Pure, unbridled thrills


Maybe it’s because of the books that children read, but there’s something about pony camp that marks it out from all the other summer camps, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

THERE’S SOMETHING about a pony camp that marks it out from all the other summer camps. Maybe it’s the pony-club books that children, particularly girls, start reading at the age of seven or eight that make it seem like one big adventure. Or maybe it’s simply the idea of being on a farm or at a stable and learning how to look after the horses as well as having the thrill of riding them every day.

Whatever the reason, children are booked into pony camp for two, three, four or even more weeks of the summer. And while they’re there they seem to be miles away from school, both mentally and physically.

The Paddocks Riding School, at the edge of the Dublin Mountains, runs week-long pony camps for three- to 15-year-olds throughout July and August. Teresa Cribbin, its owner, set up the stable 22 years ago for her daughter Denise. Starting with just five stables, she has built it up over the years to the 40 stables that are there now.

When we visit, the stable yard exudes a sense of calm order that is carried up to the outdoor arena where the children are just finishing their morning lesson. You just can’t mess with horses, and so even the youngest of the riders, a six-year-old, seems to understand that respect for the ponies is essential if you are to learn how to keep them under control.

Sitting up on their ponies with their hard hats, jodhpurs and boots, they are a picture-perfect group of campers. Once their lesson is over they return to the yard for lunch before going on their afternoon ride-out – the most exciting part of their day.

“This is my second pony camp. I love animals,” says Aaron, who is 11. “I like trotting and cantering and jumping,” says Isaac, who is 10. “I’ve been coming for lessons and going to pony camp since I was four,” says six-year-old Sadhbh.

Jennifer O’Flynn, one of the instructors, is a former pony camper herself. “I’ve been riding since I was seven, and I’ve been helping out at weekends and in the summers since then,” she says. O’Flynn knows the 50 horses and 20 ponies at the Paddocks very well and even stayed up all night when one of them had her foal.

“A lot of the children haven’t ridden before they come to camp. Some of them haven’t even seen a horse. At the start of camp they don’t seem too bothered, but by the end of the week they can’t get enough of it,” she says.

O’Flynn says that it’s best to start at a young age – even three or four. “If they start when they are around eight they begin to worry about falling off,” she explains.

Other campers come to join us after their morning lesson before all the children go into the tack room to learn the names and functions of the parts of the saddle and bridle. The children sit on the dusty floor of the room, which smells strongly of horses and leather. “I like being on pony camp because when you take lessons you just learn how to ride, but at camp you learn about stable management, too,” says 10-year-old Kevin.

There is a routine to each day. First the ponies are caught from the field and brought down to the stables.

Once there, the children help make up their feeds and learn how to groom them and tack them up for riding. One group go out for their morning lesson while the other group learn about handling and caring for the ponies. Then the second group return to learn about stable management while the first group have their morning lesson.

As we leave, O’Flynn brings me up to see the horses and ponies resting in the paddock. Two of the boys who are regular campers follow us. They too know all the temperaments of the horses – which one is bossy, which is timid – and which ones they like best.

I have to remind myself that these are not children who have been brought up on a farm, but suburban children who are on the summer adventure that is pony camp.

Camps run from Monday to Friday, between 10am and 4pm, with an option to stay until 6pm. A week costs €250. Call 01-2954278