I always dreaded Pony Club Camp when I attended 20 years ago, but nothing could beat the rapport I felt with my pony and my equally feral friends by the end of the week. Perhaps surprisingly, in a more sophisticated age, camp is as popular now as it ever has been with 48,000 Pony Club members (steadily increasing) in the UK, and latest figures showing that 337 branches hosted camps in 2006 out of the 350 branches then operating in the UK.
The South Dorset Hunt Pony Club holds its camp in a Hardyesque spot above Bryanston School, with the ponies housed in temporary stables and the children sleeping in the school’s boarding houses with en-suite bathrooms. It is a far cry from sleeping on camp beds in the Tote at Wincanton Racecourse which is my memory of camp but the more ad hoc arrangements do still exist at my old branch and others across the country.
It costs parents £250 to send their child to the South Dorset camp for a week, cheap if you compare it with taking a child to Center Parks for the same length of time. There were 41 children, aged between 11 and 17, at this year’s South Dorset senior camp, and most of them brought their own ponies. ‘About 10% have one on loan for the week,’ says Sarah Wadey, the district commissioner (DC). ‘They make a big effort for camp.’ And so do the organisers: when a child falls off her new pony twice in one day, Jack in the Box, a veteran of five camps belonging to another family, is drafted in as a replacement so that his rider can enjoy the rest of the week.
At 9am, the children are sloping back from breakfast (having mucked their ponies out at 7.15am), and the various instructors and First Aiders are sipping coffee in preparation for the day ahead. Someone arrives with a cake: ‘Mrs Boothright made this for the instructors,’ says Mrs Wadey. ‘We have a couple of rules here no mobile phones (the children are told to leave them at home) and no parents, apart from those bearing cakes.’ All 41 children, eight instructors, the DC and her helpers (all volunteers) have been here since Sunday, and, mercifully, the weather is bright and sunny after a day of drenching rain. The DC’s indomi-table nature seems to have permeated the camp: ‘Yesterday, they were wet all day, but they still wanted to go canoeing in the evening,’ she says with triumph.
I am dispatched with instructor Richard Dixon to watch him put his ride through their paces on the cross-country course. His charges consist of six girls in their early teens, who start the morning with various foibles from bottoms bouncing in the saddle to crooked seats and fixed hands. One anxious child called Ellie is riding one of the oldest ponies at camp, but Rufus is strong and wants to rush his fences. ‘He’s off his head,’ she cries, as she gallops past. ‘Stop him then, you silly woman,’ shouts Richard. ‘No, PULL!’ Rufus eventually comes to a halt and returns to the other ponies as Richard mouths ‘honestly’ at the First Aider.
By the end of the morning, they are all (including Rufus and Ellie) jumping a course of fences, including a ditch, very competently and Richard’s cries of ‘you dizzy blonde’ are rewarded. He has been teaching at camp for some years and has noticed that one of the biggest changes is in the quality of the ponies. ‘There are no hairy ponies these days. They are all “eventy” types,’ he says. ‘When I was young, I started off on a pony that went backwards as fast as
it went forwards and that was how I learned to ride properly.’ As Mrs Wadey later points out, the desire for ‘rosette machines’ over the artful little monster is not doing much for standards of equestrianism, because, invariably, the good pony arrives before the child has mastered the basics.
The body count in the cross-country that morning is one and, as it is Pony Club policy for a qualified First Aider to accompany each ride for cross-country, three people come to the rescue. The other children circle their ponies around the prone body as she’s fitted with a neck brace. ‘She’s okay,’ they’re told firmly. These litigious times leave little to chance when it comes to children’s safety, but they have ruined some of the fun. Becky Bush, aged 26, is instructing at camp for the second time and attended the South Dorset camp as a child. ‘We used to go down a jumping lane with no stirrups and play “Chase me Charlie”, but you can’t do that now without getting into trouble with the parents.’ ‘They’re all trussed up in back protectors,’ adds Paul Warwick, another instructor. ‘It’s fine for cross-country, but not for showjumping. They can’t move properly.’ Despite the regulations, there’s no doubt that children do still enjoy themselves at camp. Some of the 11 year olds, sitting on buckets in the tack room, with its familiar whiff of horse muck and hoof oil, tell me what they love about camp. ‘Cross-country’ and ‘riding Smartie twice a day’, they chant.
Harry, the only boy in the ride (there are only three boys at camp this year), endures his singular status gruffly and admits that the girls help him clean his tack William Fox-Pitt was once in the male minority at Pony Club camp and has since won Badminton. Two older girls, aged 16, brushing out a pony’s tail for a younger child tell me: ‘We weren’t going to come this year, but we’re glad that we did. There’s a whole load of us in our age group and it’s great to get away from home.’
Of course, the purpose of camp is to ride as much as possible, but there is another key aspect, often less popular, which takes equal precedence. At the South Dorset camp, Felicity Green is the Master of Horse, which means that she takes responsibility for the stable-management aspect of the week.
As the DC says: ‘It can be daunting for a child knowing that they have responsibility for their pony all week, and Felicity is a great comfort.’ Felicity adds: ‘My priority is the welfare of the horse’, and she has her work cut out because many of the children are from non-horsey backgrounds. ‘Camp is a week of concentrated learning, and you really feel as if you’re getting somewhere. If they’ve only learned to tie their haynet higher, we’ve achieved something,’ she says.
I ask Mrs Wadey what a child can gain from their week at camp. ‘Fun and self-esteem,’ she laughs. Combine this with improved riding and the confidence to look after your own pony, and I’m sure that the Pony Club can guarantee the success of camp for years to come.