Happy Campers

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A rider takes a dressage lesson at the Camelot Equestrian Center in Butte Valley, California, site of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Dressage Society’s annual dressage camp

Learn why riders clamor to attend this California Dressage Society chapter’s dressage camp

Story and photos by Patti Schofler

Fifteen years ago, people thought the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the California Dressage Society (SVCCDS) was crazy to launch an adult dressage camp. Eventing camp, yay! Dressage? Meh. Yet the naysayers were soon proved wrong, and today the SVC Dressage Camp has a long waiting list, riders who return year after year, and new campers who find that the three-day experience surpasses their expectations.

What’s the secret sauce behind this smashing success? We went behind the scenes at this year’s camp to find out.

It’s About the Camaraderie and the Self-Care

“Hanging out has a different feeling here,” said camper Michelle Rasmussen, of Davis, California. In her job as an ICU nurse, “I’m always thinking ‘What if, what if.’” The camp provides a much-needed mental-health break: “Here, if I got into a pickle, the camp women would be here for me. It was time for my horse and I to move out and do things, but not in a competitive environment. Here there is no hyper energy, gotta go, gotta, warm up, gotta be perfect.”

In 2017, Holly Sichel’s home in Santa Rosa burned to the ground in the northern California wildfires. She said that “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t a fire victim and someone who learned to live out of a trailer. We have a two-horse trailer with living quarters for fire evacuations. Now I can come to camp to be around really great friends without it being a fire evacuation.”

Having time to just hang out with your horse and other dressage enthusiasts is a big part of camp’s appeal

Camping with her horse is old hat for endurance-riding veteran Marcia Smith, of Loomis, California, but she still relished the experience. Her first dressage camp was “just about my dog and my horse,” said Smith, a small-animal veterinarian. “During the week I’m taking care of my house, my husband, the animals, and clients at work. I’m always doing for others. This is entirely about me.”

The camp experience is meaningful enough that it was a “bucket list” item for the late SVCCDS member Jeanann Popejoy. Four years ago, after Popejoy was diagnosed with cancer, friends paid for her to attend and ride her horse, Loreli. The following year, with Popejoy’s health in decline, friends stepped up again and brought her to camp to watch Loreli’s breeder, Gerri Brousseau, ride the mare.

It’s About the Great Outdoors

SVC Dressage Campers are really camping—no hotel stays or “glamping” for this crowd. The 35 campers at the May 2021 event slept in their rigs or pitched tents under the trees at Camelot Equestrian Center in Butte Valley, while their horses relaxed in nearby pipe paddocks and pipe barns. There was one great luxury, however: Three meals a day plus snacks and adult beverages were provided so that campers were freed from the chores of shopping, cooking, and cleaning.

It’s About the Horsemanship

Camp’s core draw, of course, is the dressage immersion. This year’s campers enjoyed daily lessons with USDF-certified instructors Jaki Hardy, Heidi Chote, and Jennette Scanlon; and with German licensed instructor and USDF medalist Volker Brommann.

Camp organizer Julie Smith, of Vacaville, California, hires instructors who are passionate about teaching. “Our instructors are enthusiastic, positive, and encouraging and similar in style and content,” she said. “The blend of this year’s four is perfect for camp. In the past we have rotated instructors every two years, but I’ve gotten feedback from the campers that this is the dream team.”

(“At first they questioned teaching nine lessons a day and staying in an RV,” said SVCCDS founder Danielle Crane of the instructors, but “now they love this concept.”)

Many campers arrive with training goals in mind. One sought methods of making her mare less reactive to the canter-depart aids, while another hoped to break through the “Prix St. Georges ceiling.” One camper wanted help dealing with fear issues. Their reasons for attending were as varied as their and their horses’ experience levels, but all wanted to learn in a fun, supportive, low-key environment.

The SVC Dressage Camp included an all-day cavalletti clinic

“When you have confidence in an instructor, you move forward and do things you might not [otherwise] do,” said camper Lisa Johnson, of Woodland, California. Her first year at SVC Dressage Camp, Johnson said, instructor Jaki Hardy got her jumping cross-country for the first time.

Likewise, recalled Smith, “the first time I went to camp, I stretched myself to do new things and came back with a whole new confidence. I love seeing that confidence grow in the campers.”

Campers pitch in to help others overcome hurdles. When Katy Sommers’s inexperienced Mustang mare, Dance, got worried in the ring by herself, Holly Sichel stationed her Oldenburg mare, Addison, nearby to serve as a buddy during Sommers’s lesson with Heidi Choate. (Although Addison “looks like she couldn’t handle anything,” Sichel said, “she’s a trail horse, too, and in the county mounted-assistance unit.”)

It’s About the Fun

What’s a camp without crafts projects? At the SVC Dressage Camp, riders designed beaded browbands.

Campers enjoyed designing their own beaded browbands

Plenty of unmounted education was on tap, as well. Smith and her helpers showed campers how to change a trailer tire with horses in the trailer in 15 minutes. Kelsey James led a session on horsemanship and improving horses’ ground manners. Campers also enjoyed Pilates sessions (for the humans), massages (for the horses), a saddle-fitting demonstration, a full-day cavaletti clinic, and a talk on how to evaluate your own dressage test. Special treatment came from the Butte Valley Pony Club, whose members cleaned and polished campers’ tack for a modest fee.

Tips for Organizing a Successful Dressage Camp

After her first year serving as SVC Dressage Camp organizer, Smith swore that she’s never do it again. Today, five years in, she says she wants to keep doing it “forever.” In fact, she ran the 2021 event even with a fractured back. Here’s what she’s learned about organizing a dressage camp that riders will want to return to, year after year.

Facility. Smith looks for a venue with camping space for horses and riders on the grounds, at least three dressage arenas with good footing, and a kitchen area to stage meals. The SVC’s current facility, Camelot Equestrian Center, has acreage for at least four arenas, plus space to accommodate lungeing and trail riding.

Instructors. At the SVC Dressage Camp, riders draw numbers to determine the order in which they select that day’s instructor. They switch the order the next day. Most riders opt to choose instructors they’ve never ridden with before.

The instructors themselves must be flexible and adaptable, said Smith, because in any given day they may teach riders ranging in experience from novice to a licensed dressage judge.

Activities. Mix up mounted and unmounted, fun and more serious, rider- and horse-focused, Smith advised.

Food. Delicious, plentiful food and treats allow campers to refuel and (if desired) indulge without the fuss of cooking or cleaning up.

Smith’s biggest piece of advice: Organizing a dressage camp is a team effort.

“When I started as manager,” she admits, “I was a control freak and tried to do it all. Not any more, especially this year with my back. So I would love to help any group set up a framework for what makes a successful camp.”

To learn more about the SVC Dressage Camp, visit the camp page of the SVCCDS Chapter website.

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