Thinking about fun at summer camp might conjure up activities like archery, canoeing, crafts, swimming or hiking in the woods. But for many campers in Northeast Ohio, summer camp isn’t summer camp unless there are animals. Whether learning to ride a horse or wrangling a goat, shearing a sheep or snuggling with a bunny, summer camps in the region have plenty of opportunities for your family to get back to nature. There are plenty of options from which to choose, but one thing is certain: if there are animals as part of summer camp, local camp directors say it likely means campers will benefit in a number of ways.
Summer camp often is a chance for kids to grow and learn to be more independent versions of themselves, and camp staff in the area say they see animals as an integral part of that process.
Horses are a common activity at camps because they can be such an effective teaching tool. Dave Devey, camp director and owner of Falcon Camp, says working with horses can teach campers confidence, responsibility, communication and patience, and make them “overall a more-rounded individual.”
In fact, the sheer size of horses often makes them a good confidence booster for campers; Devey says horse riding can help younger kids feel like a “superhero.”
“When you get on a thousand-pound horse, you know, as an 8- or 9-year-old and that horse is listening to every little thing that you’re asking it to do, there’s no better self-esteem and confidence booster than that,” he says. “There’s a sense of accomplishment when you get down off that horse and that horse starts rubbing on you, showing affection and showing love.”
Working with animals at camp also can be a chance to face the unknown or overcome fears in a low-risk setting, and spending time working with animals produces an obvious effect on campers, says Brent Grundke, ranch manager at Hiram House Camp.
“You can see self-esteem improvements right away,” he says. “And by the end of the week, you can see a difference. I’ve seen children that come in as quiet as a mouse walking away like they’re about to do Broadway.”
Reconnect with Nature
The onsite farmstead at Hiram House Camp in Chagrin Falls means animal interactions go way beyond a few horse riding sessions.
“The kids are going to participate in shearing our sheep. We collect eggs. When we have baby cows, they’ll feed baby cows their milk; take care of bunnies and rabbits. They help wrangle goats,” Grundke says. “They all get a chance to do this hands-on.”
This is all by design, Grundke says, to help combat the fact that for some children in Northeast Ohio, going to summer camp is just about the only time they can directly interact with the natural world. Campers may have pets at home, or see squirrels or the occasional deer, but Grundke says spending time at the farmstead strips away some of the everyday barriers erected between kids and nature. This is particularly true for the kinds of animals found on a farm, and eventually a plate, he says, as he regularly has campers who don’t realize that their McDonald’s hamburger came from a cow or that eggs came from a chicken. Of course, young campers can have typically large reactions to such realizations, Grundke says.
“Some are a little grossed out and some are overly excited — ‘oh my gosh this is where it’s coming from,’” he says with a laugh.
Humorous reactions aside, Courtney Guzy, executive director of Hiram House Camp, says these are sometimes “massive growth moments” for some campers.
“You get this feeling that we really, really open their eyes to something new,” she says.
Working with others
At camp, a few four-legged friends can be a real asset in helping shy campers make camp buddies. In particular, animals can bring together kids who might otherwise struggle to find a connection — “it’s the ultimate ice breaker,” Grundke says.
“When you get four kids who don’t know each other on horses, that’s the time, when they’re going to start talking to each other, because they’re experiencing something new for the first time but together,” he says.
At Chagrin Valley Farm’s Horsemanship Camp, the focus on horses and riding makes finding common ground with new friends easy, says Camp Manager Sue Ford. The result often is friends that last far longer than one summer.
“(Camp friendship) crosses barriers and boundaries,” she says, “and they’re friends, you know, often for life, because they have that horse thing in common.”
Camp, no matter how fun the activities and how great the facilities, also has the potential for big emotions — fights with friends, homesickness, loneliness. When a camp features animals, however, it can be a secret weapon for camp staff.
“Sometimes when you have a homesick camper, when you have a camper who’s having a tough day, and they come to you and they want to talk,” says Devey of Falcon Camp, “it’s not unusual for one of us to take a walk with them and end up out at the stables. Because you can stand there next to a horse, and while you’re talking, you can pet it or get a little bit of grain and feed them a little bit. It helps you feel better about yourself when you’re taking care of someone else.”
Beyond helping staff soothe campers’ raw emotions, though, horses give campers a chance to learn how to better navigate their own relationships in a hands-on manner.
“When they overcome an issue with a horse — maybe the horse is being stubborn, maybe the horse is just having a bad day — you can do a lesson with these children that even animals have bad days. And when you get the opportunity for these kids to realize that every horse has a different personality, just like humans do, it’s a significant life lesson,” Devey says. “And when they leave here, they’re going to recognize that and it’s going to translate to other human interactions, as well. Not just with animals.”
Chagrin Valley Farm’s Ford, who also has experience with using ponies and dogs for therapeutic work, agrees. She says there’s something “sort of magical” about children getting hands-on contact with horses.
“The horses don’t wake up and say, ‘okay, I’m going to set out to make somebody’s day,’” Ford says. “They just naturally emanate something that helps make our day.”
Over the years, Ford says she’s noticed a greater need for the value a relationship with a horse can provide.
“Teenagers today — it just seems like they have so much more anger, anxiety and things that they’re worried about and things that consume them emotionally,” she says. “And I just can’t even tell you how many times I have watched the horses’ presence here treat that, make that go away, even if just temporarily.”
While it may seem strange, one of the benefits of summer camps with animals is that they involve a good bit of hard work. Campers at Hiram House help wrangle goats. At Falcon Camp, they volunteer to clean horse stalls. Before riding at Chagrin Valley Horse Camp, the campers tack their own horses.
After all, at these camps the animals are not a novelty. They’re not an attraction. They’re something that takes work, and Ford says that’s an aspect of camp that parents tend to appreciate.
“Parents really loved the fact that we’re teaching them to do, the tasks, if you will, and learning the responsibility involved (with animals),” she says.
Guzy says the staff at Hiram House Camp often hears from parents who are appreciative the camp gets their kids to do physical work with animals — washing, brushing and cleaning stalls — and away from screens. Hiram House Camp, like many camps that feature animals, is a technology-free camp.
“We like it that way because it gives kids a chance to unplug, to get outside and interact with each other, interact with animals, to be a kid, you know?” Guzy says. “We take a lot of pride in doing that.”
By keeping kids off their phones, it opens them up to things they might otherwise miss while trying to record it for posterity, she says.
“What we see happening is, especially with our smaller animals, kids just cuddling up and loving on them and really taking their time and getting to know them,” Guzy says. “Otherwise, I think if we let the kids have their cellphones, they’d be videotaping them, taking selfies and you lose that bond.”
Logan, 12, attends Hiram House House Camp in the summer and works with the farm animals on the camp’s Double H Ranch.
His mom, Lindsey Auerbach, who also attended the camp as a child, says the activities are unlike those offered at traditional day camps.
“The outdoor experiences, as well as the outdoor education, places kids in an adventurous environment that enables them to discover new things,” she says.
Logan has always had a love of animals, and his mom says he is a great example of the benefits of animal therapy.
“He always loved to pet, hug and learn about any animal he encountered,” she says. “When Logan is with animals, he is able to calmly focus on the animal’s need, feels incredibly happy and very confident. His personal experiences with the animals at Hiram House has really fostered that growth. He has learned how to care for animals but even more so, he learned how to sense the needs and communication of the animals.”
She says riding horses has taught him how to sense and respect what the animal is communicating.
“He has developed a true sense of self confidence and trust in his skills through his interactions and the incredibly supportive environment at the barn,” she says.
— By Angela Gartner
Looking for more information on area camps? Check out our Camp Directory for animal-focused camps, in addition to many other types of camps.