The perfect family vacation in the Spanish Pyrenees
My 13-year-old wants to be a jockey. I want him to learn Spanish. We found the perfect solution: Spanish immersion riding camp.
In the Spanish Pyrenees near the French border, outside the town of Jaca, Pirineos Ecuestre offers weeklong overnight camping sessions for 8- to 18-year-olds at rates comparable to US camps. Unlike the overwhelming majority of US riding camps, which can't seem to figure out how to accommodate boys partial to ponies in what is predominantly a girls' pursuit, boys are welcome. Still, most campers are girls, which makes for a very favorable boy-girl ratio if you're an adolescent boy. And the counselor-camper ratio is far better than most student-teacher ratios at private schools: 8 to 1.
Spain is well-represented among the campers, as is France and other European countries; but kids also hail from countries as far-flung as Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Dubai, Qatar, and Costa Rica — and on rare occasion, Canada and the United States. Besides riding, Spanish kids are there to learn English or French, and other kids are there to learn Spanish or English.
The camp is the brainchild of the aptly named Jeannine Camps, who in another life was a foreign correspondent and worked all over the world. Born in Morocco to Spanish parents, and educated in Spain and France, she's a polyglot. She also rode from an early age. Her husband, an electrical engineer, professional sailboat racer, and certified riding instructor, shares her lifelong passion for horses. Like Jeannine, he always wanted to do something with horses but it wasn't until 10 years ago that they committed to it full time. "At the beginning," Camps says, "it was just a riding school for teaching riding to Spanish kids. Later we began to offer them English classes as a way of adding to the pleasure of riding something [as] important as learning and practicing a language. Parents feel OK paying for an equestrian vacation if, at the same time, their kids learn something necessary."
During ski season, she runs the riding school and Hotel Charle, a 19th-century stone inn north of Jaca on the road to France. During the summer, she's camp director, and with her husband and 18-year-old daughter among riding instructors, it's a family affair. If it's any indication of how seriously riding is taken at the camp, her daughter was a national riding champion, and two of her students placed in this summer's national Western riding competition, held at the camp.
In summer, the inn's 15 rooms, with thick stone walls and wooden beams and shutters, are converted into a bunk house for the campers. The number of campers ranges from seven to 45, depending on the week. Kids have the run of the place. Up to four share a room with a private bath — not your typical camp cabin. And the place is not stuffy — it's relaxed, with a piano, fireplace, lots of comfy leather sofas, bookcases, vintage movie posters, and an informal wooden and stone bar. (Few US camps display a "bar" sign outside the sleeping quarters.) A couple of dogs, like Panchi the mutt who has a tendency to nip, also share the quarters.
Behind the inn and against a dramatic mountainous backdrop are several riding rings and stables for the school's 48 horses. Of various breeds from various countries, the horses are as diverse as the campers, and as well-treated. According to Camps, they make good school horses because "they are well trained and treated, and [also they] live freely all year so they have no stress and clear heads. They live in groups as they like, and are used to living together, so they also work well together. They are very social."
Camps is creative in her approaches to teaching both riding and language. Riding courses are through water and deep troughs; one class has students shoe a horse with the local farrier; another teaches them empathy for the horse by blindfolding the campers and putting them in a horse trailer. Another has them working with a foal. Trail rides follow the famous pilgrim's route of St. James's Way (the Camino de Santiago) before veering off through a pine forest and up the mountains to a viewpoint overlooking ridges and valleys. According to my boy, everything was fun — even Spanish lessons — because kids talked and wrote about topics like horses and the World Cup.
Although the camp is exceedingly well run and Camps responsive to every query and concern, this parent got the sense the program would never fly in the United States, with its obsession with risk and liability. At a riding camp back home, my son barely cantered after two weeks (that's riding on a horse that's running fairly fast); in Spain, he was cantering and jumping on the second day. And really, who wouldn't want to canter and jump as much as possible? Or ride backwards? Or play "horse ball," where kids pass around a ball on horseback?
A typical day at camp begins with a counselor's knock on the bedroom door at 8 a.m: "Hola chicos! Quieres dar de comer los caballos?" Feeding the horses entails crossing the bridge over the Aragon River behind the hotel, walking up to the pastures, rounding up the horses, and bringing them back to the stable for breakfast. Muffled groans were the standard response from the boys' room. Mine always chose to sleep until 8:58, two minutes before his breakfast of croissants, biscuits, juice, and hot milk was served.
It wasn't surprising he chose sleep over horse time. Six days a week, campers get five hours of riding and three hours of language. Given that the region is prone to thunderstorms, the schedule is flexible — riding in the morning can be switched with language class. In between activities, they're served meals of Spanish and American fare: tortillas, baguettes, and flan, as well as hamburgers and potato chips. Campers are on a Spanish schedule: dinner at 10:30 p.m., followed by games of capture the flag or soccer, and bedtime at midnight. If campers aren't catching up on sleep during post-lunch siesta, they can cavort in the chilly waters of the river. On Sundays, when sessions begin and end, campers can walk down the road into Jaca, with its medieval center.
My son loved the camp from the moment he stepped into the inn and was invited to join a soccer game. And I loved the camp. It broadened his horizons, as cultural immersion always does. (He now knows swear words in three languages, and even if we had to tell him Montenegro is not part of Russia, at least he now knows it exists.) His riding improved, as did his Spanish, although it includes some perhaps less than essential phrases like "lower your hands or you won't ride tomorrow," "heels down," and "tighten your reins." Best of all, I had two weeks to play in the Pyrenees with my husband.