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Summer camp riding safety

From: Lindy

Dear Jessica, my son wants to go to overnight camp this summer for the first time ever. I will miss him but I am okay with the idea. He is nine. He has picked out a camp where one of his friends goes, and I wrote to them and asked for information. Evan is very excited about riding horses at camp, but I was shocked when I read the rules. I don't want to send him to this camp. The photos show the leaders riding without helmets, and then there is the part that scared me even more:

"Protective head gear/helmets are mandatory for campers ring riding and trail rides, except protective head gear/helmets are optional for walking trail rides where the owners of the camp have raised their own horses, know the history and temperament of the horses, and are directly involved in the horseback riding program."

I rode a lot when I was younger and my best friend runs a small stable a few miles from where we live. I discussed this with her and she said I was right, that this was a completely irresponsible "rule" and would give campers the wrong idea. Everyone who rides at Katie's barn wears a riding helmet or they can't ride. They can't get on a horse for one second if they don't have their helmet on. Katie NEVER gets on a horse without her helmet. I bet you're wondering what my question is! Here it is.

My husband and I are separated and he doesn't approve of the way I'm raising Evan (I'm the custodial parent, which should tell you something). When Evan is with him, he does whatever Evan wants to do even if it's not safe. I know he lets Evan go horseback riding without a helmet because he brags about how Evan won't be a "sissy" if he can do anything about it. Now he's on my case about this camp. I don't have a problem with Evan going to camp or riding horses at camp, but I want to be sure that the riding program is run well and that helmets are required for everybody INCLUDING the adults who are there.

Jessica, I don't know if you ever went to overnight camp when you were a kid, but I did, and I just completely worshipped the riding counselors. They were like God to me. The other kids felt the same. We tried to talk like them and ride like them, one of them used to drop the reins on the horse's neck and twist his arms and his neck around, so we all did that too. Probably he just had a stiff neck. You know how your mother always said things like "If your best friend jumped off a cliff would you do that too?" Well if the question was "If the riding counselor jumped off a cliff would you do it too" then the answer would of been "YES" for all of us. I love it that my son seems to love horses like I do. But I want him to be safe, and sending him to a camp where the adult role models don't have to wear helmets, and the children wear them only some of the time, is something I don't feel comfortable with at all. My ex told me on the phone that I'm a "safety nazi". I know this is just him being horrible, this is why I don't want to be with him, but I need some support with this issue. Katie is supportive but she's just a local instructor. My husband doesn't ride much, I think he just does it with Evan so he can upset me. When he does ride, he does Western riding, and he knows who you are and has some respect for YOU so if you say this isn't the right camp, he'll listen. Please tell me I'm right, or if I'm wrong, tell me I'm wrong so I won't worry about my son being put at risk and getting the wrong ideas about riding safety if he goes to this camp.

Your devoted fan, Lindy

Hi Lindy! I agree with you 100%. My reaction to that paragraph was the same as yours - this is NOT a safe place or one run by sensible people. The people may be very nice, very kind, and very well-meaning, but they're not very realistic, either about the wisdom of this policy, or about the reality of horse-riding injuries, or about the influence of adults on children. Children are very honest and clear-sighted, and they're quick to discern the difference between "Don't do this, it's not safe, see, I don't do it either" and "Don't do this, it's not for YOU, but I can do it".

Children will not be fooled by what you say if what you DO is the opposite. Children WILL imitate the adults around them, whether they are drinking, smoking, handling firearms casually, driving without seatbelts, or riding without helmets. When someone says "You, the child, must use your seatbelt (or wear your riding helmet) because it's safer, but I, the ADULT, can go w ithout MY seatbelt (or helmet)", the message is very clear: Grown-ups don't need seatbelts (or helmets), children HAVE to use them, therefore a sign of being grown-up is.... leaving the seatbelt unfastened or the helmet in the barn.

I think you are wise to look for a better camp for your son. I realize that the pictures and words in the brochure may not necessarily match the camp precisely, but brochures give camps a place to advertise their facilities and programs and "put their best foot forward". Some camps may be, in practice, a little more relaxed than their lists of strict rules and policies would seem to indicate, but it's very unlikely that any camp or school will be MORE regulated, MORE safety-oriented, MORE careful, and MORE sensible than the policies they list in their brochure.

I'm sure the people who wrote that paragraph thought they were being very reasonable and sensible - but they weren't. Let's take it apart and look at it closely - as you obviously did. I'll put the camp's words between quotation marks, and my comments immediately after.

"Protective head gear/helmets are mandatory for campers ring riding and trail rides,..."

"...except protective head gear/helmets are optional for walking trail rides..."

"...where the owners of the camp have raised their own horses, know the history and temperament of the horses, and are directly involved in the horseback riding program."

When your child goes somewhere in someone else's car, would you say "Oh, fine" if the driver handed you a piece of paper that read "Riders must wear seatbelts except during slow drives on country roads, where the owners of the car know their car's history"? Even if the car's owners had designed and BUILT the car and were the best drivers in the world, how would that make the car accident-proof and the children safe? You are absolutely right to be concerned about this wording and the ideas behind it.

Katie sounds like a good friend and a good instructor; you're lucky to know her. Have you thought of asking HER to help you find a camp for Evan? She might know of a good one.

As for your husband's comments... they were wrong, and he could use some help with his vocabulary. There are words that should never be used casually, stupidly, or inappropriately, much less in a deliberate attempt to hurt someone who is trying to protect her child. Send him to the HORSE-SENSE archives, and have him read the "Helmet Stories" section. He needs to know the implications of riding without a helmet. Don't try to lecture him or persuade him, just let him do his own reading and come to his own conclusions. I can't promise that he'll "get it", but given what you've said about him, I think that it's very likely he'll absorb the information better if it doesn't come from YOU. ;-)


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