“Follow Your Dream…” was the slogan of The Horse People Inc., a unique facility in the Ottawa Valley which saw thousands of children pass through their doors during their 35 years of operation. Beverley and Wolfgang Schinke devoted their lives to teaching youngsters from all over the world riding skills and the art of horsemanship in a fun atmosphere. Due to health issues and the fact that Wolf is now 82, the Schinkes made the difficult decision to close the operation and put the farm up for sale.
“It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of both of our lives,” said Bev. “We have actually lived our dream and shared it with children we will never forget. I miss it already.”
The pair both came from equine-rich backgrounds, albeit on different continents. “Wolf grew up in Germany with horses,” said Bev. “His father had a stable, and he was a competitor until the war intervened.” Wolf immigrated to Canada in 1950, eventually opening a stable called Sans Souci Riding Centre in the Chateauguay Valley in Quebec (which is still in operation with Wolf’s original partner). Bev hailed from from Montreal West, and used to trail ride around Mount Royal “in the old days. We used to ride the old retired Montreal police force horses – these big palominos.” Her family also had a summer cottage in the Laurentians, where she took riding lessons. “I started university as an adult and I needed a diversion, some kind of physical activity, so I took riding lessons and that’s how I met Wolf.” The couple were married in 1976.
The same year, they began looking for a suitable property on which to establish unique programs for children in a camp atmosphere. “I went to camp every summer from the time I was nine until I was 22,” explained Bev of their desire to tackle something as ambitious as running a riding camp. “I came up through the process – CIT, counselor, section head, assistant director and finally director. I loved summer camp, I loved children, I loved being in nature. Wolf also loved being in the country, and training young horses and coaching young kids. It was almost serendipitous that we would put our loves together to form what was at that time a very unique idea.”
They settled on a beautiful, sprawling 165-acre parcel of land near Wendover, ON, surrounded by greenbelt and nature reserves. They set about building barns, an arena, guest cabins, a dining hall, fencing, riding rings and eventually cross-country courses up to intermediate level.
As there were hardly any camps in the region at the time, let alone riding camps, word spread quickly. “Ottawa is a city of diplomats, and we got a lots of diplomatic kids – some who had ridden abroad and were looking for a place to ride here,” said Bev about their meteoric rise to popularity. “It didn’t take very long for the word to spread, because we were doing a lot of unique things that no one else was doing – swimming horses in the quarry, and doing vaulting, which at that time no one even talked about. The kids had a lot of options with the horses, other than just taking a riding lesson in a ring.”
The Schinkes also found themselves playing host to a number of campers from other part of the world. “We had agents contacting us from overseas, because they heard about us from diplomats who had been reassigned,” said Bev. “We had kids from Mexico, Colombia, the US, Europe and the Middle East.” At their peak, The Horse People ran camps throughout the summer with 85 children in residence at a time, overseen by 25 staff members. They hosted hunter/jumper shows and events, including the provincial Preliminary Championships, pentathlons, tetrathlons, triathlons, and clinics with high-profile riders and coaches including as Captain Mark Phillips and Ian Millar.
One of the most noted alumnus of the Schinke’s training program was their son, Rob, who was a Young Rider team competitor in the ’80s and a member of the Canadian Eventing Team from ’87-’91. Rob attended the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as part of the Canadian administration contingent, serving a sports psychologist. He is now a professor of Sports Psychology at Laurentian University in Sudbury and was recently named Research Chair of the Canada Research Council, specializing in working with athletes in native communities.
It was actually Bev who triggered his interest in sports psychology, which was a fledgling field of study back in The Horse People’s heyday. “I started it with our kids in the camp, because I’ve got a degree (M.Ed. in Psychopedagogy),” she said. “But you’re not a hero in your own home, and my son thought “what are you doing?”. Then he got fascinated by it and has made a complete career of it. Now he works with boxers, pentathletes and triathletes.” Bev and Rob collaborated on the popular book “Focused Riding” in 1997, and Rob has since written several other books on sports psychology.
Another Horse People graduate was eventer Carol Angus, whom Rob helped to prepare for the Barcelona Olympics. The Schinkes also coached and produced a lot of talented members of Young Riders teams in Canada, as well as Bermuda, Japan and Venezuela.
So, in this day of constant bombardment via iPods, iPhones and iPads, is there a future for riding camps, or camps in general? Absolutely, according to Bev. “Kids are so into technology now. To get them out of the city and into nature, doing something they love, gives them a totally new perspective.” To ensure that each camper’s experience was relaxed and stress-free, there was one specific rule. “We did not allow cell phones in the camp. We didn’t want their boyfriends calling to break up with them, or their mothers calling with bad news.” If there was an emergency, it was handled quickly and discreetly.
Bev recounts the story of one particular boy who exemplified what many of the campers went through during their stay. “He was so tuned out – deafened, I think, by all the stuff around him in the city – that he couldn’t hear the crickets around him, or the birds in the forest. By the end of his stay, I sat down with him and said, “tell me what you can hear.” He was so excited that he could hear everything!”
“We had a lot of early morning trail rides, because during heat waves you had to ride when the temperature was cooler. The kids would come back and say, “we heard the forest wake up.” Riding is so low-tech and it’s one of the few areas that will likely remain low-tech for a long time.”
The Schinkes were active members of the Ontario Horse Trials Assoc. Young Rider Committee, and were instrumental in getting the training level introduced. (“Kids used to have to go directly into prelim.”) They were the first corporate members of the Ottawa Valley Hunt, and often took youngsters out to follow the hounds. “It was great for the eventing horses,” said Bev. “Wolf liked to get people out of the ring and enjoying their horse in nature.”
The farm is virtually empty now – the horses sold, the boarders relocated. “We only have one horse left,” said Bev, “the son of Solitaire, Rob’s team horse. He was her last baby.” Bev and Wolf have four children and eighth grandchildren between them, and have enjoyed watching both generations riding, competing and coaching at the farm. Wherever they end up, it will certainly not be a condo in the city, said Bev vehemently. “But it’s hard to make plans when you’ve been in one place for 35 years.”