Philippa ‘Pippa’ Dixey, 6, is ready to get started.
“Is it time to groom?” she asks Clare Meloy, director of Cowboy Town Stables summer camp.
Dwarfed by the surroundings of the open-beamed barn and the heads of the horses protruding from their stalls, Pippa stands with her head back looking up at Meloy, her shoulder-length blonde hair held in check by a straw hat with silk flowers in the band. When she gets the nod, she dashes to the open door and shouts to her fellow campers, producing an impressive volume given her size.
“It’s grooming time!” she tells them.
Moments later, she has a plastic curry brush in her hand and is making circular motions on the belly of Whiz, a dappled white horse that is one of seven currently used by the stables in its programmes. Other campers are doing the same work on other horses.
During the school year, the stables offers horse therapy for those with learning disorders as well as mental and physical conditions. But for two weeks after school is out, it holds a summer camp in the mornings. The children attending are a mix of those who have special needs, as well as those who do not.
“We have a couple of kids who have autism,” said Meloy. “We have [children with] sensory processing disorders and ADHD. We have a child coming next week with cerebral palsy.”
One of her top priorities with the camp is inclusiveness, she said. She wants the special needs children to be able to make friends outside their normal social circles.
“In their everyday lives, they don’t get to mix with other kids that much,” Meloy said. She also wants the campers to have fun and to learn about horses and how to be safe around the large animals.
Pippa is clearly appreciating the fun aspects.
“My most fun was riding and grooming and washing [horses],” she said. “Today, we’re going to paint the horses and their legs and then we’re going to wash them off. It’s fun, we’re going to get all soaked.”
Meloy said the campers will learn the anatomy of a horse’s leg and then paint that on their hooves and hide with poster paint mixed with shampoo. There is also a planned water balloon fight completing the theme of a late wet morning.
After grooming, the horses are saddled and the campers take a short 10-minute trail ride, where volunteers walk along with the horses.
For Anya Harrison, 10, it’s less exciting than for some of the younger campers. She comes to the stables regularly and has progressed to where she can ride a horse on her own at a lope. She said she has helped some of the younger campers during the week.
“I taught them what to do and what not to do,” she said.
She enjoys the feeling of being around horses.
“It’s quite comforting,” Anya said, noting that her favourite horse is one named Khaleesy. “She has a nice colour. She’s the youngest and she likes me. Whenever I come around her stall, she pops her head up and wants to be petted.”
Anya said she hopes to have her own horse some day.
The camp programme is largely run by volunteers, including Meloy, who donates her time to the stables’ programmes.
Petra Macakova works at the front desk in a hotel during the week, but has been volunteering at the stables on her days off for the past three to four months, usually grooming and feeding the horses. She said she is enjoying the chance to work with the kids during the camp, and remembers how much her early encounters with horses affected her.
“I remember myself as a kid, I loved it,” Macakova said. “It’s a really big thing to experience.”
The impact is often greater than the experience itself, she said, especially with small children.
“They’ll brush the horse three times and think they’ve done the job,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I brushed the horse!’” Simone Baker-Palmer, 14, has been volunteering for six years at the stables. She came for a ride on her birthday and “just kept coming”.
The camp, she said, allows kids to engage with an animal most are not familiar with.
“They get a better understanding of horses,” she said, “so they’re not just giant scary creatures.”
Following the trail ride, the kids engage in a craft session. After all, it would not be summer camp without beads and glue and paint. On this day, they are painting and decorating wooden horseshoes that will serve as frames for photos taken earlier in the week.
“We try to send something home with them
every day,” said Meloy.
Undoubtedly most would be happy to take one of the horses with them.
Pippa is already planning to own a horse.
“I was trying to get enough money so I can buy one when I get older,” she said. “I made a big piggy bank, and when it’s full I can make another. I already have a lot of pennies.”