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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Little Hope For Me, Part 2

Here is an aerial view of Little Hope Ranch, taken some time during the past 10 years (not current):
I found this courtesy of the Facebook group, "The Girls of Little Hope Ranch," to which a reader directed me. WOW - this was really interesting to see! Yes, obviously there must have been some grass and quite a few trees there, even back in the late 70s when I attended camp. :-) I think my recollection of the geography is clouded by the fact that regardless, the environment in GA was still quite different from NJ, and I wasn't used to it.

The ladies who gather there on Facebook are an enthusiastic bunch with a lot of wonderful memories of Little Hope. I'm glad they all loved it so much! Many seem to have attended camp there for a number of years; perhaps they lived a lot closer than I did? At any rate, I would like to state unequivocally that it is not my intention to tarnish their memories, or to unfairly malign a place where I know many, many girls had a fantastic time for a lot of years. I can only write about my own experience... no, it certainly wasn't ALL bad, but I'm afraid I mostly remember the parts that were. I'm truly sorry if anyone is offended or if I've gotten something wrong; however, this is my blog and telling my story the way I remember it is important to me.

Please keep in mind, my whole experience at Little Hope was colored by the fact that my confidence in myself at that age (13) was practically non-existent. I was a sensitive kid, gullible, insecure and extremely easy to pick on. I definitely overreacted to things that would not have fazed a different kind of girl.

I had not been at the Ranch for long before I realized a couple of things: Patty Flower was going to do her best to cause me a lot of trouble, and "something" felt wrong at the place. I quickly learned that the general atmosphere of sadness was due to the owners' recent loss of their prize Arabian stallion. This was terrible news and I felt awful for them. It was intimated that a veterinary mistake was involved, which made me feel even worse, since I was interested in being a vet. At any rate, things were clearly not normal at the ranch. The schedule was loosely adhered to (nope, no Coke breaks at all. A minor quibble, of course, but I was disappointed) and discipline was lacking. The latter left Patty free to entertain herself with many games of "Let's Torture RiderWriter."

In the bunkhouse at night, there was a lot of taunting about the flatness of my chest and lack of experience with boys (hah, they didn't even know I existed). I was called names and teased about being a baby, a Mommy's girl, etc. I pretty much cried myself to sleep every night. In addition to the verbal harassment, probably the worst thing Patty did was take my favorite stuffed animal that I'd brought along and throw it under the bunkhouse, amongst the dirt, spiders, cobwebs and heaven knows what else that also inhabited the crawlspace. You can imagine how much fun it was retrieving the poor thing. This alone was more than enough to traumatize me, so everything else that went on just added to the trouble. Believe me, I would have had a bad time stuck anywhere with Patty back then, let alone a horse ranch!

I was assigned a little grey mare named Cricket as my mount for the week. The Arabians at the ranch did not resemble the hyper, blindingly shiny, mane-tossing steed at Madison Square Garden and that was actually a very good thing. :-) Although I was a decent rider by that age, I sure didn't need a "living flame of the desert" underneath me. Nowadays, I appreciate the ranch Arabs for what they were - actual riding horses, not over-exaggerated halter types like my dream horse there in the Garden. (Note: I'd love to show you a picture of Cricket, but I have no photos from LHR of my own, unfortunately. I don't think I was trusted with a camera and they didn't make disposables back then.)

Cricket was a sweet girl and I enjoyed grooming her and hanging out. Riding-wise, we got along fairly well. She was a little opinionated, and had plenty of experience informing the riders of all descriptions who were plopped on her back of when she was DONE listening. The life of a school horse is never easy, so in hindsight I completely understand her attitude. I don't remember if we went on any trail rides, but I know I had lots of riding time in a large ring (it was very hot and dusty but the nice swimming pool was a good place to escape afterwards). We did flatwork and jumping, and the extra saddle time compared to back home was terrific. I know we spent time preparing for the horse show which would be held on the last day of camp.

One of the more distressing events that occurred, however, was the day Cricket decided she was REALLY done and headed back to the barn a bit... prematurely. In other words, she grabbed the bit in her teeth and took off out of the open gate of the arena. I had been run away with once before (you can read about that incident in this post), but this time I knew what to do - turn the horse. This I finally achieved after tearing down the stretch aways. Alas, I also succeeded in being dumped unceremoniously in the dirt. I wasn't hurt, but the whole incident further undermined my already extremely shaky confidence. I never blamed Cricket or thought she was "bad;" I must have been doing something that upset her. Of course I got back on Cricket after that, whether the same day or the next, so I'm grateful I had the chance to try again.

One thing I'd really been looking forward to was spending time with foals. The barns where I'd been riding had never had one on the premises, so this would be a real treat. Unfortunately, either there were no foals around Little Hope that summer, or if there were, I was never able to handle them - I can't quite remember which. I think they were there, and just some of the other girls were able to work with them? I did spend a lot of time mucking stalls, which was a good learning experience, and I also found out about the importance of soaking beet pulp before feeding it to horses. I had never even seen nor heard of beet pulp before (Tricorne school horses got hay and sweet feed) so that was interesting.
Do YOU know what this is?
And speaking of new food, here's a funny story. I was an avid reader as a kid (still am), and enjoyed all kinds of books. I was frequently curious when people in books ate food with which I wasn't familiar. For example, the Ingalls family in the "Little House" series were always eating biscuits and gravy for breakfast. I didn't get this at all; why would anybody want the brown stuff you put on turkey for their breakfast? (That particular mystery wasn't solved until I went to college in Ohio. ;-) Another food I read about was some stuff called "grits," also commonly consumed at breakfast. I had absolutely no idea what a "grit" was, and frankly, it/they sounded awful. So one day as I went through the breakfast chow line at the Ranch, I pointed to a bowl of white stuff and innocently asked, "What is that? Oatmeal?" Girls all around me cracked up and the server gruffly replied, "No, that's grits, and you ought to try them." So I did (my mother raised me to try everything, bless her). Guess what? Grits are really good, and I'm still eating them to this day with butter and maple syrup. Biscuits and gravy, too.

The last day of camp was the big Horse Show. My parents were 850 miles away, so my mom's friend came to watch. I was issued a white blouse and red neckerchief like the rest of the campers so that we'd match, and we were all quite excited to have an audience. I think the horse show consisted of some drill team-type demonstrations and then flat and jumping "classes;" if so, there were no placements/ribbons from the latter. What I DO remember, in excruciating detail, is what happened at the end of the show. All of the campers were lined up on horseback, down the middle of the ring facing the audience (there were about 20 or 25 of us), like you would do at a regular horse show. One by one, riders were called forward. Each of us was to receive a certificate and a ribbon, either blue (first) or red (second), signifying our participation and progress at camp.
Here's what they looked like.
Parents, family and friends applauded loudly as each camper was named and handed her ribbon and certificate. I could hardly wait for my turn. Finally, something to feel good about! Time passed and one girl after another left the ring. Patty Flower went forward and was given a blue ribbon and a certificate. The line dwindled until there were only three riders left, including me... two... one. I was all by myself in the middle of the ring. Nothing happened. My name was not called. Finally, after a very long minute or two, the announcer said something like, "Well, we must have made a mistake, folks. Thanks for coming to Little Hope Ranch today and have a safe trip home!"

They had forgotten to make my certificate and get my ribbon.

Through a blur of tears I somehow made my way out of that ring. I will never forget the humiliation or heartbreak I felt. Someone told me to go to the ranch office and I did, leading Cricket. I waited outside for a few minutes, and then was handed my items with an apology. A certificate with my name on it... and a shiny, red, ribbon.

Yes, I know, cue the violins. I'm sorry if I'm being overly melodramatic, but that's what really happened. Of course I know this wasn't done on purpose, we can't all be winners and that in BC ("Before Computers") times it would have been easy enough for my name to get lost, but back then it was all rather hard to take. Perhaps now you can see why Little Hope turned out to not be the horse camp of my dreams.

I didn't know what became of the ranch after I went there, and thanks to the Facebook group, I'm glad to see it looks like it went on and prospered well into the 90s. I'm happy that other girls enjoyed every minute of their time there (in fact, my mom recently told me that one of the reasons I was sent to the ranch is friends of theirs had a daughter who'd had a ball). I'm sorry that I went when I was a low point in maturity, and not really ready to be off on my own. Things probably would have been different in just a few years, like they were when I went on a horse camping adventure that was one of the best times in my life. But that's a story for another blog post!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Little Hope For Me, Part 1

Ok, how many you attended some kind of summer camp as a kid? How many of you have sent your own kids off to one? My answer is yes to both, and my next couple posts (it will definitely take more than one to relate this tale) will be about my excursion to a horseback riding camp in Georgia, the summer I was 12 years old.

It all started when my parents genuinely wanted to provide me with a special treat. They always felt badly that I wasn't able to have my own horse, so when they found out about this riding camp where you were "assigned your 'very own horse' for the week" that must have sounded pretty good. I have no idea how they discovered the place, but next thing I knew I was being handed a brochure and told to see what I thought. I remember this very well, actually; the brochure was a three-page deal and prominently featured the "typical daily schedule." Riding twice a day, for at least an hour, on my "own" horse? (All I got was a weekly lesson at home) One-on-one training time with foals? Grooming time to my heart's content? Horse anatomy lessons? WOW, sign me up. Plus, for a person who has always been the hungry sort and interested in personal comfort, the three delicious meals in a dining hall, a swimming pool and an air-conditioned bunkhouse sounded good, too. The clincher was this: a 10-minute Coke break morning and afternoon. Call me shallow, but I specifically remember being impressed by this. We rarely drank soda in our house and the idea of being served it twice a day seemed like paradise.

Another draw to this camp was the fact that the place was apparently a breeding farm for Arabian horses. I had seen about three Arabian horses ever in my life to that point (H/J world in NJ not exactly populated by them), and those were the stallions raffled off every year at the National Horse Show in New York. They'd turn the lights down, and the horse would be led in and sent around the ring under a spotlight. It was terribly exciting, and my parents always bought me tickets and I'd stuff them hopefully into the big golden drum, knowing that this time I was just meant to win and own that horse (I planned to keep it in the garage; see earlier post). Praying so hard that that would happen must have used up a bunch of my Godly karma, I'm afraid.

As good as the camp sounded, I must admit I was worried about going there on my own. It was two weeks, after all, in far-off Georgia. I hadn't been away from home for that long before. No problem, the folks said: Patty Flower (*not her real name) can go with you! Yay! Only.... NOT yay, as far as I was concerned. This girl was also a rider, the daughter of friends, a year older than I but light-years ahead in physical and emotional maturity. Pretty much all she did when we were together was make fun of me and belittle my horse/riding knowledge. Frankly, she scared me. Did I tell my parents any of this? Nope. I wanted to go to the camp, and if the trade-off was dealing with Patty for two weeks, I figured it would be worth it.

So the plans were laid, the fees were paid, the flights were booked, an old friend of my mother's who lived near by was recruited to pick me up at the airport and get me there and back, and I was all set to head off for good times at...

Little Hope Ranch in Conyers, GA.

Yes, go ahead and laugh. That was the real name, and if ever the name of something should have been the harbinger of things to come, well, there ya go. It was explained in the brochure that it came into being when the family who started the ranch told people they were founding an Arabian horse-breeding establishment in that neck of the woods, and a lot of nay-sayers said they'd never make it. However, the place thrived and their horses won all kinds of awards, so the name was a joke and remind everyone of their perseverance and success in the face of the odds. I just found it hard to tell people where I was going!

I don't remember a thing about the trip down there, or arriving. I do know that (insert surprise here) the place looked and felt nothing, and I mean NOTHING, like I/we expected. Here's what I had pictured (and maybe there had been photos in the brochure, too):
This is an actual farm in North Georgia. If only.
And this is what I got:
Okay, okay, of course it really wasn't quite that bad but believe me, it was no place of verdant rolling pastures! I don't recall there being any pastures, as a matter of fact, just a lot of dirt... I could be wrong about that, but seriously, all I remember is a barn, a hill, a bunkhouse, a swimming pool, a headquarters/dining hall type building and a large riding ring with a grandstand. All sitting mostly on bare dirt, some rocks, and about four acres. There were trees surrounding the establishment, I believe. Horses? Not visible, at first.

Hoo, boy. Just what had I gotten myself into...

{To Be Continued}