At most camps, it appears to be a practice to have wranglers that are hired specifically for their horse-riding knowledge, but sometimes it is very hard to hire people on paper with this sort of experience and knowledge. In previous years, our wranglers at Camp Raintree in Julian, California have dealt specifically with the horses and done all the feeding, teaching and assisting and also have been responsible in part for a cabin full of campers in conjunction with their co-counselor. In previous years this has led to various problems, not the least being burnout. The wranglers become simply too tired from incredibly long days and after a while fail to spot potential accidents before they happen, leaving the riding director having to be everywhere all of the time.
This year, as a as a member of a directing team, we had as one of our primary goals spotting burnout before it happened and elevating it before it set in rather than dealing with it as it occurred. We changed a number of aspects of the program, but the main change was that we took the time during the week of staff training to conduct training sessions to prepare every counselor to assist a wrangler in the arena. They learned how to safely approach, lead, mount, dismount and most importantly, they were there as the wranglers’ other set of eyes and ears. We also conducted lessons in teaching them how to tack and untack horses and rum the horses; out safely. This effectively meant that we had 4-6 extra people each day that we could write into the schedule to assist in the arenas and to help tack and untack. The counselors also took part in the early morning feeding schedule, so it was always one wrangler and one counselor . This gave the counselors a chance to see just what long day it is when you start at 5 a.m. and don’t finish until 10:30 p.m. when you put the campers to bed.
It was an extremely effective solution in the prevention of burnout and was an invaluable aid in assisting the wrangling team in operating effectively as a team to provide the best possible lessons for children instead of simply churning them into and out of the arenas and trail rides.
We also held back on our beginner riders going out on the trail until mid-week. So by the time the beginners got out on the trail, they had already had at least four arena lessons that had taught them the basics of riding safety and control.
Our main priority is constant safety for all children and this summer we achieved just that. This was achieved through a combination of having different assistants in the arenas so the wranglers could take a break from teaching and the constant stress of small children on big horses.
Another technique we employed was the constant changing of the horses. If they were suitable for both trail and arena work, then they were swapped – sometimes by the week, sometimes by the day – between arena and trail. It was a matter of watching them closely and figuring out what worked best for which horse. Nothing will sour a good school horse faster that constant work without a break, which is what most summer camp schedules represent for staff and animals. On our horses’ day off, there was no riding at all. Every single horse had a complete 24-hour break.
We had also organized two sets of tie or picket lines on our trails and had hay delivered out there at the beginning of summer, so during each week highlight for the kids was a picnic lunch ride. We would teach lessons until 11:00 a.m., then we would take approximately half the camp (around 30-35 kids) on the lunch ride. Half of the children would ride out and we would take out two separate rides. When they arrived at the picnic ground they would hand the horses to the wranglers who were responsible for tying them and watering them and then everyone would have a picnic lunch. It was a great break for wranglers, children, and horses alike. We did this two days out of every week so that there was an hour out of arena teaching which is more stressful and fatiguing to the staff and the horses and the children were still on horseback having fun. We never compromised our 1:6 instructor to student ratio and each picnic ride had several counselors on foot as well as wranglers on horseback.
We also changed our lesson plans. This meant that we had three hour-long lessons instead of four 40-45 minute lessons. -We routinely request that all our instructors hand in lesson plans for the week just the same as classroom teachers. That makes it easier for the riding director to see in advance what is going right and wrong and where problems might be developing. It also makes sure that the instructors and wranglers are really planning. This is particularly important because unless our program is different from most other programs, we do not have professional riding instructors with several years experience teaching our campers. We cannot afford them.
On Sundays, when the children arrived, we had a 45 minute horse orientation. This is covered in the handbook, Teaching Safe Horsemanship, as the "Nature of the Horse" presentation and is the place where we laid the framework for the program. We kept it interesting for the kids and for ourselves because we had to do it with a new group every Sunday. In our experience, nothing leads to lapses of safety faster than constant repetition and boredom.
Camp and program directors need to be constantly on the lookout for new ways to keep their wranglers challenged and interested. We found various and fun ways to introduce parts of the safety orientation. We always try to remember the children’s attention span, but we often forget the wrangler’s and instructor’s attention span which at times may be no longer than that of the campers. When minds wander it is time to reduce the risk level and go do something safe and fun. Most camps have games that can be varied from week to week. Many old standbys will work for all ages with a few variations. As long as the game is safe and there is a prize, most any game will work. The time spent on making up games during training at the beginning of summer will go a long way to preventing mental fatigue later in the summer.
Planning is what prevents burnout. And it is far better to prevent burnout than to have to deal with it.
Contributed By: Lucy Dillon (Camp Raintree, Julian, CA)