By Jess Clawson
A sleep away camp with horses, art, leadership building activities, and all sorts of adventures might sound like it’s straight out of Show Strides or The Saddle Club, but the founders of Camp Hobbit Hill have made it a reality. Like the protagonists in those beloved books, the campers at Hobbit Hill learn about a lot more than just horses. They’re in for an educational experience that will make their lives, and the equestrian community in general, better long after summer ends.
Many young riders today spend time at the barn focusing on how to prepare for the next horse show. While Hobbit Hill campers will certainly learn a lot about riding, they’re also preparing for citizenship in the horse world. Founders Dara Dresden and Emma Hoffman opened the camp in 2014 with the intention of growing to become an essential part of the local community. Since the doors opened, they’ve expanded their programs to encompass the needs of the community and its campers. Through this, they’ve fostered growth, acceptance and friendship building—all traits we need in professionals and amateurs alike if we’re going to have a healthy equestrian community.
The Hobbit Hill team has a great deal of experience in the horse industry with backgrounds including horse ownership, competition, or working with horses in a therapeutic or educational environment. Their confidence and horsemanship skill helps them foster the laid back, safe environment they want for both campers and horses. It’s important for young riders to have that sort of experience, where their time with horses isn’t full of pressure or the need for perfection, but is fun and safe.
While Hobbit Hill is focused on horses, the camp has expanded its offerings to fill campers’ non-horse time with exposure to a diversity of experiences. “Our arts program has grown so much that some of our campers participate almost exclusively in the pottery and painting program,” Dara explained. Camper needs are always the highest priority, and they’ve even started offering a summer tutoring program so campers who have academic needs over the summer can thrive in the environment.
Their equine and arts programs are taught by local industry professionals who can guide the campers in meeting their personal goals. The small, individualized atmosphere benefits kids who want focused attention and mentorship.
Riders of any level are welcome, and the program offers basic horsemanship through advanced. Beginner and first-time riders spend time with the horses five days a week, once a day, doing groundwork and beginning riding. Advanced riders participate in daily group lessons and additional private lessons. Some riders bring their own horses, and others ride camp horses. For riders who bring their own horse or lease a camp horse, showing locally is also an option.
Regardless of skill level, the program puts horse care as a primary focus. This is an element missing in so many lesson programs today, and means that our young riders may not be getting the opportunity to learn about horses beyond riding. Horsemanship education makes riders better, but also makes them better humans through gaining empathy, work ethic and understanding that horses have personalities and want connection. Campers are encouraged to participate in daily care activities around the barn. The camp also hires working students and counselors in training who ride and participate by helping with farm chores.
Although most campers choose to attend to ride, Hobbit Hill also offers a general camp program. The diversity of non-horse activities means that there’s something for every camper, whether they ride or not. They can choose to participate in art, film and acting, yoga, outdoor activities and adventure games, cooking, and a lot more. “These activities are a great supplement to our program, and allow campers to explore their sporty or creative side,” Dara said.
Regardless of how well equestrians can ride, leadership skills are critical to ensuring the long-term health of our equestrian community. The Camp Hobbit Hill Path to Leadership program has become a prominent elective activity at the camp for skill building, gaining confidence, and problem solving. It started as a supplementary anti-bullying additive and has grown in popularity over the past few years. While all campers are exposed to a portion of the leadership program, many choose to participate in some of the more in depth activities, including leadership with horses—an approach to group interaction utilizing communication with horses.
The leadership program includes a variety of topics, including anti-bullying, positive reinforcement of others, understanding how body language influences others, and the important skill of turning criticism and correction into a positive by offering a solution. The equine component allows campers to see how their interaction with horses on the ground is affected by different postures and tones, which they then help the campers translate into their interactions with peers. And for those who want to become professionals in the horse industry, learning about how horses respond to body language and how to coach in a productive but not diminishing way are critical skills.
“Leadership is a responsibility,” Dara emphasized. “We all find ourselves in a leadership position at some point, and part of that is learning how our communication works within a group. As a leader, how do I get the group to do what we need? Horses are a great learning tool for that work.”
Dara and Emma love seeing the campers’ skills and confidence grow during their summer at Hobbit Hill. Even better is watching the individual growth campers make from one summer to the next when they return to Hobbit Hill. The camp offers such an enriching and fun experience that campers choose to return year after year; but even more than that, it is a piece of the puzzle to building a stronger, healthier equestrian community.
To learn more about Camp Hobbit Hill, go to https://camphobbithill.com/ or call 828-808-7929.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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