4-H camp for kids endeavors to train responsible riders

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

Hollywood movies have made it look all too easy to ride a horse. After watching a few Westerns, the average person thinks there isn't much to it at all you just saddle up, get on and ride off into the sunset.

In reality, there is much more involved.

That's where the 4-H horse camp comes into play. The camp is an event sponsored by the Trail Blazer 4-H Club that's in its 20th year.

"The primary things we try and teach the kids are communication, control and respect," said Amy Kurka, one of the camp instructors.


Scott Haermann takes a rest on his horse Sunny before heading into the ring witht the other campers.

Photo by McNair Rivers

The three-day camp, held annually in Ninilchik at the Kenai Peninsula State Fairgrounds, is split into two divisions basic and advanced based on skill level and age.

The camp brings together children aspiring to gain equestrian experience to share their common interest. Campers bring their own horse and participate in a variety of activities. The camp is put on by 4-H, but it's not required for children to be in 4-H to attend.

The program is designed to offer kids an opportunity to explore new equine experiences, sharpen and test their skills, build confidence and a positive relationship with their animal and make new friends while having fun in the process.

Horse camp starts kids out with the basics, according to Kurka.


Lindsay Blain judges each camper in a equitation class during the last day of camp so the campers can show off what they have learned and win ribbons.

Photo by McNair Rivers

She said some of the kids are totally new to horses, while others know how to ride a horse but can't control it at all.

"A lot of the kids are 6- to 11-years-old and are in the arena most of the time learning how to lead the horses and not be plowed over," she said. "It doesn't sound like much, but it is because the kids are so small and the horses are so big."

The camp focuses on forming a positive relationship with the horse to get the animal's cooperation in doing things, rather than pushing and forcing the animal to do things against its will.

This concept is important since many great equine enthusiasts believe it isn't the great trainer who can cause a horse to perform, it is the great trainer who can cause a horse to want to.


A dusty pair of boots lay on the ground waiting to be used.

Photo by McNair Rivers

"We teach the kids to gain the horse's respect without being aggressive and cruel," said Kurka.

"The kids have to learn to read the horse's body language. Basic horsemanship can come from reading a book, but you have to learn to communicate with your animal."

The children learn to understand the fundamental principles behind the behavior of horses and how to interpret them in different situations.

Understanding the flexibility and limits of behavior is essential to improving both the horse's welfare and its performance.


4-H horse campers gather by the fire to roast hot dogs and marshmallows before the final horse show at the Ninilchik fairground.

Photo by McNair Rivers

After the children learn how to work the horse from the ground, the next step is to move onto the horse's back. This means more than just sitting in the saddle.

The children first have to learn how to put the saddle on, mount and dismount before they can sit in the saddle.

It's also about controlling the reins, giving cues to guide the horse to start and halt, balance and steer.

Kurka said this is more challenging than it sounds when working with such young children.


Sarah Cobb and horse Nikky prepare to go into the ring.

Photo by McNair Rivers

"The little guys are tough because they go to their comfort zone of doing things," she said. "They hold the reins one way, you show them the proper way, you blink, and it's back to the comfortable way again."

Although this may sound like something that could be frustrating to an instructor, Kurka didn't seem to mind.

"You just move slow, take your time and have patience so the kids and the horses don't get burned out," she said.

"They usually get all the pieces, but they can't always pull them all together at the same time."


\Kaylee Smith picks up a boot off of a barrel while her horse Jake continues to walk to the next barrel where Smith will drop the boot off. Campers learned how to correctly get their horses to move around, over and through various obstacles.

Photo by McNair Rivers

Clinician Andy Hillstrand also enjoys working with the children.

"It's nice working with younger kids because they don't have as many preconceived notions as some of the older kids," he said. "It's been fun watching them learn."

The two instructors hope that many of the concepts taught, can be continued and expanded upon at home after the camp is over.

Hara Hansen is one parent who has witnessed this firsthand. Her children have attended the horse camp in past years and she has three children in camp again this year.


Judge Lindsay Blain gives pointers to Nykkole Poindexter in showmanship.

Photo by McNair Rivers

"Last year they learned to saddle and ride and were able to do it all summer on their own," she said.

She thinks the camp is an excellent resource.

"It's a nice facility, and safe, and the kids get to make friends outside of school," she said.

Hansen also likes what it teaches the kids about themselves.


Karen Simpson tightens the girth of the saddle before heading out to ride.

Photo by McNair Rivers

"It teaches them independence," she said.

"I think they need experience outside of what mom and dad tell them."

The kids seem to love the camp. Many of the diehards were out spending every minute of time they could with their horses even wolfing down lunch so they could leave early to be with their animals.

"I've learned a lot here," said Sarah Cobb.

"The teachers are really patient. I was having a hard time steering my horse because it would get so excited that it was hard to control it, but we worked on it."

Drew Brown said he learned a lot about his buckskin horse, Zeke.

"I never used to be able to turn him, but I've learned how to do it better," he said. "I also needed work on leading him and I'm getting a lot better by what I learned at camp."

Molly Byrne said she's had a blast at horse camp.

"It's been fun meeting the new people and horses," she said.

The camp culminates in a horse show on the final day, where children get to demonstrate what they have learned during the week. The kids were happy to show off the skills and knowledge for parents and loved ones.

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