Becoming a Riding Camp Counselor

March 2008
What could be better than getting paid to spend your summer in a gorgeous location riding horses? Many people looking for a position as a riding camp counselor imagine this scenario, but there’s a lot more to it.

ImageWhat are riding camps looking for in a counselor? What kind of training will you receive? What work will you be expected to perform? What will you gain from the experience? How can you insure that your summer benefits everyone equally: the camp owners, you, and especially the campers? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and much more!

What Kind of Counselors Do Riding Camps Want?

Many camps have a minimum age requirement of 18, but prefer counselors with at least a couple of years of college. More than that, though, they’re looking for people with experience, both with children and horses. “We hire both domestic and international counselors,” says Errol Nattrass of Windridge Camp at Teela-Wooket in Roxbury, Vt. “We do extensive phone interviews, check references, and run background checks. We look for people who enjoy working with kids, have good horsemanship backgrounds, and can work well as a team with other counselors and staff. We frequently have former campers move up to become counselors. If it’s someone we don’t know, we have a stringent interview process. The best qualities a counselor can have are a love for children and the ability to teach.”

“We look for people with extensive riding backgrounds,” says Meg Kassen of Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine. “We want people who have the necessary skills and are willing and able to then teach these skills to others. Being a camp counselor is pretty much a 24/7 job. We like people who have a real passion to work with kids, who are creative, independent, and smart. Safety is also a main concern. We want people who are safe, safe, safe. Not everyone who applies is hired.”

“One of the most important qualities a counselor should have is patience,” says Kellie McElhinney of Volo Farm in Westford, Mass. “Counselors have to be willing to listen and take time to explain and repeat and allow children to learn. They have to connect with children of all ages and abilities. They should stress the importance of horsemanship, the whole concept of horse care, not just riding. They should be able to convey a sense of comfort and calmness to children who may never have been around horses before.

And they have to be flexible enough to modify what they’re doing to fit any situation.”

“Our counselors are all well-rounded horse people, experienced in showing and eventing,” says Cindy Teich of Orchard Hill Equestrian Center in Berlin, Mass. “We want people who are patient with children’s mistakes, and people who like to have fun with children and horses.”

“We want people knowledgeable and experienced in hunt seat,” says Sarah Seaward of Camp Nashoba North in Raymond, Maine. “A counselor should appreciate the responsibility and have good mentoring qualities. Foremost, she must communicate well and have a positive attitude.”

“We have two kinds of counselors,” says Rob Gallo, owner and director of Driftwood Stables and Rock Leadership in Northfield, N.H. “The Living Unit staff lives with the kids and doesn’t need any horsemanship background. The barn staff must be horse experts and also have quality experience working with kids this age.

“A lot of young professionals ride quite well, but they don’t realize that 90% of teaching is done from the ground, not from the back of a horse. Of course there are times when you need to hop on a horse to demonstrate a particular skill or technique, but most of the time, the instructor is standing on two feet and explaining. Jumping, dressage, cross-country, cutting—to learn these correctly, you need someone on the ground watching you and critiquing your efforts.

“Even more important than riding ability is the ability to be a mentor to teenagers,” Rob continues. “These kids don’t need another best friend. They need someone to help guide them through their problems, which are many and varied at this age. Mentors allow kids to express their opinions while listening; they set an example of using good judgement while allowing questions and discussions of alternatives; they can dish out tough love, but always with compassion. Kids this age test you in a variety of ways—it’s a sign of love that they’re willing to engage you in their problems and lives. A mentor knows how to engage the kids right back and bring them to a higher level of understanding about the world and themselves.

“Prospective counselors need to understand that it’s like being a stand-in for a parent. It’s not about getting a lot of free riding. It’s about making a difference in a child’s life, enhancing and building social values and skills. It’s not about teaching a specific skill, like posting or lead changes, but about being a good listener and really connecting with a young person. It’s not just about being able to ride and liking kids. If you ask most parents, they’ll tell you that what they’d like their children to get out of a summer camp is a positive experience. They don’t want their children excluded or picked on. They want them to make friends and have a positive emotional experience. We want counselors who can make that a reality for each camper.”

Applying

Most camps start hiring for the summer early in the year. They have applications available online or through the mail. They also typically require references, background checks, and may request a face-to-face meeting. Various camps have specific requirements as to age and experience.

“My counselors are all over 21,” says Rob Gallo. “If it’s someone I don’t know, I start off with a phone interview. I want to know about her life experiences with horses, any significant teaching skills she possesses, what sorts of leadership-oriented roles she’s played with kids. I want some sort of sense of what kind of a mentor this person will be. I also have a written, thirty-five-item questionnaire detailing different situations. I want someone on her toes, someone on the cutting edge, able to think on her feet and deal effectively with a variety of situations which may arise. I do a standard background check, and also insist on meeting the applicant in person, to get a complete feel for her. I do most of my hiring from January through March.”

Training

Training may run from a day or two to a week or two. Windridge Camp at Teela-Wooket runs a one-week orientation and training program which teaches counselors their basic teaching techniques, makes them familiar with various policies and how the program runs, role plays situations, and gets the horses ready to be ridden. Like many camps, Pony Farm in Temple, N.H. offers a CIT (Counselor In Training) program, in which younger staff members act as assistant instructors and experience a season of on-the-job training. Pony Farm also offers paid college internships through some of the local colleges. Students can work in their therapeutic horsemanship program for people with physical or emotional disabilities, and earn college credit.

“It would be easy to just rent a string of horses for the summer and run trail rides, but we’re a lot different from that. Our camp experience at Driftwood is really unique,” says Rob Gallo. “We’re not just about the riding. Equally important is teaching our campers leadership skills. Our campers run their own community. They design their own schedules, cook their own meals, and our counselors need to understand our philosophy and goals. They can ride as much or as little as they want—it’s directed free choice. We run a two-week orientation before camp starts to make sure everyone understands his role.

“We give our counselors hypothetical, but realistic, scenarios, and then ask them to submit lesson plans detailing how they’d deal with that situation. We ask many, many questions. We stress safety in all things. We run mock lessons and spend time with new counselors so they can learn the trail system. We try to cover everything, from the obvious to the intangibles. It takes a lot to make a camp truly successful, and a really good instructor is a big part of our success. It’s hard to find people like this.”

Duties

Counselors may be housed with the campers or may have separate housing, closer to the barn, either in private rooms or in a dormitory. If staying with the campers, duties may include making sure everyone’s in bed and up in the morning on time, getting them to meals and various activities, and spending time getting to know and help them. Some camps house counselors near the barn, to make stable chores easier and ensure that someone’s watching over the horses at night. Common duties include feeding, mucking out, tacking up, and general horse maintenance. Often, campers perform these tasks under counselors’ supervision.  

A typical day may start anywhere from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. with barn chores or helping campers get up and ready. There may be a riding session once or twice a day, and other equine-related activities such as lectures on grooming, horse/stable management, basic vet care, parts of the horse, pony club games, and gymkhana games. There may also be evening activities, camp outs, field trips, and trips to local shows.

Depending upon the camp, you may be responsible for large or small groups of campers of varying ages and abilities. Driftwood Camp has only 24 campers and 12 staff members. Rob Gallo describes the experience as intense and very engaged. Campers and counselors may work on training foals, going on trail rides, speaking with farriers, or going on rounds with a vet.

“Our counselors have to be willing to cheerfully pitch in whenever needed,” says Kris Young of Pony Farm.

“Whether it’s helping a camper groom or finishing up the barn chores, we expect everyone to be an equal team player.”

Benefits

Typically, counselors are offered competitive salaries, depending on age and experience. This ranges from $2,000-$5,000 for the entire summer. Different camps offer different arrangements for days and evenings off. You may have some combination of a few hours off each day, every evening, or a full day each week.

Most camps are located in beautiful and scenic surroundings which offer a taste of life in a rustic, relaxing setting. There may be hiking trails and local attractions to visit and explore. Some camps allow you to bring your own horse, and most offer free riding if a horse is available when you have free time. There are usually additional activities which may include swimming, sailing, tennis, arts and crafts, and whatever other specialties the camp offers.

“Being at a camp like ours allows you to make friends with kids and other adults from all over the U.S. and the world,” says Errol Nattrass. “You can make some great contacts, and it helps to give you a wider sense of the world, and gain insight into other people’s perspective on a lot of different issues.”

“I can’t think of anything more satisfying than knowing that you’ve helped to change and shape a young person’s life,” says Rob Gallo. “Again, I believe that more than salary or any of the tangible gains, the intangible benefits outweigh the rest. We focus on a leadership community, and counselors gain as much from the experience as do the kids. You learn skills here which will help you the rest of your life, whatever your personal goals or professional aims.”

Many thanks to the following people who helped with this article: Rob Gallo of Driftwood Stables and Rock Leadership in Northfield, New Hampshire; Errol Nattrass of Windridge Camp at Teela-Wooket in Roxbury, Vermont; Meg Kassen of Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Maine; Kris Young of Pony Farm in Temple, New Hampshire; Kellie McElhinney of Volo Farm in Westford, Mass.; Cindy Teich of Orchard Hill Equestrian Center in Berlin, Massachusetts; and Sarah Seaward of Camp Nashoba North in Raymond, Maine.

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