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Equestrian overnight camp gives young riders immersive saddle seat experience

June 28, 2017

Gwyneth Hamrah got hooked on horses when she was 5.

A friend had invited Hamrah, now 16, to join her at a horse camp. The Columbia teenager has been riding ever since, often traveling across the country to participate in American Saddlebred competitions.

“I just really like working with the animals,” she said.

equestrian camper in barnHamrah is just the kind of young, experienced saddle seat rider Stephens College had in mind when it designed its Equestrian Overnight Experience: Saddleseat camp, now in its third year. Hamrah was among seven teenage girls from across the country who spent seven days last week immersed in riding, field trips and exploration of equestrian industry careers.

The campers, most of who knew each other from the horse show circuit, stayed in Tower Hall.

“All of the campers are serious show riders who are invested in the sport,” said Kelly Hulse, camp director and assistant professor of equestrian studies at Stephens. 

Many of the campers said they knew Hulse from the horse show circuit, which made working with her at camp even more fulfilling. They also enjoyed the opportunity to ride a wide variety of horses during the weeklong camp. 

“Kelly knows what we need to work on, and she also knows all the horses in the barn and can pair us with the horse best suited to helping us develop the skills we need,” said Kali Lachner, 16, from Omaha, Neb.

Lachner and Hamrah were among four riders who’ve participated in the overnight camp every year it’s been offered. Several are considering coming to Stephens once they graduate from high school.

“I love this camp because we get the chance to ride so many different horses,” Hamrah said. 

Camille Talkington, 15, from the greater Kansas City area, said she enjoys visiting professional horse farms and learning about the industry. 

“If you want to make this a career and make connections, camps like this help,” Talkington said.

Campers visited Fairview Farm in New Bloomfield as well as High Spirits Farm in Ashland, which is owned and operated by Stephens alumnae Anna Marie Knipp.

“The girls get to see a big horse operation up close,” Hulse said. “They can talk with the trainers and watch them work.”

Campers also participate in various barn activities, which included learning how to set up a tack room, a makeshift enclosure of boards, curtains and zip ties used to store saddles, bridles and other equipment during shows. Tack rooms are generally set up by the trainers, but Hulse wanted the campers to know the work that goes on behind the scenes that riders sometimes take for granted. 

With a pile of long narrow boards, curtains, zip ties and staple guns, the campers split into tow teams and went to work. Hulse and three camp counselors sat down to watch as the campers scrambled to put the pieces together.

“This is hard!” one camper shouted.

As Hulse smiled, she said: “We want them to know the work that goes into this.”

Besides riding, training and exploring the horse industry, campers also enjoyed the camaraderie of hanging out with other teenagers who understand their sport and share their desire to ride.

“I’ll tell people at school that I ride and they’ll be like, ‘oh, I’ve ridden a horse before on a dude ranch,’” Lachner said. “I try to be nice about it, but they don’t seem to understand that this is our sport.”

The campers agreed that a passion for horses and competing in the ring is tough to explain to the uninitiated.

“It’s one of those sports that once you’re in it, you can’t get out,” said Emma Wood, 17, of Oklahoma City.

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