Aside World Magazine
Fall 2019 Issue
When Summer Goes Sideways
By Alyssa Murphree for Paws and Rewind
For most equestrians, summer riding camp is a concept reminiscent of their childhood. Days spent at the barn bumbling around on scruffy lesson ponies, wearing patterned riding tights, and sprinting over jumps without a care are replaced by careers, families, and trying to balance riding time with life.
But who said the fun had to stop once you reached adulthood? What if your adolescent dreams of riding a horse in a flowing dress or chasing the hunt in a formal habit straight out of an 1800's era painting could come true? Every summer in New Jersey, a group of women gather to pursue these very dreams. In their own take on the camaraderie of The Saddle Club, they assemble at Camp Leaping Horn.
Camp Leaping Horn was founded in 2007 by Shelly Liggett, president of the International Side Saddle Organization (ISSO). A few successful side saddle clinics held at the United States Equestrian Team Headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey in the few years prior, led to the fruition of a full fledged camp and a total emersion side saddle experience at the same location. In 2018, Liggett passed the reins to a new Camp Director, Jennifer Stevenson, a side saddle enthusiast and long time supporter of Camp.
Campers can come to the four-day long camp and expect a wide array of activities, from riding lessons, to unmounted lectures and workshops, glamorous photo-shoots, shopping from vendors, and more. Attendees are close knit, but more diverse than you can imagine. Ladies, both new to and those seasoned to riding aside, as well as their teachers for the week, flock from all across the United States, Canada, and even as far as the U.K to attend Camp. Some riders attend to sharpen their skills before fox hunting season, or the next parade in which they will be wearing historical attire. Others may travel to Camp with hopes of adding some additional flair to their daily line of work.
Professional mermaid and stunt actress Virginia Hankins is the owner and founder of Sheroes Entertainment, LLC, a company which provides trained mermaids, knights, unicorns, and more to make party and film appearances. She made the trek from Los Angeles, California to Northern New Jersey, where fox hunting and side saddle history runs deep, for the first time last year for the purpose of being able to incorporate side saddle riding into her unicorn party appearances.
"Last year was my first year at Camp Leaping Horn and I knew nothing. I always wanted to try it, had some books, but that was it," said Hankins. "There was nothing available to me on the West Coast. So I've actually learned all of the basics here at Camp Leaping Horn over the last two years."
The majority of Camp Leaping Horn's instructors hold teaching and judging accreditations related especially to side saddle riding--from organizations such as ISSO, the Side Saddle Association of the U.K., not to mention their accolades in hunters, jumpers, and dressage. They all possess a wealth of knowledge, having been taught themselves by renowned experts of side saddle. The same passion for the discipline keeps them coming back to teach at Camp year after year. Many have taught at Camp since its early years, such as Anne Moss of Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
Moss, who is an ISSO and SSA certified instructor, USDF Bronze and Silver medalist, United States Pony Club A graduate and National Examiner, USEF small 'r' dressage judge, and large 'R' Western dressage judge, was invited by Liggett to teach at Camp in the very beginning, close to its inception.
"She'd done a number of clinics at the USET that were really successful, and I guess successful enough that she thought she could put a whole week together with a side saddle camp, and I think the whole side saddle community was screaming for the idea," reminisced Moss. "It's just such a rarity to spend time with another side saddle rider, that to spend a week at Camp with them (or even half a week) is just such an amazing, amazing opportunity. So I think Shelly talked me into teaching the first year, and I've been back every other year that I could."
"I've had so many opportunities to help people with their riding with their horses, and to sort of point their noses in the right direction so they can go off and become successful. So as a teacher, introducing beginners to side saddle has been a real thrill for me. That's something that I have always really enjoyed and being able to do it for side saddle riders is especially fun," she added. "But then also taking a more advanced rider and just giving them the skills they need to ride their horse aside like they would astride, and to give them the aids, and the timing of their aids to help them really get through to their horses so the horses can start to go well--that's always quite exciting to me."
At Camp, riders participate in one or two mounted lessons a day, the option open as to whether they would rather ride astride or aside, with the end goal being to develop a well rounded and balanced rider regardless of saddle. Campers ride in small groups or individually and rotate between multiple instructors throughout the week, thus receiving thorough feedback from a variety of professionals.
"I really enjoy working with a variety of instructors, because every single person has a different element that they're great at teaching," noted Hankins, "and what I really love about that is that some people are more analytical, some people are more empathic and you get a variety every single day."
It's not just the riders and instructors who bring their own unique attributes to Camp. The stables possess everything from the quintessential hunt field thoroughbreds and warmbloods, to BLM Mustangs, draft crosses, and even a petite, pinto pony, a Camp standout affectionately known as "Macaroni the Wonder Pony", Hankins' mount for the week who was loaned to Camp from a The Black Fox Farm of Pittstown, New Jersey.
"Something that maybe you're wondering is, 'if I don't have a horse, can I still come?', and the answer is absolutely," emphasized Hankins. "Not only does Camp Leaping Horn allow people like myself who cannot just afford to cross-country trailer my horse all the way to New England, but they also have auditors. So if you're maybe on the fence, don't really have experience, might be a little unsure, you can still come and see everything, ask questions, participate in lectures, and still be very welcome. And again, if you are an experienced rider, and just can't haul your horse cross country, I've found that the Camp staff has been incredibly accommodating and able to help me get a horse, as well as tack, while I'm here. So don't be afraid to ask, because they might be able to help you too."
Attending Camp Leaping Horn is a newly found annual tradition as well for Abigail Thurston, who hauled her BLM Mustang Alvaro close to three hours to Camp from the Hershey, Pennsylvania area.
"The things that I look forward to when I come to Camp is that I'm with a group of people who want to have a good time, and they're all really interested in doing side saddle intensively. So everybody's coming, looking to work really hard. They know it's going to be a really long and hard week and everybody's pretty like minded, but they still want to have a good time," she said. "It's relaxed, it's a friendly atmosphere where people won't judge you."
Like Hankins, she too attended Camp for the first time as a beginner to riding aside.
"The Camp Leaping Horn instructors actually started me on my foundation to side saddle. So I came here having never sat in a side saddle to now comfortably walking, trotting, and cantering in both directions, and we have aspirations to maybe someday jump. But they always put on the good foundations and safety for the side saddle, and that's what they've taught me," said Thurston.
At the conclusion of the week, The Roger Trophy was presented to Thurston for having been the most improved rider of the week, as voted by the camp's instructors. The trophy was sponsored by the Stevenson Family this year in memory of former instructor and longtime supporter of Camp, as well as internationally renowned "Grandfather of Side Saddle" Roger Philpot, who passed away last year.
With a busy schedule and challenging riding lessons, rider self care is of utmost importance during the week, and Camp Leaping Horn campers are treated like royalty. All campers received a swag bag from Horsemen's outlet filled with equine goodies and products from a variety of Camp sponsors. Amongst the vendors were both massage therapist Christopher Smith of Round Table Therapy and physical therapist Dr. Kathryn Dowd of Metcon Mechanics, who offered free services, as well as other additional services to campers throughout their time at Camp. Black Diamond Designs, a custom leather and cloth sewing hobby shop, owned by Amy Magee, which specializes in tack and attire for side saddle riders was on location all week working on saddles and other leather accessories for campers. Paws and Rewind Photography was also on site to treat campers and auditors to a studio portrait photo-shoot fit for a queen. The ladies of Camp got to spend time applying their makeup and dressing in their formal habit, reenactment dress, or fun parade wear for the shoot. With the spirit of Camp in full display, the "dressing room" bustled with ladies helping each other style hair, assist with tying stock ties, and lending pieces of their extensive apparel collections without hesitation.
"My favorite part of Camp, I have to admit, might be the dressing up," said Mary Pat Gallagher of The Amwell Valley Hounds, a first time Camp Leaping Horn attendee. "The community at Camp has been really, really welcoming. I was worried that, this was my first time ever doing side saddle, and my horse's, so I wasn't sure if I would be able to find the right equipment and be able to get myself situated with everything you need, but everyone jumped in, was helping you, lending you stuff. I think three people wore my top hat, which is probably the only piece of equipment I came with that was actually side saddle related," she laughed.
Every year, Camp culminates with two opportunities for campers to show off their newly honed skills aside. The Liberty Side Saddle Network has been holding their show Side Saddle at the USET closely in conjunction with Camp Leaping Horn for over a decade. The Saturday following Camp consists of an open, unrated show and Sunday's events are USHJA/USEF "C" rated and host the USHJA Zone 2 Horse of the Year Side Saddle Championship. The show also offers a SSA affiliated equitation class that gives riders the opportunity to qualify for the SSA's National Side Saddle Show in the UK. Due to the heat wave that swept the country and resulted in the cancellation of numerous equestrian events in concern of horse and rider welfare, Side Saddle at the USET was cancelled for 2019, but expects to return next year.
Some big changes are in store for Camp Leaping Horn, with a fall version to debut this year, coinciding with the recent purchase of an equestrian facility by Camp Director Jennifer Stevenson. "With the camaraderie and educational opportunities of Camp, I feel it is important to continue to grow and supplement the side saddle community with a variety of inclusive educational and social experiences," Stevenson said. "We are looking to add a fall Camp this year in Stockton, New Jersey, which will focus on fox hunting basics and riding aside in the field. The weekend will culminate with capping opportunities from gracious local hunts."
The Camp community remains strong once the horses are hauled home and the habit is put away. Many keep in touch through the Camp's Facebook group, some register as members of ISSO and regularly meet up to promote the organization, and some support and cheer each other on at horse shows, races, and events--sometimes competing against astride riders!
For Hankins, Camp Leaping Horn brings forth feelings quite similar to that of the carefree, horse-filled summer vacation we all used to know and love.
"For me its a chance to relax and just go focus on myself and horses for an entire week. To be in a beautiful environment that looks like a fairytale, and to really immerse myself, once again, in enjoying horses. Not just getting up every morning and doing chores, but really riding and challenging myself and being in a spectacular location that I can smile about for the rest of the year. "
For more information on upcoming events from Camp Leaping Horn, please visit their website:
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