The youngest horse whisperers? Kids earn their equine stars at summer camp

The children who attend summer camp at Cedar Hill Farm make any city-dwelling adult want to venture to a nearby farm, don some cowboy boots and mount a horse.

In a small ceremony last Friday, Aug. 5, children ages 5 to 12 showed off their horse-handling and riding skills at Cedar Hill, owned by Mark and Becky Holt. The kids completed a weeklong summer camp with local resident Stephanie O’Neil, an established competitor in horse jumping, showing, and dressage.

“I feel so tall and powerful when I ride horses,” said 11-year old Emma Hubbard during a break from prepping the horses for show. “Horses are a lot to take care of, but you get a lot out of riding them.”

O’Neil, who’s from Australia, made sure the children understood the work that goes in to owning and riding horses. “The world I come from is a very English show-jumper world, where you hire someone to clean your boots, groom your horses and tack your horse.”

But getting someone else to do the dirty work takes away from the experience, she said. The chores are a necessary part of riding and bonding with a horse, so for the kids in Cedar Hill’s camp, she made sure the experience wasn’t mere playtime. “They cleaned the stall everyday,” said O’Neil. “They mixed feed everyday. … The whole experience is very spiritual, and I wanted the [kids] to experience not just riding, but the caretaking, how the horses felt, what their horses were doing, and all that kind of stuff,” she continued. “I tried to emphasize paying attention to their horses. They had to tell me each day, through grooming, how the horses felt [and] what kind of mood they were in.”

The youngest rider, a 5-year-old girl, was not afraid to tackle the work, even though her standing height was about halfway up the horse’s legs.

“The older kids really took her under their wings,” O’Neil said. “She wanted to be right in there. She wanted to help tack. She wanted to pick the [horses’] feet. She wanted to hose them off, and I would have to be like, ‘wait a minute.’”

O’Neil practices natural horsemanship, a riding theory that emphasizes positive enforcement and communicating with horses in their own language. This approach came through in the students’ attitudes toward the animals in their care.

“I like that they’re really sensitive,” said 10-year-old Madison Meres, who started riding horses about a year-and-a-half ago. “I want to keep riding, and I will definitely ride horses when I grow up.”

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