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For most young girls, the first day of high school might be considered a milestone moment. Sarah Camp missed the entire first week of high school, but what the 15-year-old from Crestwood experienced instead was “life-changing.”
“It was amazing,” Camp said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Camp recently returned from the 2013 Mounted Games International Exchange in Ontario, Canada, where she competed as a member of the U.S. Pony Club Mounted Games Team. Mounted Games, an extreme form of equestrian sport, demands high levels of athleticism from both rider and pony, while using practiced, specialized skills to perform a variety of challenges like galloping dismounts, standing vaults on and off the pony, leaning off the side of the pony at a full canter to pick up objects, hitting targets at a gallop and exchanging equipment between team members at high speeds.
“It’s incredibly challenging,” said Camp’s longtime coach Sarah Greiling. “But Sarah works so hard and is so determined. Once she decided that Games was what she wanted to do, she never lost focus.”
Camp began riding at an early age, growing up on a farm with horses. But it was a trip to a world-class competition in Lexington that introduced her to Mounted Games.
“When I was younger, we watched the Prince Phillip Cup at Rolex,” Camp said. “I thought that was really cool and I turned to my coach and said, ‘I want to do that.’”
A young team soon formed, and the riders practiced Mounted Games and Eventing, which is comprised of dressage, stadium (like show jumping), and cross country (a course of jumps in an open area).
“We were pretty terrible,” Camp laughingly remembered. “We called our team the Bluegrass Grazers because our ponies just stood around and ate grass.”
For years, the fledgling team traveled to competitions only to be soundly beat.
“They kept trying even though they’d go to these events and just get trounced,” Coach Greiling said. “But they were very persistent. I don’t even know when it changed, but suddenly they were winning.”
Because several of the events in Mounted Games rely heavily on teamwork, Sarah thinks it is her teammates and the relationship they share that contributed to their success.
“Our team is so great,” Camp said. “It’s one of the best things in my life. We’ve been together forever, and we support each other and depend on each other.”
Although Mounted Games events are structured into either individual, pairs or team competitions, it has always been the team events that Camp enjoys the most.
“I know what it is to be a member of a big team, and what it is to compete as an individual,” Camp said. “And I know what it is to be on a small team, and I like small team the best. You have to be very trusting of each other and rely on your teammates to make up for your mistakes, and they have to be able to trust you to make up for their mistakes.”
Transitioning from working with a team she’s known for years to competing on a team make up of other young people from different parts of the United States that she’d never met before took some getting used to. The U.S. team made up of five riders from Kentucky, Maryland, New York and Connecticut had one week under the guidance of a national coach to mesh.
“We had double practice sessions every day, and did some activities so that we got to know everybody,” Camp said of training camp. “And we rode lots of different ponies.”
Switching her mount was also a new experience for Camp, who has forged strong bonds with her Eventing and Games ponies. To make for an even playing field, every rider at the international event was assigned a mount from a pool of ponies and assignments rotated with events.
“You get really used to your pony and understand how to get them to perform,” Camp said. “And the ponies get used to you and your style of riding. You have to really trust a pony to do some of the things we do.”
Ponies for Mounted Games are considered athletes that must be able to stop, gallop, turn on a dime, and perform through the distractions presented by the events. A pony cannot spook at noise, obstacles, other horses or their own riders leaning off their backs or jumping in and out of the saddle. The events, which sometimes resemble trick riding at a Wild West show, are not without danger or risk.
“I’ve never been hurt badly,” Camp said, “but I’ve taken my share of falls and had a few close calls.”
“The riders learn how to balance and hang on,” Coach Grieling said. “And they learn how to fall, but they get pretty good at getting back in the saddle to avoid a fall.”
And it’s that time in the saddle that helped Camp qualify for the US team. She rides just about every day and competes almost every weekend, practically year-round.
“Yeah, I don’t really have a social life,” Camp admitted. “But this is what I love doing. It’s the best thing ever. I would not trade doing Games for anything in the world.”
Sarah Camp is a member of the Covered Bridge Pony Club. She is the daughter of Henry and Missy Camp and a freshman at Louisville Collegiate School. Camp’s sister Mary Peabody qualified for the same US Team last year. The two often practice together on the family farm in Crestwood. For more information about Mounted Games, visit www.ponyclub.org or www.usmga.com.
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