Some of the very best summers of my life were spent at horseback riding camp and weekend horse shows. The first summer I attended Longacres Riding Camp in East Aurora, NY, I was 13 years old. I had been taking riding lessons for several years and had a pretty good ‘seat and hands.’ When I started jumping fences, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Way cooler than clarinet lessons.
It was a tough time for me. My mom had died that February. For my sister and me, she was our everything. Our father had passed before either of us had a chance for any memories. I was only two when he died. My world turned upside down when I became an orphan. Plans were made for me to finish school in Oswego, NY, spend summer at camp, then move in with my aunt and uncle and cousins in Ohio for the new school year. I was a mess inside. Depressed. Sad. Aching. I missed my mother fiercely.
Then something truly beautiful happened. Summer riding camp. It seems I was destined to have a fabulous experience. So often in my life, I have found horses work a crazy kind of magic to heal whatever ails me, or at least lessen the ache….even the intense sadness I felt in my heart at that time. Four summers in a row I blossomed at camp, then sort of wilted in between.
When I was a camper at Longacres, the show team would compete at nearby events every weekend. We rode hunters and jumpers, which usually meant our competition was a whole mess of hoity toitiness. Hoity toity trailers. Hoity toity horses. Hoity toity girls and saddles and bridles and britches and jackets. Gawd…I couldn’t bear to spell ‘hoity toity’ one more time…much less mouth it as I write….try it three times out loud… HOITY TOITY…ha! … ya look like a hungry guppy.
Due to all this, ah hem, hoity toitiness…it felt great to kick some butt. There we’d be with our mixed-breed camp horses and not so fancy saddles, old bridles, and I know I had second hand britches and a black wool jacket that gave me the vapors, it was so hot. We did a lot of winning because we were breathing, dreaming, talking, brushing, riding and living for horses. Forget tennis, archery, and arts and crafts….we were 24/7 camp-horse-chicks out to have FUN and WIN!!!!
Too bad I lost all the photos I had from camp in a house fire, my second year in college. I was having lots of fun making Polaroids the last summer at camp. Perhaps there was a little seed in that Polaroid collection that blossomed into a desire to study photography.
Here’s a photo from a camp reunion two years ago…that’s me on the left, with my old counselor Peachy in the middle (she survived us brats!), and best friend and co-conspirator, Sooz on the right. Whatever trouble we got in together…it was all Sooz’s fault. Right Peach?
I think back to those days whenever I attend a horse show. Maybe that’s why I like the Blowing Rock Horse Show (NC) so much. Doesn’t hurt that it’s nearby and a huge old show; revered by many generations of riders and spectators. It’s been held for 92 consecutive years, which makes it one of the oldest running horse shows in the country. No western riding here…nah uh. Just Saddlebreds and Hunters and Jumpers.
As it just so happened, my friend Elizabeth gave me a free ticket for the last day of the show. It was a gorgeous Sunday in the mountains. Once I stepped out onto our deck and away from my guilt-ridden desk, I couldn’t find any reason not to go. That’s right. My desk is guilt-ridden…not me. And I have the strength and power to walk away from it at any time.
Through the years, the show ground facilities have expanded. Below is the second show ring, adjacent to the main ring with box seats and bleachers. Box seats are rarely given up so it’s great fun to know someone who is having a party. Or just talk your way in under the pretense you are an important and famous photographer. I always check to see how well stocked the box is first.
When you are not associated with any particular barn or group of riders, there is no one to root for. Or everyone. I like to wander around the grounds and meet some of the competitors, both horses and riders. In fact, I enjoy inhaling the overall vibe as much as watching the show. Maybe that’s because I love the smell of horses and barns. And horse sweat and manure.
What? You never knew I love the smell of poo? I admit…I doo!
(notice I did not use the ‘s’ word…it was difficult…but I DID NOT USE THAT WORD)
On the last day, for the final event, the Blowing Rock Horse Show hosts the $10,000 Jumper Classic. It’s a thriller to watch, but I couldn’t stay. Still, I did see some impressive jumping, both hunters and jumpers.
With hunters, it’s all about style and looking good as a horse/rider combo. Your approach to a fence must be timed just right and of course, you need to clear the fence, without a refusal. The fences will be a set height and not nearly as high as the jumper classes. The judging is subjective.
With jumpers it’s all about clearing the fence and doing the course as fast as you can…especially on the jump-offs when the fences are raised and the courses are tighter to maneuver and you’re riding against the clock. It doesn’t matter what you or your horse look like. The judging is objective. Fastest clean round wins.
This makes me think back to summer camp and a horse named York Springs. While I was a camper, he became an acclaimed Longacres jumper. People either gasped or giggled when he entered the ring. He was a HUGE roan draft horse with platters for feet, who appeared more suited for pulling a plow. When he entered the ring and did his warm-up circle, it looked like he might trip over his own feet. But when he jumped? WOW! The whole crowd would collectively hold their breath as he cleared fence after fence. York Springs…I’ll never forget that ole galump-of-a-horse with springs in his feet.
These photos are from hunter classes…the same as I rode as a teenager. After a wicked spill two months after my mom passed and two months before summer camp, I never had the gumption to jump really high fences. I had been practicing for my very first horse show on a horse called Mud Puppy, when he caught the fence with his hoof and somehow fence and horse landed on me. I woke up the next day in a hospital forty minutes down the interstate, with seven broken bones and no recollection of that day. Still…I had my fears. 3′ 6″ is usually the highest the fences will be on a hunter course and plenty high for me.
I recently received word Longacres Riding Camp will be closing at the end of this season, following seventy-seven years in operation. The four summers I spent at Longacres were transformative and delightful….never mind that Sooz and I got in endless trouble away from the barn! Of course all the horses from that era passed long ago, but whenever my camp girlfriends and I get together and start talking about our old favorites, they are alive again in our memories.
My dear friend through the ages, Tom Kranz (owner and director of Longacres), was the master of ceremonies…Hats off to Longacres Riding Camp for giving so many campers such wonderful experiences… and for giving me my love of a good horse show!And hats off to the Blowing Rock Horse Show for preserving a beautiful tradition.