More than 30 years ago, at the urging of Carrol Martin, Shirley (Schollenberg) Cox began Horse Camp. Shirley was terrified. She had no children of her own at that time. She did have a love for horses and held Carrol in such high regard that she stepped out on faith and Horse Camp was born.
Horse Camp has touched the lives of countless children on the Kenai Peninsula. Past attendees have grown up and, while some have moved on, many return each summer to participate and lend their support to a program that helped shape their lives.
Some of these past participants lend their talents to teach, others bring their children — second generation Horse Campers — and some just stop in to reconnect with the amazing person that started it all.
I had the opportunity to interview one young lady who volunteered to teach at camp this year. This is what camp alumni Jenna Mahoney, now 19, had to say about her Horse Camp experiences:
“I remember when I was very small being toted to Horse Camp by my older sister, Stephanie, even though I was too young to participate. I loved running around the fairgrounds, admiring the different horses. I would hang out in the mess hall with the cook, melting crayons on hot rocks and coloring on blank tee shirts. Finally I was old enough to join in the fun.
“Being one of the youngest and for sure the smallest camper, I faced my fair share of obstacles, including not being able to saddle or bridle my horse on my own. It would have been easy for me to ask someone less vertically-challenged to defeat the daunting task for me, but that was not the way things were run at camp. If I couldn’t do it myself, I didn’t do it at all. That is how I learned to be independent and resourceful.
“I climbed up on the fence to reach my horse’s head, and hung from the girth strap in order to tighten it. The task took me longer than the older campers, but I did it all by myself, and that made me very proud.
“I attended camp until I turned 18 and was no longer able to attend, every year gaining more and more valuable knowledge. I didn’t just learn about horses and riding, but to respect others, always try harder than required, and how to dust off after being bucked off and jump back on, stronger than I was before.
“Little did I know how the lessons I learned at camp would shape my life. After graduating from high school early — I did everything a little earlier than most — I went straight into culinary arts school at AVTEC.”
Jenna has recently graduated from AVTEC and is now looking to further her education in nursing school. She says she could never put a price on the lessons she learned at Horse Camp.
“They will be with me for the rest of my life. I am so thankful to my sister for dragging me along, and putting me on the craziest horse in the lot, and to Shirley, for devoting her life to giving us a safe, fun place to learn and grow as young people.”
Looking back, Jenna can clearly see the impact that Shirley and her crew at Horse Camp had on her life.
Jenna is proud to say, “Horse Camp made me who I am today, and I hope Shirley, my sister and all the volunteers at camp know how much I appreciate the part they played.”
Lara McGinnis is the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fair, which includes managing all the events that happen at the fairgrounds in Ninilchik.
A letter from a Horse Camper:
My name is Chena and I have been going to Trailblazer Horse Camp for eight years. It’s a unique opportunity to improve your horsemanship skills while making new friends and having a lot of fun. I attended my first camp when I was 8 years old. I was riding a stubborn little horse named Summer who gave me a run for my money. I got bucked off for the very first time at my first Horse Camp. Now, 8 years later, I ride a new horse. I learn new things every year, and every year I become a better horseman (or horsewoman). But I am still riding with good friends, some of whom I met my very first year at camp. So now coming to Horse Camp isn’t just a learning experience, it’s a walk down memory lane. Horse Camp also has taught me what it means to be a leader. We have such amazing horse people running this camp and teaching kids like me how to be leaders and respected equestrians. Thanks so much to each and every one of you at camp who have really turned me into the rider and person I am today.