Thursday, September 3, 2020

Horsemanship at Beach Camp - A Conversation

First ride on Long Beach

Newsletter editor Mary Tulin gets Mary Gallagher and Kathy Schmidt to talk about horsemanship at the beach—how they took a group of Hoof Beats students and horses for a private clinic in Long Beach, Washington. [Photos courtesy students Haleyanna Fell, Elise Dean, and Elly Dam.]

Kathy Schmidt: When I tell people about Beach Camp with the kids, they always ask, did you gallop on the beach? People have a romantic idea of that, and are sure that’s what we went for.

Mary Tulin: Well....did you?

KS: Of course! But that was on the last full day—after three days of preparation. You have to take into account the readiness of both the students and the horses. Some were raring to go on day one, but their horses needed time and prep; and some horses would have been fine, but their rider wasn’t quite ready.

Mary Gallagher: Besides, there’s a lot of great stuff to do with horses that’s not galloping full tilt!

KS: (laughs) Right! I have to say, I was so impressed with how far these students have come with their

horses! Simon (a big hunter-jumper) arrived at the Farm a few years back, never having been on a trail ride, and I remember his challenges with life outside of an arena. At the beach he was amazingly calm and seemed to be having fun. I had to tell Haleyanna how impressed I was with how far she had brought him! And your boy Grasshopper, who has been on the Farm since the beginning, who has rarely been in a trailer, even. He settled right in and did fine, though of course there was a lot to take in at first.

MG: We had a general outline for camp, for instance, we knew that games would be a big part of our activities, both in the arena and at the beach. Some were old stand by, tried and true games, and some we devised based on the needs of the group. Kathy and I met each morning to select the right games to help everybody progress, then at night we would review the day and think ahead a bit to the next day. Kathy was great at tracking the progress of individuals, pairs, and the whole group!

Mary teaches braiding
Also, the kids had asked to learn show braiding, so I brought supplies and everyone got to try their skills. As far as food went, each student was responsible for a meal and brought food for it—I helped them prep, and we ate very well.

KS: I haven’t eaten that well for a while! Brook even made Thai food—everybody did great.

MT: So tell me more about how you set things up for success.

KS: Mary and I basically set things up with a few key parameters: safety first, of course! and also—fun! But you have to plan for where the students are, individually, where their horses are, then the horses as a herd and their readiness to be away from the herd—that’s really big when you’ve got this unlimited beach, plus waves! It’s one thing to be in our Farm bubble, where the horses know where their herd is and what the different spaces are—they are in a zone of safety around the property. So beach camp tightens that herd bubble and the horses are less ready to go away from that safety.

MG: So that’s where our ground work classes come in...

KS: ...and the games!

MG: We operate from the assumption that everything we do with our horses is horsemanship. Catching,

Coach Kathy and Hazelnut
leading, opening gates, even hanging out together... the ordinary things are all real moments where our interaction with our horse teaches them something—positive or negative. So we want to get in the habit of being aware of what we are doing and what we are training our horse to do, at any given moment.

MT: So you said games helped with that?

KS: Yes, everybody can have a lot of fun, while tuning up their horsemanship. For herd bound horses and kids who are just gaining confidence, there’s Duck Duck Goose. It’s fun, and works that herd boundary, as one rider and horse circle the group, pick another, then race for the empty spot. Figure 8s by turns in the group extends that ability to move away from and return to the herd.

MG: And Red Light, Green Light, which we turned into a leading game as a way to better connect kids and horses, so the student doesn’t find herself constantly correcting an enthusiastic or nervous horse. Actually, we turned it into— red light, orange light, yellow light, green light, blue light, and purple! Red=stop, orange=slow, yellow=slow saunter, green=normal walk, blue=power walk, purple= jog. It was great and sharpened up their communication, for sure!

Walking to the beach.
Right, so when we are leading the horses to the beach, nobody gets pulled along by their horse, or has to be constantly on the horse’s case. It really pays off! I should say that from the start, we had paired the students/horses by experience. And we talked about each of them committing to helping their own horse first, then their partner and horse, then the whole group/herd. We were fortunate to have some Beach Camp veterans—Grace, Brook, Elise, Elly and Lily—to help those who were first timers. Grace is a Hoof Beats alum, by the way. Each day at the beach, I would assign two of them to be my extra eyes and ears, herd leaders, activity demonstrators, and all around support. They really came through!

MG: We should mention that in the beginning, after we’ve arrived and settled in where we’re staying, we always take that first walk to the beach. It may be that day, or first thing the next morning. But it’s a great opportunity to see how everybody is doing, how the horses feel about the beach and the waves. They can roll, eat a little grass on the dunes, basically acclimate.

KS: Ah yes, that first walk on the beach this time also included kids in the water! It’s such a great way to arrive. Mary, you’ve always made a point of that first beach walk, and that’s where our ground work really gets fun, too. The waves—which are fairly gentle, on a wide, flat sandy slope—are a great place to practice yields and other movements, with water lapping around everybody’s feet!

MT: So, this was a fairly big group, compared to recent years. They know each other well and ride together four days a week—but surely you had special considerations, being on the longest beach in the USA…?

KS: We definitely wanted to help students and horses to stick together, but also the whole group. There was an important theme of group and trail etiquette, which not everybody knows. Those of us who take trail rides regularly from Freedom Farm make a point of group awareness. For example, letting the group know if you need to deal with something, you say, “Wait, please!” Or let the group know you need to have a learning moment, say turning your horse, “Turning!” And of course, nobody charging off, even at a trot, without checking in with the rest. Doing so can quickly create a situation where herd anxiety gets triggered. So, we set that expectation with the group, and they were all really good and our rides went quite smoothly.

MG: So to recap, we always focused on staying within the bounds of what each horse could do, and what the students were comfortable with. Once you have that settled, it’s easier to try the next step.

MT: So speaking of next steps.... you did ground work in the mornings, and rode on the beach in the afternoons. And had some special sessions, like show braiding…

MG: Oh, and we did an unexpected service for Cindy, our host. She’s got some beautiful horses, one of whom has been having issues and was in need of a maintenance trim to help balance the feet. Elise got right in there with me and we were able to coach Cindy and her helper Robin with maintenance trimming techniques. I think they were surprised and pleased. It was a bonus, for sure.

MT: Wise Horseman, to the rescue!

MG: Well, we were there and glad to help.

MT: And that final full day group ride, did it feature any galloping, perchance?

KS: Yes! By then everybody was ready. We formed a herd group, standing quietly together, and from there each rider could choose to go alone or with their partner. I should mention what we did NOT do: gallop all together, or gallop/canter towards home. By forming a herd, we gave the horses an anchor. The student whose turn it was could walk back the way we came, then have their canter or gallop toward the group, going past us, then allowing the horse’s natural wish to stay connected with the herd, to help end the gallop and turn back to us. ...At a walk or trot! It was great! Everybody got their turn, and they all galloped on the beach.

MT: Wow, sounds wonderful. Final comments…?

MG: The kids all worked together to feed and water the horses, clean up, etc. Easiest Beach Camp ever!

KS: And of course there was extra horse time, the braiding, the hot tub, camp fire with s'mores and LOTS of giggling!!!

MT: Aah, camp!

Grace and Grasshopper, Maddie and Cysco, Lily and Joia, Brook and Amen, Elise and Blackie, Zoe and Monty, Elly and Harriot, Samantha and Mocha, Haleyanna and Simon

Note: You can see more photos of Beach Camp 2020 in an album on our Facebook Page!

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