If you’re a kid, summer is a time for camp. Day camp, baseball camp, Y camp, basketball camp, scout camp, 4-H camp – you name it, it’s out there. But if you’re an island kid summer camps are often less plentiful and more inaccessible than for those on the mainland. This summer, Vinalhaven kids had the opportunity to experience something new to the island: pony camp.
Summer resident Dawn Alexander-Halla is a John Lyons Certified Horse Trainer, as well as a British Horse Society trained riding instructor. For several years friends tried to convince her to teach riding on Vinalhaven, but she declined. However, after hearing about the hassle some islanders went through, as well as the expense, to take their children to the mainland for riding lessons she changed her mind. For the money they were spending on the mainland, Alexander-Halla felt “they were not getting half of what they should, they didn’t get the depth of knowledge they should.” With this in mind she set out to bring riding lessons to island children which provided total comfort, safety and convenience, and made riding a less exclusive sport. “There is an amazing life out there for people who love horses, if they are safe,” she said. “Safety first” could be Alexander-Halla’s motto. It is foremost on her mind when teaching riding, whether her students are four years old, or 40. “There are two ways to ride,” she said. “Both are acceptable. One is easy. The other way is hard work, but you are safe.” This more difficult, yet safer, method is the way she chooses to teach her students. From the beginning, students learn which muscle on the body turns the horse, which keeps them on the horse, and so on. This way, “when you fall you know what went wrong,” she explained. “I have had little ones who have fallen off and said ‘Oh, that muscle came off.’ Then they get back up and that muscle doesn’t come off again,” she continued. Her belief is that “automatic hard work keeps you safe.”
While Alexander-Halla strives to teach her students safety, she concedes that fear is a necessary part of riding. “Fear and riding are integral parts of each other,” she said. “You need fear, but the right type of fear; knowing you are not ready for something, not the fear of riding a horse or staying up on a horse. These are solvable fears. I give them the tools for solving these fears.”
Alexander-Halla offered two pony camps as well as private lessons for riders of all ages from July through mid-August. She had approximately 30 students, the youngest of whom was four-and-a-half years old, and eight of whom were adults. Pony camp, which lasted four hours per day for five days each session, was geared toward older children because they have longer attention spans. According to Alexander-Halla, at the beginning of the first pony camp in July, most students didn’t know about horses. “They were afraid to lead the horses, didn’t know how to put the bridle on, or if they would be safe,” she said. By the end of the first pony camp students knew not only how to put the bridle on a horse, but how to take it apart and put it back together as well. Riders also gained a wealth of knowledge about how to care for, lead and ride horses. Nine-year-old Blake Reidy chose to attend the first pony camp “because I liked horses so much and I always wanted to take lessons. Pony camp was longer [than private lessons] and you got to be on the horses longer,” she said. Reidy’s favorite part of pony camp was “being with the horses and being able to ride them and feed them.”
The second week of pony camp, in August, brought back most of the same students from the July session. Repeat students were what Alexander-Halla had hoped for, but not what she expected. “I was blown away that they came back!” she exclaimed. Second week students learned, among other things, to trot with the correct dynamics, how the body works with the horse to trot, the dynamics of jumping and how to lunge the horse for muscle development.
Seventh grader Hillary Bunker attended both weeks of pony camp. “I had never ridden a horse before and I thought it would be really fun,” she said. “[Dawn] is a really good teacher, and it’s fun to be taught by her.”
For those students too young for a four hour-per-day pony camp, Alexander-Halla offered hour-long group lessons. These kids, ages four-and-a-half to seven, learned the same things as the older kids, but at “more of a ‘look’ level than a ‘do’ level,” said Alexander-Halla. “I don’t want them to get hurt,” she said, “so I expose them from five or six steps back. Next year they will progress.”
Seven-year-old Ellie Reidy took three lessons a week. Her favorite part of riding lessons was learning to trot. “It felt really good to be on the horse,” she said.
At the end of each pony camp Alexander-Halla held a pony show for all students, adults included. While the pony show was “more for the riders, and less for the audience,” islanders took advantage of the opportunity to watch their kids’ new skills. Close to 100 people attended the first pony show. “It was a place for the riders to show off their skills and give them a sense of accomplishment,” she said. The students enjoyed the opportunity to show friends and family members what they had learned. “It was really fun because you got to show people all your stuff,” said Blake Reidy, “and some people taped it!” While many riders were nervous, Bunker said riding with an audience “was no different than normal because I was concentrating so hard on my position.” Evidently concentration did not diminish the fun factor, as Bunker can’t wait to do it again.
Pony show participants were treated to an authentic experience. Alexander-Halla’s husband acted as a judge, and ribbons for first, second and third place, as well as an honorable mention were given for each group of four riders. “It was cool that she decided to give awards,” said Bunker, who placed first in her group. “It was even more cool that she could get everybody ready to do a show in front of people.”
Alexander-Halla counts this summer’s riding program a success. “I absolutely loved every second,” she said. “It was brilliant!” And as she gets ready to head back to Ireland where her family resides during the rest of the year, she will have a lot to think about. “I have big plans,” she said, which include the possibility of starting a pony club on Vinalhaven, as well as something exciting that she wasn’t yet ready to share.
If Bunker has anything to say about it, Alexander-Halla will be teaching riding for a long time to come. “I’m really glad Dawn is coming back, and I’m really glad she decided to teach this and do it all the summers that she comes!” she said.