About 50 youth ages 7 to 17 from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community learned all about riding, roping and roughing it during Horse Camp, held March 5–7. Horse Camp is an educational program offered by the elders of the Community for the youth to help them reconnect with their heritage; it started in 1999 and is in its 11th year now. The camp was started by elder, the late Emmett King and others, and is run by elder Silas “Si” Johnson and his whole family plus volunteers.
Johnson said, “At Horse Camp we try to teach the kids how to crave that toughness; to be out there, it takes a lot.” This camp is intended for whoever feels they are open and willing to learn what is being shared. Johnson is an agent with the Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) Agricultural Extension Program, which helped sponsor the camp by providing the trailer, some of the saddles and the truck.
The camp began on Friday with a welcome and prayer by SRPMIC Vice-President Martin Harvier. Over the three days, different presenters including Shane Antone, Stetson Mendoza, David Antone, Roberta Johnson and more spoke to the kids and taught them horsemanship, how to work with cattle and other traditional skills.
On Saturday the kids were divided into two groups: one group learned how to saddle horses, and the other practiced roping cattle. Once the horses were saddled, some of the kids rode them over to the arena, where the rest of the kids were roping. When standing in the arena it was a little scary, because some of the cattle were still running around; the kids were cautious and checking both ways to make sure there were no cows heading their way. But the men on the horses kept good track of the loose cattle.
Horse Camp adult volunteers demonstrated to the kids how to rope a cow, hold it down and then tie it up. Once all the cows were caught, David Antone demonstrated the process of castrating a bull by removing the testicles. Some of the kids thought it was cool and wanted to hold and feel the testicles, while others thought it was “gross.”
The kids were also shown two ways to mark your cattle so you know which ones are yours from a distance: tagging, by cutting a piece of the ear off; and branding. An adult demonstrated cattle branding with a hot iron that had a letter and number, which was the mark of that particular owner.
Then one of the men asked the children, “Do you know why we cut the horns off?” Some of the kids yelled out, “So they won’t poke or hurt you.” He then demonstrated cutting the horns. As the kids were being shown these different techniques, some of them felt bad for the animals. “I didn’t come here to see them hurt the cows,” one said. But most of the children realized it was okay and understood why the animals were having these things done to them.
Later on in the day, Johnson and a few of the other camp volunteers led kids in groups of 10 on horse rides, showing them how to control their horses around the arena. As the older kids were taking their turns riding, Emily King gave the little kids their own little horse rides.
Back at the main camp, some of the volunteers were getting dinner ready. When asked what she thought the purpose of Horse Camp was, Angie Silversmith said, “It shows the kids something different from the [video] games like Xbox. We offer modern-day activities to show there is more out there; we’re trying to teach them our traditions.”
As the sun was going down, Johnson led his last group on a horse ride out of the arena and into the sunset.