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The ride of their lives

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New summer camp brings kids, horses together

By Stephen Lega

Vincente Venegas had never seen a horse in person until last week, when he participated in the Unbridled Hope Horsemanship Camp.

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"I was like, 'Holy crap, they are huge,'" said Venegas, 11, of Lebanon.

He admitted that he was nervous about riding the horse at first, although he's glad that he did.

"It's actually fun now," he said.

Venegas is one of more than a dozen campers who participated in the camp, which was held near Botland in Nelson County.

Pam Smith is the camp organizer. She is a psychotherapist who has an office in Lebanon and has worked with local schools. She also has an affinity for horses.

A few years ago, she decided to combine those interests to create Unbridled Hope Therapeutic Riding, LLC. She has been doing equine therapy with individual children, including individuals with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and Asperger syndrome.

She has observed the physical benefits that come from riding, but she knows there are emotional and mental benefits as well, in part, based on her own experience.

"There's a lot of learning with horses, and really, horses are my therapy," Smith said.

This is the first year she has hosted a camp, and she credits Suzanne Peterson for giving her the encouragement to try it. Smith was quick to add that the camp wouldn't have been possible without the volunteers who helped her throughout the week.

Peterson is the Family Resource Center coordinator at Calvary and Glasscock Elementary Schools. She was one of the camp volunteers, and she helped get a bus from the Marion County School to transport children to and from the camp. The camp included children from Bradfordsville, Calvary, Gravel Switch, Lebanon, Loretto, Raywick and Campbellsville.

"We have about 10 on our bus, but it sounds like 30 in the morning," Peterson said. "They are so excited to be here."

And based on what she's seen, she remains confident that Smith will make the camp a success.

"I have a feeling it will be as big as she wants it to be," Peterson said.

Wednesday, Smith stood in the center of a fenced-in ring. Three campers sat atop three horses as volunteers walked beside them. The children rode in one direction, then another, and played Follow the Leader by circling and weaving in between wooden posts.

"Let's hear some good, 'Woahs'," Smith said.

On a count of three, the campers all said "Woah" and the horses stopped.

Todd Simpson drove the bus to the camp, but on the first day, he became a volunteer as well. He was impressed by what he saw.

"On Monday, a lot of kids could hardly sit in the saddle, and here we are on the third day and she's about to let some of them loose on their own," he said.

Smith said horses are good for children in a variety of ways.

She knows children will become frustrated about certain things, but that also provides opportunities to teach them anger management and problem solving skills.

For children with hyperactivity issues, the horses can also have a calming effect.

"The horse will mimic what the child is feeling," Smith said. "The goal is to get [the child] to calm down, and the horse will calm down."

In addition to basic riding skills, the students also learned about proper grooming, in part by working with miniature horses.

At one point, Clayton James Tungate, 9, of Loretto was leading - or attempting to lead - Scarlett, a miniature horse, around a ring.

"Quit being stubborn," he said.

With some more encouragement, the horse did continue. If Tungate held a grudge, it didn't show. At the end of their walk, he put conditioner in Scarlett's mane.

Rebekah Taylor of Lebanon, another volunteer, said working with the miniature horses helped kids who were uncomfortable around the larger ones.

"They get confident as the week goes on," she said.

The campers also got to see several demonstrations. Paul Estridge, a farrier, made a horseshoe and showed the campers how to use a lasso. Baylee Cissell showed them her barrel-riding skills, and Linda Taylor, a preschool teacher at West Marion Elementary and a camp volunteer, said her husband would be demonstrating gated horse riding.

"[Smith] is trying to show them a variety of things that horses can do," Linda Taylor said.

And if that wasn't enough, the campers also had craft projects throughout the week. On Wednesday, they made mop horses.

Peterson said the Unbridled Hope camp is a good contrast to a typical summer camp, such as a sports camp.

"The pace is slower, but the kids love it," she said. "They're able to focus on what they are trying to do."

During a short break before lunch, Logan Peterson, 11, of Calvary called out, "Pam, watch" before tossing a lasso around a plastic bullhead. He said before last week, he'd never seen a rope used as a lasso.

Smith said the kids and the horses have done well this week. She said she knows some of them have bonded since kids were requesting to ride certain horses. While she said she wanted the campers to learn horse skills, she also hoped they had been touched in some deeper way during the camp, too.

"Sometimes hope is all we have," Smith said. "Life can get hard sometimes."

For more information about Unbridled Hope, call (270) 692-8507.