It has been a blessing and a privilege to work as a wrangler this summer with the horses; riding, training, taking care of them, and teaching campers to do the same in addition to developing their own love and admiration for these magnificent creatures. I believe the barn fulfills an essential niche in the HoneyRock program for its use of live animals in an activity area; for when campers are at the barn, they ride half-ton living, breathing creatures, and not something man-made. Because horses are unpredictable and exciting animals, they force campers to interact with the natural world and nature’s laws in ways which the other activities do not require.
I purpose to outline my summer experience as a wrangler and highlight those things which in my opinion went well and also which things need to be improved or changed.
The wrangler summer began the second week of May and we received roughly four to six weeks of training, first from the Ranch Coordinator and then from the Certified Horsemanship Association clinic. This training was helpful even for the most talented barn staff and absolutely essential for us wranglers who were less experienced in riding or teaching. Of particular value was the CHA clinic, which trained us in teaching horsemanship skills to campers of various ages and skill levels. As a more inexperienced rider and a green instructor, I was exceptionally benefited by the clinic and was well-prepared to teach campers to ride. The clinic also gives the Ranch Coordinator flexibility when hiring staff, for in the event that recruiting seven highly skilled rider-instructors is impossible, she can draw upon a larger pool of willing but less skilled applicants who, when trained, provide competent instructors for the barn.
The time spent training the wranglers and developing group cohesion enabled us to work as a team and built the foundation of a friendly and professional summer. Staff rides and excursions or overnight trips were valued highly and kept the staff motivated through the camper sessions.
The position of Head Wrangler needs to be either significantly altered or discarded. Previously, the positions of Head Wrangler and Ranch Coordinator were divorced; the Head Wrangler ran the day-to-day routine of the barn and the Ranch Coordinator took charge of the administrative aspects of the barn such as herd size, feed, facilities, maintenance, etc. But the current position of Ranch Coordinator has married the two and therefore their relationship is vague and redundant. If the Head Wrangler position is retained, it should be far more of a supportive role (i.e. “ranch coordinator assistant”) than the Head of the Barn that it was four years ago.
I come now to the most important subject of this reflection: the herd. Maintaining a horse program creates unique challenges for the HoneyRock administration. Horses have a limited lifespan in which they can effectively work and a limited workday. Currently, the HoneyRock herd is too small for the tasks it is asked to perform. We have 20 saddle horses that are usable for trail riding and arena work, and they are asked to work ten hours a day, six days a week. They cannot work this hard and remain the high-quality animals that we require, for they are not automations; they are living beings who cannot work as a boat can work, and they become overworked just as people do.
When a horse is overworked it ceases to listen to the cues of a new rider and becomes obstinate and grumpy. Horses such as these are extremely detrimental to the camper’s barn experience and frustrate (sometimes to the point of tears) both camper and instructor. Furthermore, wranglers cannot condition overworked horses, and for lack of training, once-fine mounts become surly and unreliable. This has been demonstrated this summer as horses that were wonderful for Basic students cease to listen the moment a new rider is placed on their back. The horse program is meant to be challenging and fun, but it is neither when a horse ceases to listen to a student of any skill level.
There is also the problem of age. Almost half the herd is over the age of twenty (which corresponds to roughly sixty of our years), and they will soon need to be retired from the barn program and replaced.
In light of these two issues facing the herd, the size of the herd should be increased by at least six, bringing the number of usable saddle horses to twenty-six. The new horses should be as dependable and as young as possible – well under the age of ten. This increase would permit each horse in the herd to have every third day off and allow for accidents such as lameness or soreness. The herd should also be kept as young as practical, for young, willing mounts provide a far richer experience for campers than tired, old nags that refuse to go faster than a walk.
Finally, the HoneyRock administration should consult the Ranch Coordinator for advice or recommendations whenever it makes decisions concerning the barn and use her insight as much as possible. She knows the barn, the horses, and the camper program very well and her experience as Ranch Coordinator is invaluable to the administration.