A group of 10 kids between the ages of 10 and 14 huddled around a palomino horse named Vanilla on a recent afternoon at New Mexico State University’s Equine Education Center.
It was the second day of a youth horsemanship camp offered by NMSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences, and the campers each took turns painting Vanilla’s beige coat with non-toxic paint until the horse’s body resembled a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.
The painting exercise was one of the last activities in the two-day camp – one of three youth horsemanship camps held this summer at NMSU to teach youth about equine health, nutrition and anatomy and help improve their horseback riding skills.
“This is our first year back after COVID-19,” said Hannah Bilovesky, equine science instructor and director of NMSU Therapeutic Riding. “We started these camps in 2018 to get kids involved with horses and get them outside and active. But we couldn’t host camps in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. It’s been so much fun to get back in the saddle and engage with younger generations interested in horses.”
Bilovesky, who leads the equine science program at NMSU, developed three levels of camps for children 5 to 14 years old. Each camp had similar educational goals but provided different levels of skills and techniques to accommodate participants’ ages and riding experience.
The first camp for children 5 to 9 years old, held in June, focused on grooming, tracking and riding skills for beginning riders. The second camp for youth 10 to 14 years old, also held in June, covered the same topics but included workshops on equine anatomy and nutrition.
Earlier this month, Bilovesky introduced an advanced camp for 10- to 14-year-olds with previous riding experience. Participants in the newest camp trained in barrel racing, pole bending and other competitive games to improve their skills in steering and loping. They also tie-dyed T-shirts and painted a horse.
“This was a brand-new camp I launched this year for kids who already have some horse experience,” Bilovesky said. “It was geared toward helping kids refine their horsemanship skills and helping them become more competitive.”
In total, 40 to 45 children from Las Cruces and the surrounding areas participated in the camps this summer, said Bilovesky, who ran the camps with support from two NMSU students, Aleynnah Anderson and Caitlyn Sanchez, both animal science majors.
“We’re probably one of the only summer horsemanship camps in southern New Mexico,” she said. “The nice thing about our program is that we provide the horses, the tack and equipment, which makes it a lot easier for kids and their parents.”
Anderson said operating the camps with Bilovesky meant a rare opportunity to work directly with horses. NMSU’s equine science program maintains a resident herd of 50 horses, 17 of which were used in the camps.
“I am trying to pursue a veterinarian degree in large animals,” Anderson said, “but I hadn’t been able to work with horses until I started this internship.”
Sanchez, who was looking to boost her resume when she took the camp internship, said working with horses and kids was a rewarding, sometimes challenging, learning experience.
“I was caught off guard by how much I enjoyed working with the kids,” Sanchez said. “They get really excited about being around the horses, and even just teaching them fundamentals helps us develop those basic skills as well. These camps have helped me a lot and boosted my confidence in working with and understanding horse language.”
Bilovesky said the camps serve as a tool for community outreach and engagement and support the missions of NMSU and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. She added that the camp fees help fund the equine science program and student organizations like NMSU’s equestrian team.
“The horses used for the horsemanship camps are the same ones our equestrian team members practice and compete on. They are also used by our college students who take our equine science classes, so the money we raise from our camps supports many aspects of our program,” she said.
Bilovesky plans to offer the camps again next summer, with registration starting in May 2023. She advised parents and guardians to sign up their children early, as capacity is limited.
For more information, visit https://anrs.nmsu.edu/horse-camps.html.