mode all the time and be able this week to just kick back, have fun and still learn.”
Johnson said she hopes to offer the camp again next summer and possibly enlarge it to two weeks.
“Hopefully, they go with fun-filled memories and want to come back next year,” she said.
Reins to Recovery Inc., 1660 N. County Road 1000W, Seymour, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
For information, call 812-350-4864, visit reinstorecovery.org or find the organization on Facebook.