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May 13, 2010

Memories Of Summer Riding

Denny Emerson

As winter stubbornly retreats across the mid and northern tiers of North America, riding schools, training centers and camps are all about to begin the seasonal ritual of getting ready for summer riding.

Summer days, or as Nat King Cole sang, “The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” are just around the corner.

Those who calculate summer astronomically will tell you that summer begins on the summer solstice, around the 21st of June, and ends on the autumnal equinox, around the 21st of September. Those who run summer riding programs will tell you that summer begins when kids get out of school for summer vacation, however, and that summer ends as the new school year approaches. It’s about nine weeks of intense frenzy, almost as if a year’s worth of riding is being crammed into that short span.

Think back on all of the adventures you’ve had with horses, and see if a disproportionate number of them didn’t happen in the summer. The weather is at its best, and there’s freedom from school and college, and families can travel to shows and events together.

But the real reason that summer riding memories last so long is that this is the time in our lives that can revolve entirely around horses.

Of all the “total immersion” situations, summer riding camps must create the most poignant nostalgia in later years. What could be better, especially for children who can’t own a horse, than to be surrounded for weeks on end by dozens of ponies and horses of all sizes, shapes and colors—bays, pintos, chestnuts, grays, palominos and Appaloosas? And to be surrounded by friends who are just as crazy about horses as you are? Heaven on earth.

When I was in my teens, my parents had a farm in South Reading, Vt., just 9 miles from the Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock. One weekend a summer there would be an all-camp horse show. Vans and trailers would start rolling in, packed with campers and horses from TeelaWooket, Kiniya, Brown Ledge, Buff Ledge, Rolling Ridge, Gay Winds, Hitching Post, Catherine Capers and Young Entry.

It was a kaleidoscope of colors like a Munnings painting of an Irish horse fair. Campers in various uniforms, little girls braiding little ponies, big girls grooming big horses, white-knuckled children about to go on course, anxious parents, all mixed with swirls of dust from the warm-up areas.

Whinnying horses, the crackle of the loudspeaker, squeals of elation, sobs of frustration, life in microcosm.

Behind the scenes, back at camps, barns, and stables, the endless learning process unfolds. What are the parts of a bridle called? What is this bit, and how does it work? What is an ergot? What is an in-and-out? What are the warning signs that a horse might have colic? What breed of pony is this?

There are thousands of practical skills to perfect. How to lift up a horse’s hoof, how to clean out that hoof, how to scour a water bucket, how to curry, crosstie, braid, pick shavings out of a tail.

Why you always speak before approaching a horse from behind, why you wear shoes in the barn, why you always, always put on your helmet and fasten the chinstrap before you mount.

Sometimes campfires and s’mores in the evenings, songs and ghost stories.

The ritual of feeding, cleaning stalls, picking paddocks, tacking and untacking, learning your diagonals and leads, watching the farrier and the veterinarian. Watching the ease with which the older kids jump around a course of fences, cheering your counselor as she wins the blue in a jumper class.

Learning to become a horsewoman, not just a rider, learning that to love a horse isn’t enough, that real love involves obligations.

All of these thousands of pieces are blended into a summer of riding.

When I was a little boy, I lived in Greenfield, Mass., where my parents ran the Stoneleigh-Prospect Hill School. One graduation day, as I wandered through the barn, I heard someone crying. One of the school horses was named Freckles, not such a handsome flea bitten gray, with a roached mane and forelock. A girl had her arms around his neck, her head was buried into his shoulder, and she was sobbing and sobbing.

Sixty years ago I didn’t get it, but I do now. She was going to college, Freckles was heading off to summer camp, and she couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That’s the double-edged reality of summer. It’s lovely, but it’s fleeting and ephemeral, and it’s always able, at least a little bit, to break your heart.  

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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