This weekend at camp, I saw a camper filling up her palms with apple cores. I gave her a bowl for them and asked what her plan was. Her face exploded into a proud smile. “I’m going to feed them to my horse!”
At YMCA Camp Ernst, we see young people smile constantly. But there is deep meaning behind the smiles of kids who are in our horse programs. Those smiles reflect hard work cleaning stalls and combing manes, the satisfaction of controlling a 1,000-pound animal through a barrel course or rugged trail, the confidence gained from friendships built not just with animals but with fellow horse-lovers, and the excitement of developing a new, somewhat unique knowledge and skill set.
I can say this not simply as an observer, but also from personal experience: as a twelve year old, I was a participant in the Camp Ernst Ranch program! I distinctly remember being proud to know what a “frog” was (on the horse’s foot) and how to tighten a cinch on a saddle. I remember the thrill of crossing a creek on horseback and listening to the counselors tell stories while winding through the woods. During the school year, my friends and I would reminisce about “our” camp horses (Sunbar, Runner, Cookies) and look forward to riding them again the following year.
Now, more than 25 years later, as the Executive Director at YMCA Camp Ernst, I have seen our Rockin’ E Ranch grow, and thousands of kids grow in skill and confidence along with it. In the last two years we have built a new stable, thanks to the generosity of the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Foundation, developed more riding opportunities for participants and the public year-round, and launched our new horse specialty camps.
In the new Equine Adventure Camp (ages 10-14) and Advanced Riders Camp (ages 12-15), participants will spend the whole week devoted to horses. They’ll stay in cabins with the other ranch campers and learn the ins and outs of caring for and riding horses. Each camper will be “adopt” a horse for the week, learning how much to feed it and what treats it loves. Horse and rider will get to know each other through arena lessons, trail rides, and ground training. It is amazing to see the way campers blossom when given responsibility for a horse. The girl reluctant to clean up her room becomes the camper whose horse’s stall is clean of manure. The boy who never takes his dinner plate to the sink becomes the camper who helps clear the dining hall tables so his group can get back to the barn. And campers who are typically afraid of bugs learn how to tell those horse flies who’s boss! When they’re not on horseback, the campers will have the opportunity to cool off in the Camp Ernst pool and try out a few of the other popular camp activities. The week (Sunday through Saturday) costs $690 which includes all activities, riding lessons, food, lodging, and supervision.
Younger campers have a few options as well: Young Guns (ages 7-9) is a program that can be added on to a week of traditional camp. On each of three camp days during their week-long stay, for an additional $70, our youngest campers will be treated to one and a half hours with the horses. This is a great way for first-time riders to gain experience and explore their interest! There is also an add-on program for ages 9-15, where, for $95 additional, campers have each entire morning or afternoon activity period devoted to horses for five days. Not quite ready for so much time with horses? Campers ages 9-15 can add on a simple one-time trail ride during the week for only $15.
The Rockin’ E Ranch at YMCA Camp Ernst has something for all levels of horse interest and experience. Reach out to our hard-working, horse-wrangling Ranch Program Director, Natalie Hamilton ([email protected]) or register online www.myYcamp.org or by phone 859-586-6181. Open Houses (with opportunities to meet the horses and also the human staff) are Sundays, April 26 and May 31 from 1-4pm, held at YMCA Camp Ernst: 7615 Camp Ernst Rd; Burlington, KY 41005.
Elizabeth “Eli” Cochran is a mom of three, youth development professional, and outdoor enthusiast who can be reached at [email protected].