Happiest Place on Earth

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Everyone thinks that Disney World is the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ Well, I think they’re wrong. Instead of Cinderella’s Castle, we’ve got 28 stalls. Instead of Disney characters waltzing around, we’ve got about 30 horses and ponies grazing contentedly in paddocks and working with people in the 2 rings or out on the trails. Instead of a thousand employees, we’ve got around 27 employees and over 500 volunteers, serving over 350 participants a week.

High Hopes is the new Disney World, folks. The happiest darn place on earth.

Last week I had the opportunity to volunteer at High Hopes for their 2nd week of summer camp. In the fall and winter I was able to work every Thursday with specific riders as well as out in the barn (and who doesn’t love playing with ponies??). I absolutely love it. It has been such a great experience for me. I love working with little kids, as well as horses, so put the two together and it’s really a dream. For such a large operation like High Hopes (other facilities in the state often work with less than a dozen NARHA certified equines), it really has an awesome atmosphere. People take the time not only to learn about the participants in the various programs, but about each and every one of the volunteers. The farm is tucked away in a gorgeous part of the state, Old Lyme, nestled back in the woods. With two seperate arenas (an indoor and outdoor), miles of trails, a pond and over a dozen paddocks, it’s a picturesque location. It gives you the feeling that you’re at a real stable, but not that annoying feeling that you’re out of place because you seem to be the only one that’s down-to-earth. And of course, the sounds and smells of the horses complete the painting.

{Red Paddock in Sight}

Anyway, summer camp. One of the best parts of summertime. This past week I worked with kids from three to six, and those little kiddos had me wrapped around their fingers within 20 minutes of getting them in the lounge. They are so sweet and trusting, and absolutely adorable in their little helmets, boots, and breeches. And of course this year’s High Hopes summer camp tees: bright neon green with a horse drawn on it, proclaiming “Riding at High Hopes is Fun!”

I worked with the sweetest little girl, Libby, this week. She had the most solemn little face with these big, brown eyes and the best outlook. You could instantly tell that she was thrilled to be there, especially when she learned who she would be riding for the week- a High Hopes favorite, Petra. Petra is an adorably sweet Norwegian Fjord. Little girls love Petra because she has a beautifully thick cream and brown forelock that reaches her nose and a tail to match. Little boys love her because her mane is roached (a way of cutting and styling the mane), meaning she has a mohawk that is brown on the inside and cream on the outside. Sidewalkers love her because she’s so utterly patient, and picks up on the emotions of riders within moments, something truly remarkable (perhaps not at HH, but remarkable for horses in general) is that she came to High Hopes at the tender age of four. The majority of horses are at least 7 years or up (Smoky, a little miniature horse is 21!). That is certainly a testament to her sweet disposition and reliable nature.

Throughout the week, we taught the riders how to groom and tack their horses, as well as to ride. Some of the kids ride at High Hopes regularly, but for others, it was their first time on a horse. And you could definitely see the excitement on their little faces! Libby was so devoted to Petra, meticulously grooming her till she shone, patting her for a job well done, carefully tacking her up, and taking care of her hooves. But her favorite activity was being able to just stroke her soft, velvety nose. I have to agree, it is a pleasurable activity.

{Cleaning Up the Barn}

I loved watching how the little ones made new friends, and bonded even more with those they knew previously. We had a set of utterly mischievous twins, James and Andrew, who had a ball demanding a ‘toll’ from everyone who passed – a high five. All have so much positive energy, and despite any special needs they might have, are so geared up and ready to do anything. We even teach them to vault – a type of gymnastics on the horse. All while the horse is moving, the kids learn to kneel, stretch, turn around completely and even stand up. They are the oldest age group we are able to teach to vault because that fear hasn’t set in yet. All the older kids are to hesitant, but these ones go at it with surprising tenacity and giant grins.

{Vaulting}

These little chicks are so delightfully optimistic. Never a frown, even when they were hot and sweaty, thirsty and tired, or even when activities were cancelled due to rain. They just found something to smile and giggle about, whether it was the rainbow horses they were painting or the impromptu tickle fights that erupted in the lounge while waiting for lunch. They’re such a sweet, innocent inspiration. Sometimes I think we volunteers get more out of it than the riders themselves do. We get to see an entirely new outlook on life through the eyes of these gentle and energetic children, and what a blessing it is! We get to spend over 20 hours getting to know them individually, knowing what their favorite colors are, how they like their PB&J (or Sunbutter & J, in some cases), meeting their siblings, even the small things like being told what they had for breakfast.

But I think what I love most about these High Hopes kids are their:

{Funny Faces}

{Bravery}

{Love}

{Curiosity}

(I had several adamant children who demanded that I get a picture of that doe on the far banks of the pond)

But the thing I love the most about High Hopes, and Summer Camp in particular are the:

{Happy Smiles}

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