Getting Ready For Camp

I’ve spent the last week prepping for Pony Club camp: organising childcare, informing all clients and making sure their next lesson is booked in (it’s the one time of the year that my diary is organised for a whole fortnight!), choosing my musical ride music, and planning my lessons. But I’ve also been helping some clients prepare for their own Pony Club camp.

A kid’s first camp can be a nerve wracking experience, so I use the few weeks leading up to camp to prepare them as much as possible so that they don’t feel out of their depth and can enjoy camp to the maximum.

Firstly, they will be riding in a group, which some children with their own ponies aren’t used to, so I work with my little riders to make sure they know to keep a ponies distance away from the one in front, and that they know the basic etiquette of riding in a group. Last year I had a lovely little rider who I suspected would be used as lead file, so I taught her about checking that she was going the correct speed for everyone to keep up, and how to adjust her pony’s trot to accommodate everyone else.

I try to make sure my riders understand instructions that an unfamiliar instructor may use, and are familiar with the letters of the school and changes of rein or school movements. This is particularly important for my riders who only have fields to ride in. I want my riders to understand the basic commands and movements so that they don’t panic about riding it in a different environment.

I then run through exercises which I think the instructors may use to assess the children and ponies, such as sitting trot, taking away their stirrups, replacing their feet in their stirrups. Again, so that first day nerves don’t kick in too much. We do canter work, trot poles, and some jumps. With a young rider this week I’ve had her jumping over a small double as previously she’s lacked confidence over fences. I’ve lead her over some slightly bigger jumps, and then had her jumping smaller cross poles and uprights on her own. I don’t want her to have grandiose ideas about her ability, but I want her to be able to demonstrate a good approach and balanced jump position and not feel overwhelmed by any jumping exercises at camp. The pre-camp lesson needs to be a confidence building session so that they arrive feeling confident about their riding and can them cope better with the qualms which come with riding in company and in a new environment.

I also check that their tack is Pony Club legal; safety stirrups, grass reins etc. And that tack is in good condition for camp. A lot of parents use camp as a good opportunity to replace worn tack, but you want to have a test run before camp to make sure it all fits correctly and you don’t need extra holes punched in stirrup leathers! Sometimes I suggest changes to tack which may help my rider in a different environment. For example, one girl I teach holds her reins at different lengths, so her left hand sits further back than her right. In a one-to-one lesson I can monitor and correct this habit, but for camp I suggested using tape to show her where to hold her reins so that it doesn’t get overlooked and develop into a real problem.

While some of my clients don’t carry whips because it’s just one more thing for their little hands to carry, I do sometimes introduce them to one ready for camp. I explain how to use it correctly, how to hold it and how to change it from hand to hand. This is because their pony may be less forwards in a different setting, or when they’re tired towards the end of camp, and I would rather my little riders were told how to carry a whip with consideration to their pony than just given one in a hurry at camp. Plus, one of the ponies I teach has a phobia of lunge whips so I don’t want the unknown instructor to feel that they need to chivvy or chase the pony along with one as that will shatter my rider’s confidence.

I also try to make sure my rider knows what is expected of them at camp in terms of behaviour, and how they should ask for help if they need it. Sometimes children can be very shy about asking for assistance. Then finally, I try to make sure my riders are confident around their ponies. They will all have help, but by the very nature of the camp environment they will have less support than at home with either their parents or me supervising. It’s only little things such as knowing their girth needs to be checked before they mount, knowing how to dismount whilst holding onto their reins, and to run up their stirrups. Having children who are able to do this makes an instructor’s life much easier whilst keeping them all a little safer.

Of course, camp is all about learning and I look forward to getting my kids back with new found confidence and competence, but I find that the right preparation really helps them get the most out of their camping experience.

Counting Elephants 

This anecdote came up recently with a client and I wondered when it stopped being taught.

When I began horse riding at age six I joined the lead rein lesson. All six ponies were led and we did steering in rides and on our own, before halting at B (always on the right rein) and trotting “to the rear of the ride”, a phrase I took for granted by didn’t fully comprehend until about ten.

When we trotted we had to count our elephants whilst sitting (or bouncing) before rising – “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise!”

I hated this for two reasons;

  1. Why should I shout nonsense in front of other people? Doing it in my head was far better – more grown up, I thought. I was forever being told to speak more loudly.
  2. What is the point in counting elephants? There aren’t any and I might as well go straight into rising.

Unfortunately I was a child who needed explanations so I was glad to see the back of this exercise, but now I realise the purpose of the exercise.

I think elephants were the chosen animal as the word can be broken down into its syllables easily and the number combined with the animal equals four syllables, which is two trot strides.

When making a transition you should be in sitting trot so you can use your seat aids more efficiently; the two beat rising won’t confuse the horse moving into either a four beat or three beat gait. Have you ever ridden from walk to trot and begun rising only for your horse to fall back into walk? If you sat for an extra stride you would have established the trot and the loss of your seat aid while you rise won’t upset the horse’s rhythm. 

Counting elephants makes beginners practice sitting trot, so it is not such a scary practice, a few strides of sitting helps them find the rhythm so it is easier to grasp the rising. I also believe that it improves your feel and awareness of the way the horse moves. I always encourage beginners to stay in sitting trot for a few strides before rising, but have never mentioned elephants.

Perhaps more advanced, but when you count elephants you almost always rise on the correct diagonal. Perhaps it is the extra time to feel the inside hind leg coming under to push you up, or perhaps luck, but I think the two are linked in some way. 

I think elephant counting should have been taken forwards to other transitions, such as trot to walk, or around the canter work. It would encourage more preparation from riders and improve their sitting trot, as well as teaching the horse not to alter the trot in the transition from rising to sitting.

Next time you ride, have a think about counting elephants and see if it does anything for your transitions or even just improve your sitting trot! Hindsight is a great thing, and I wish the concept behind counting elephants had been explained to my six year old self, and used in relation to all transitions and with trot diagonals.