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October 2, 2013

Horse Camp Is Even Better As A Grown-Up

Adult horse camp was even more fun than Jody Jaffe imagined it would be. Photo by Angel McNamer.

Talk about extreme envy.

When I read Kristin Carpenter’s poignant column, “The Souls The Barn Builds,” I turned a deep and unflattering shade of green wishing I’d had her childhood. Then I imagined a version of reincarnation where you pre-order your upcoming life. “Just like Kristin’s,” I’d tell the Next Life Clerk.

As a kid, I ached to take a deep breath of horse, feel his soft muzzle on my cheek, and do all the other things we financially challenged horse-crazy girls read about in Misty, The Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka and any other horse book we could get our hands on. Growing up in a row house in Philadelphia with a single mother who had to borrow money from relatives to pay the rent, reading was the only fix for my addiction. That and plastic horses.

Still, she did find a way to get my brother and I off the city streets for the summer. She got us scholarships to the Y camps in Zieglersville, Pa., where rows were no longer houses, but sweeping stretches of corn the haywagon rolled past on our blissful dusk hayrides.

Fifty years later, memories of Camp Reeta remain the best of my childhood. But there was one thing missing from those idyllic days: horses.

Horse Camp For Grown-Ups

I’ve been dreaming of going to horse camp since I was old enough to know there was such a thing. This summer, I finally got there, and it was everything I’d imagined, and more.

A platoon of 60-year-old day-campers is a funny notion on so many levels. We no longer look cute in Bermuda shorts; we no longer giggle about the cute boys. And who’s going to pack our lunch, for our mothers are probably long gone. But it is an idea whose time has come. There are more than 800 camps catering to grown-ups, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, and more than 1 million adults went to them last year. I maintain this is yet another way we Baby Boomers are redefining adulthood.

Adult camps come in a dizzying array of specialties. You can fight like a gladiator, handle an elephant in the jungles of Thailand, pretend to be a rock star, go on aromatherapy “smell walks” with your dog, learn to be a clown, a baker, a winemaker, a forensic pathologist, an alpaca farmer, and I could go on. But for me, it has always been about horses, though the gladiator thing sounds intriguing.

Two years ago I saw pictures on Facebook of a bunch of mature women gathered in a nearby ring for the Glenmore Hunt Pony Club Adult Horse Camp. A trainer friend was doing grids with them. What could be more fun than spending four days with horse crazy women of a certain age doing one of my favorite riding activities: grids?

Unfortunately, the session was over by the time the photos were posted on Facebook, so I missed the 2011 camp, and I was out of town for 2012’s. But I made it my business to be there for 2013.

I arrived on a rainy morning in late July, attempting to temper my expectations because what can possibly live up to something you’ve been wanting your whole life? Nothing.

That epiphany slapped me upside the head last year when I rode in a Melanie Smith Taylor clinic. “It’s a bit like having a date with that dreamy guy,” I wrote in my blog, “the one you’ve been fantasizing about for months. You go out with him, and suddenly you notice his ears are a little too big or—if you’re less superficial—his wit isn’t as keen as you would like. I built up this clinic in my mind so that nothing short of a clinic with God (who could grant me longer legs and more courage) could live up to my expectations.”

Wanting to learn from my mistakes, I tried to take a more qué será, será attitude about riding camp. This proved to be as difficult as not leaning forward as I approach a fence. Turns out I didn’t need the qué será, será filter; the only thing wrong with the camp was that it was too short, and Marjorie (Marge) Hays, the indomitable force behind it, keeps muttering about this being the last year. “I might not even be here next year,” Marge said to me a few weeks after camp ended.

“Oh, she says that every year,” said her daughter, Sarah Dean Duncan, a horse trainer in Staunton, Va., who helps organize the camp and also teaches some of the sessions.

Marge came up with the idea of adult camp 14 years ago, while working at the Glenmore Hunt Pony Club camp for kids.

“I had such a good time doing it,” Marge said. “The kids would ride, take jumping lessons and flat lessons, and then the groups would switch. I was taking the kids out on the trails, and I just thought, ‘This is so much fun! How much more fun would it be to have people my age doing it?’ ”

That first year about a dozen women attended adult camp. The number has fluctuated over the years, with sometimes as many as 25 attendees. The goal, Marge said, has always been to raise $1,000 for the Glenmore Hunt Pony Club. Some years they make it, she said, some not.

“It seems like it’s more fun every year,” Marge said. “We meet new people every year. But the work is horrible. I wish someone else would put one on; I could pay them and go to their camp.”

It is indeed a logistical nightmare. Just finding three trainers, available in the middle of show season, is hassle enough. This year’s camp had two well-known trainers nailed down, only to have each one cancel because of a conflict. Some last minute scrambling secured replacement trainers. So that left scheduling three morning riding sessions for more than a dozen riders—and horses—of differing abilities, an afternoon riding activity  (a trail ride or cross-country jumping), a lecture, a demonstration and two meals. Did I mention that Marge is 75, and she does all the cooking, helps clean the stalls, and also rides (and jumps) in the sessions? Indomitable just begins to describe her.

Spending three or so hours in the saddle each day was invigorating and exhausting. Taking instruction from four different trainers was invigorating and enlightening.

I train with an excellent instructor, Gordon Reistrup, who spends a lot of time figuring out new ways to get me to hear, understand and incorporate what he’s saying into my riding. But being with a trainer, even the best like Gordon, for a long time is a bit like a marriage. Sometimes you aren’t listening with fresh ears. Everything I was told at riding camp, I’ve been told by Gordon many times, but in a new way.

“I want you to think, ‘Attack,’ when you approach a fence,” Maureen Waldron told me after my mare got bug-eyed to a fence. My normal reaction would be to pull back and go fetal, the worst possible reaction. Armed with the mantra “Attack,” we made it over the brush box/fire-breathing dragon.

The cross-country jumping was just a blast, reminding me of the days when hunter classes were run on outside courses. It was enough to make me want to visit the dark side, should I find a weenie-enough eventing division.

A New World Of Horse Friends

But the best part of riding camp was what the best part of Camp Reeta had been all those years ago: the camaraderie. The women were kind and supportive and funny and, most importantly, all horse crazy.

We could talk and talk and talk about horses and not worry about the eye rolling of our significant others. My poor husband, John, has graciously endured many a dinner stifling yawns as horse buddies and I have dissected our horse show rounds in excruciating (to John) detail. There were no stifled yawns or eye rolls at the Glenmore Hunt Pony Club Adult Camp.

And the friends I made! I hate exclamation points, but this deserves one. I have a whole new network of horse buddies scattered throughout Virginia. I went to a show last week, and one of my new friends, unbeknownst to me, taped my trips. We continue the encouragement that was started at camp through Facebook comments on each other’s riding shots we post. It’s both a literal and virtual community, and one that I’m very grateful for in our age of isolation.

I’m not the only camper who feels this way.  I especially clicked with Kris Nordlie, an education consultant from the Richmond area. I know we will be friends for a long time to come.

When I asked what she liked best about camp, she wrote this:

“Like you, for me, it was definitely the highlight of my summer— and makes it onto the top 10 list for the whole year. It was great meeting like-minded people and sharing the experience with everyone, but for me it was also the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with Seamus and really work on our bond. So being at camp was kinda like being at the spa—no rush—you just get to spend the day doing something that you love, and there isn’t anything else to do. That’s what I loved about it—and I felt totally decadent being at camp. Probably not everyone’s idea of a vacation, but give me adult horse camp anytime, and I’m so there!”

On a final note, ground rules are to the point at Glenmore Hunt Pony Club Adult Camp: No kids.

One year, Marge said, someone brought a pre-teen girl, which annoyed the other riders. It never happened again, nor will it.

“Kids tend to laugh at you, or they poo-poo,” said Marge. “We’ve all raised our kids….”

Meaning it’s now time for the adults to play without the snickering of children watching us miss distances, get left behind, refuse fences or jiggle around on our saddles.

It’s a time to revel in our horse craziness with like-minded women of our own age. And if that isn’t the definition of heaven on earth, I’m not sure what is.

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.

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