Memory Monday – The Ranch: Horse Camp

I decided to start a new posting series where I talk about all my horse memories from the times of old. Although really what happened was that I was trying to come up with a catchy rhyming title, and then I thought of Memory Monday, and thought, I should do something on every Monday! So, gather around, my friends, for many stories of stupidity/interest/drama staring yours truly. Although this could be a short running series, I don’t know if I have that many tales of interest.

The first tale of woe is really more of a saga, so it’s going to be in several parts.

Presented for your entertainment:

The Worst Barn I Have EVER Ridden At.

I have made references to my experiences at this place in previous posts. The level of w-t-f here is high. But horse camp wasn’t the bad experience. Horse camp was the best part, the part that made me want to ride here, and then it was downhill from there. This is really just the introduction to The Ranch.

I was about 13 years old when I managed to convince my father to send me to a sleep away horse camp. I’d literally been dreaming of doing this for years, and I even received a VHS from one fancy-pants camp that I was dying to go to. I envisioned (thanks to the video) waking up and immediately going to the barn, jumping courses all morning, and then in the afternoons, going for a trail ride, or riding along the beach, despite there not being a beach close to northern Virginia. There was one in the video, though, so clearly it was a horse camp activity.

I was also influenced by my previous horse day camp stay at Great Falls Equestrian Center, which was pretty dang awesome. Those people knew how to do a horse camp, and that was an excellent experience.

My father, being the kind, generous soul he is, thought horse camp was an excellent idea and was more than willing to foot the bill. I could hardly believe my luck, it was finally happening!

I don’t remember how we found The Ranch, but I think it’s main appeal was that it was local. My parents have never been helicopter-ish and never required me to be under their eye all the time (quite the opposite, in fact), but I think there was an appeal of “We only have to drive an hour” vs “She’s going to need a flight”. I went along with it because OMG horse camp! But there were immediate issues that I brought up –

  • It was a western riding camp.
  • It was a western riding camp, meaning, there was no jumping. (I know it’s shocking, but there was a time where all I wanted to do was jump. Well, maybe not, it’s still all I want to do. But the key difference is I wasn’t afraid then).

We considered this, and even called to ask what the camp thought. Obviously they thought it would be great for me to expand my horizons to western. It was reasonably priced (I’ve always paid attention to the cost of things!), and so I decided I can ride western for one week. I still jump at my lessons, so it doesn’t matter that much.

The week arrived. We pulled up the driveway, and I felt immediate let down, because the farm was kind of dumpy. The barn I’d been riding at was a typical Virginia foxhunting barn – the big estate house, huge bankbarn, hundreds of acres, coops everywhere, indoor/outdoor. The Ranch was a single story house, with a few small run down outbuildings around a concrete slab nearby. There appeared to only be one giant pasture. If it wasn’t for the large quantity of people already there, it would have been kind of horror movie-ish.

Strange detail I will never forget – A farrier was there shoeing a horse, and he had filled down the toe to fit the shoe. I remember thinking at the time that was shoddy, cheap work. It could have been the foreshadowing of the shoddy services I would receive!

We got checked in, and I was one of the oldest, which immediately made me self conscious. I knew I should have convinced my parents to send me to horse camp earlier!

We learned we were sleeping in the spare bedroom of the home, all of us girls crammed into uncomfortable bunkbeds in a tiny room. The mattresses all had plastic sheets, which grossed me out at the time, but I guess I understand it now that I’m older.

During introductions, we were told to list our riding experience. When it came to me, I told them I could walk, trot, canter, and jump, and they asked how high. I said “about a foot and a half”, in my head quoting what my trainer had said in a previous lesson when I pointed at a jump in our course and asked how tall it was.

The owner, a woman who I’ll call Mildred, stared at me like I had two heads. There was a long silence. I didn’t know what I’d said wrong, and just sat there, uncomfortable.

One of the camp counselors said “18 inches?” And Mildred responded with a sneer, “Yeah, I’ve never heard it called that before.” And I sat dumbfounded, because my trainer had clearly called it that, and I didn’t understand why that would be wrong. For a long time afterward, I was very embarrassed that I referred to the height this way, but now as an adult, all I can think is, why the hell does it matter? I get that it’s common to say 18 inches, but does that mean it can NEVER be called anything else? It’s clearly the same height, why would that be a huge faux pas?

We were assigned horses, and I got Sonny, the grouchiest horse I’ve ever met. He constantly tried to bite, and was soon constantly wearing a cage on his muzzle so he wouldn’t get anyone.

It turned out there was an actual barn (making this place slightly more legit), apparently rented from the neighbors, where all the horses were. But throughout the course of the camp, we spent very little time there. We cleaned one stall at one point, and that was it. We didn’t go in there to get horses (they seemed to be outside all the time), and there was no tack or equipment stored there. With it’s empty tack room and stalls, the barn gave off a distinct feeling of having been abandoned.

Instead of using the very big and nice barn, we’d go out to the neighbor’s pasture, retrieve our horses and bring them up to the concrete slab to be tacked up. We’d head to the dustiest ring I’ve ever ridden in to get our lesson. Then we’d tie the horses to the fence posts, go eat lunch, and then come back for another lesson in the afternoon. This set up was pretty exciting for us horse crazy girls, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the horses felt being in the burning sun for hours upon hours.

Mildred did very little of the actual teaching. Her camp counselors, a pair of teenage girls, did almost everything. Mildred’s role was to come through, chain smoking and screeching directions at anyone in her path. Her jack russell assisted in this role, rampaging after her, making it’s own tiny trail of destruction. As I got to know her better, I decided that Mildred was not a kid person, and not any kind of people person. She also possibly wasn’t a horse person either. I’m not really sure what motivated Mildred to do anything, except for money.

At one point we had a round penning demonstration. Mildred had someone’s horse there for training, and since they were paying, she had to pretend she did something with the horse, and she let us sit in the grass and watch (perhaps a bitter view, but I’m a bitter person). Mildred had her camp counselor do the actual round penning. Afterward, Mildred went into the pen and blew in the horse’s nose, “to learn her scent”. I question why the horse would need to know her cigarette smelling breath, and what it would do with this knowledge. Maybe it will be out in the pasture, and suddenly catch a whiff, and run to hide? I guess it could benefit the horse in that way.

One night, we went to the county fair. It was there I got my first experience with “country folk”, as before this, I’d only lived in the suburbs, and rode at my aforementioned fox hunting barn, containing a very different demographic. One of the camp counselors had a on/off boyfriend show up to accompany us.  He was probably about 17, chewed tobacco, and had a rebel flag belt buckle. I had a moment of boldness where I walked up to him and asked  him if he was a racist. He assured me he was not, it was wore purely for heritage. He seemed mostly polite, but I think if I was the parent of one of the 10 year old girls there, I would find it very strange that they were all let loose with a teenage camp counselor and her boyfriend.

At the end of the week, Mildred finally let me canter around the ring. Everyone else had to be placed carefully in the center, and I got one lap around the ring. It was very welcome, considering it felt like I’d be moving at a snail’s pace the whole week. I was so excited about riding everyday, that when my parents called to check on me, my father offered to let me stay the following week, and I didn’t hesitate to accept. I was pretty excited about that.

The following week was a lot of the same, except this time Mildred pulled out an English saddle, I’m assuming because she was sick of me whining about wanting to ride English. I got along great with that group of camper girls, and I was befriending the counselors as well, so really was like I had horses and friends, and who could want more than that?

I would say I had a good experience there, if that had been the last of it. But alas, I later decided I wanted to come back and ride there regularly. And I’ll leave that to next week’s post.

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  1. I’ve thought about doing something like this myself but too many people from my past read my blog. :/ haha. I am debating how sane you were at that age. 😉 It is funny what we tolerated back then versus now.

  2. lol that sounds like…. an adventure haha. also i had heard of people ‘blowing in the horse’s nose’ and tried it once as a kid. and the damn thing nearly bit my face off. #notworthit

  3. I know you were 13, but I really don’t understand why you wanted to go back to this place. Especially if the horses were so pissy. When we had biters, we used insanely tight flash bands. A muzzle would have indicated a problem. A flash band just looked like a piece of tack. I look forward to hearing the rest of this story.

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