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Kids take the reins at equestrian center summer camp

Summer Camps 2011 | More stories inside, Page 4 & 6

NORTH TAMPA

McKenzie Johnson dips her fingers into a bowl of yellow paint and turns to face her canvas: a 7-year-old mare named Pooh Bear. She starts with one little touch, leaving just a fingerprint on the horse's side, then waits for Pooh Bear to nay or kick. Nothing happens, so McKenzie, 10, continues to paint. Soon the other children join her, smearing all the colors of the rainbow onto Pooh Bear's white hair and mane. It's a water-based, nontoxic paint that doesn't itch or sting.

"She's a lot calmer than I thought she'd be," McKenzie says, adding red to her masterpiece.

This is how the weeklong summer camps start at Bakas Equestrian Center. The children gather in the barn to meet the horses. They learn to touch them without fear, but also to respect their boundaries.

It's Pooh Bear's first time getting painted, and she doesn't like being petted around her eyes, says camper Joseph Brown, 11.

Later, McKenzie, Joseph and their fellow campers will ride. Then come the grooming lessons, the time spent learning what horse ownership is really about. It's a lesson in responsibility, camp counselors say.

New campers arrive unsure what to think of the horses — or what the horses will think of them. By midweek, that changes.

"They develop a bond with the animals," says director Beth Harre-Orr.

At the end of the week, the campers put on a horse show for parents, other family members and friends.

"They want to come back next year," Harre-Orr says.

She founded the Bakas center in 1987 to provide riding instruction and horse therapy to disabled children and adults. The center, which is part of the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department's therapeutic recreation program, was originally located at Lake Park, off N Dale Mabry Highway. Bakas moved to its current 22-acre facility near Westchase in 2001.

At camp, children with autism and other disabilities are integrated with the other kids. There are three camps each July, each costing $50 per day or $250 for the week. To ensure that participants receive enough one-on-one time with a certified instructor, no more than 16 children may attend each week. The center owns 15 horses, ranging from a young miniature horse to Jet, a 22-year-old mare. Eight staffers oversee the camp, along with multiple volunteers, including teenagers earning community service hours.

Campers are partnered with horses based on their size and skill level. Some campers are beginners; others are experienced riders.

This is McKenzie's and Joseph's third year at camp. Joseph, who wears cowboy boots with gym shorts and graphic tees, says his parents work during the day. Camp is a chance for him to get out of the house.

"Staying home playing video games is boring," he says, washing paint from his hands. "I like getting out and riding the horses in the sunshine."

Joseph walks out of the barn unconcerned about whether he steps in horse droppings — he's used to that now. With a scrub brush and a bottle of baby shampoo in hand, he joins the other campers and Pooh Bear outside by the water hoses. The mare welcomes the cool water rushing down her back, washing the paint away.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

Bakas Equestrian Center Summer Camp

Bakas Equestrian Center, 11510 Whisper Lake Trail

The camp is currently full.

For more information on riding lessons throughout the year, call (813) 264-3890.

Kids take the reins at equestrian center summer camp 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 5:30am]

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