The Royal Horse Ranch on Monkey Island is enjoying its tenth consecutive year of the Grand Lake Horse Camp this summer.
Ranch owners Val and Nancy Saamer began holding weeklong camps after Memorial Day this year and will continue with the sessions through to the early part of August.
The camp is primarily for ages 9 to 14 years and the emphasis is on equestrian training. The camp is open to riders of all skill levels and some campers come from out of state to mix in with the area riders.
“It’s a hard camp because it’s hands on and there is a lot of work to this sport,” said Nancy Saamer.
For a typical session campers arrive at the Royal Horse Ranch on Sunday evening and get settled in to the bunkhouse on the grounds.
Come Monday morning and its revelry at 7 AM. Saamer enters the bunkhouse with a trumpet and is followed by two of the ranch’s dogs, standard-sized poodles Barkley and Cecile, who greet the campers with morning kisses.
“Mondays are hard,” Saamer said. “Tuesdays are better and by Wednesday everyone is in sync!”
After a big breakfast served up by Saamer the campers report to the stables at 8:30 to begin their morning chores. Campers feed, hay, and water their horses after gathering them in from the corral.
Once the horses have been tended to, the campers assemble their tack and begin lessons for the day under the tutelage of Saamer and her assistant Heaven Ragsdale.
Ragsdale, who will be a senior at Grove High School this fall and lives at the Ranch with the Saamers, appreciates working with the riders at camp.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Ragsdale. “I enjoy working with the kids and helping Nancy with instruction. Each camp I learn something new and it’s helped me to develop a better appreciation of horses.”
After a couple of hours in the saddle the campers tend to their horses again, this time rubbing them down and giving them a light grooming before lunch.
During the hour-long lunch break at the bunkhouse, Mr. Saamer prepares the meal while Mrs. Saamer and her students discuss the morning activities.
“The goal for the beginners is to give them the most solid foundation that we can,” explained Saamer. “You start with the basics and you give them twenty things to remember. Then, in the debriefing sessions at lunch, we repeat maybe one or two of those twenty things. So we keep going over each step, each day, until at the end of the week the rider will have twenty solid things that they have learned. It’s a building block situation.
“For the experienced riders, sometimes what happens with them is they have learned how to walk, trot, canter, and jump but we go back and start perfecting those skills,” Saamer said. “We correct bad habits, and re-explain things that maybe they have misinterpreted during the course of their learning process.”
The activities after lunch vary from student to student on each day of camp. Some campers return to the corral for more equestrian training. Others opt to take a trail ride on the 180 acres of the ranch.
Saamer uses the time to give further lessons about horses in general, a little bit of anatomy lessons mixed together with teachings about important characteristics of the animal and how a rider can correctly interpret them.
One afternoon activity that all of the campers enjoy is the horse games. One game is called “Slap Tack.” It’s a team-building exercise that teaches campers about the various pieces of equipment used in equestrian riding. The campers also play “Gymkana” which is a name given to a series of games played on horseback that involves relays and flags.
“We try to customize camp to meet the skills and interests of the rider,” said Saamer. “Some kids get too much information and they need a little down time.”
Pleasant distractions abound at the Ranch. There are over fifty horses of all kinds kept on the grounds, everything from trail horses to show horses. There are also three donkeys, one sheep, a pot-bellied pig named Bubba, goats, ducks, turkey, geese, and rabbits.
Some of the camper’s favorite horses are Ellie May, Blaze, and Baby Doll. Standing tall among the herd is Big Al, a Clydesdale and quarter horse mix generally used for trail rides.
“He stands at about 16.1 hands,” said Saamer, “and he’s nearly that broad, too!”
As evening approaches the campers begin their end of day chores. The horses are tended to again and the tack equipment is stored away for use again in the morning.
As Val Saamer serves up dinner in the bunkhouse Nancy and her students go through the days’ lessons again.
Evening activities are horse-themed and can be anything from a movie about horses to games such as horse charades or horse pictionary.
By 10 PM most campers are thoroughly worn-out and it’s just as well because that’s when the signal for lights out is given.
After a week of training, all of the campers help prepare and participate in a Demonstration Show to be held at the ranch on Saturday morning. Parents, friends, and other family members watch as the young charges put into action the skills and techniques that they have learned over the week.
“For the kids that love it (horses and equestrian riding), what they get is the pleasure of really being with the horse and they start to get an understanding of the animal,” said Saamer.
The saddle time offered at the camp is an invaluable experience for all the campers, and the lessons learned are applicable whether they aspire to equestrian championships or simply wish to become a more confident rider in general.
“The kids learn that what they do as a rider has an effect on the horse,” Saamer said. “Horses are strictly reactionary. The rider does one thing and the horse reacts to it. It takes a long time for the rider to learn how to feel and then learn to feel what the horse is doing as a reaction to what the rider is doing.
“There is a lot of horse psychology that goes into equestrian and advanced riding,” Saamer continued. “Horses have good days and they have bad days, just like riders. You have to be patient with yourself and you have to be patient with the animal. If nothing else, what this sport teaches is patience.”