My chestnut pony Gingersnap first made the long journey with me to summer camp in New York’s Adirondack Mountains when she’d been in our family for just over a year. She was barely 4-years-old. I was 12. Loaded into an open-sided flatbed truck for the trip North, I met her a few days later at Camp MacCready. This sister camp to Camp Pok-O-Moonshine, a converted military boys camp, also clung to rituals like morning inspections, Sunday vespers and eating en masse in a mess hall. Fortunately, the girls camp had a horse program with its own rituals where I learned to ride just two seasons earlier.
I’ve never been a morning person. Not even the lure of getting up early for a horse show works. So as a tween at camp, rolling out of my top bunk to join the other ‘horse masters’ to feed our hungry charges and muck manure-laden stalls, all before breakfast served precisely at 8 a.m., was a daunting task. Most mornings the head riding counselor would come get me out of bed, since all the horses had to be fed at the same time for fear of a barn riot. Eventually, my morning routine was established and my horsemanship skills, including pitchfork handling, wheelbarrow driving and manure pile management, improved.
As a barely saddle-broke pony, Ginger regularly bucked me off during our first year. Ring dirt and I were well acquainted. My parents had a teenager train her while I polished my stay-on skills on school horses. She had been sent to camp where counselors took over schooling her. So when we arrived, Ginger wasn’t my regular ride. By the end of summer, she was.
Pleasure Pony Dreams
As camp came to a close, we readied for the annual camp horse show. I was told I could ride Ginger in one flat class. My riding counselor entered us in the pleasure horse/pony class. “What? Pleasure? She’s the farthest thing from a pleasure pony,” was my young equestrian assessment. Despite protests, I laid out my show clothes and polished by brown paddock boots the night before. Meanwhile, a counselor tamed her long chestnut mane into tidy little braids held by brown yarn. I dreamed of a blue ribbon for my ‘pleasure’ pony.
The next morning I bolted out of bed. By midday, our class was called and atop Ginger we boldly walked into the makeshift ring. Its outline marked by a fence of burnt orange wooden slats held together with wire, more suited for keeping back blowing snow than encircling show horses. We went though our paces to the left – walk, trot, canter – then reversed and executed the walk and trot to the right. On the far side of the ring the senior camper tents – worn green canvas perched on wooden platforms, most likely surplus from one of the world wars, I’m going to guess the first one – were softly flapping in the late summer breeze.
“All canter, please. All canter,” the ringmaster commanded. Once around the ring, pleasurably, we went. As Ginger rounded the far side of the ring, she decided flapping tents were scary. Bolt, buck, bounce, buck, and upon landing I heard the ringmaster, “All walk, please. All walk.” With a mighty upward pull of my right arm, left hand braced deep into those braids, I stopped her in mid third buck. Whew! What timing. I had her at the walk just at the right time. But I knew we’d blown our chance of being pinned a pleasure pony. “All line-up, numbers towards the judge please,” came the final instructions.
“In sixth place… fifth place…,” came the results from the loud speaker. By the time second place was announced I was ready to walk out of the ring. “In first place, number 22, Gingersnap!”
“What? Pleasure? She’s the farthest thing from a pleasure pony,” was my young equestrian assessment. I had a confused look on my face as I turned towards the ringmaster to get my blue ribbon. To this day, I don’t know how we won that class. My young equestrian assessment was that the judge was rewarding me for staying on. My adult hindsight says the judge didn’t see our acrobatics, since the pleasure class is judged on the horse’s performance not the talent of the rider. Who knows? However, the faded Polaroid of that moment, with a blue ribbon tucked in her bridle and a silver plate clutched in my hand, remains once of my favorite images in the scrapbook of my summer camp career.