Summer is time for sports camps. While some kids attend basketball, soccer or running camp, young equestrians go to horse camp. 

Four little girls, decked out in breeches and helmets with notebooks in hand, peered over the arena wall at Bull Valley Equestrian Center. Their assignment was to observe the interaction between the five horses in the arena and note the personality characteristics of each one. This exercise in understanding horse behavior is one of the many things they are learning at horse camp. 

“The students learn every side of horsemanship; not just how to ride,” said Patti Gruber, the head instructor and barn manager at Bull Valley Equestrian Center, 605 S. Valley Hill Road, Bull Valley. “Kids learn responsibility, compassion and respect.”

The students, ages 9 to 10, all take traditional riding lessons where they are learning to ride a horse, but during weekly Wednesday horse camp, there are opportunities to dive further into the world of horses – the part they all need to understand in order to build a successful, lifelong partnership with horses.

“I have no kids of my own, and it’s neat to connect with kids and help them find their love of horses and guide them through their journey,” said Gruber.

They learn equine basics such as stall cleaning, grooming, tack, behavior and vet care through hands-on interaction with the horses and ponies at the stable. Gruber also introduces them to the business side of horses, exposing them to veterinarians, farriers and the people who work at the stable feeding horses and cleaning stalls.

“I want them to learn to appreciate all the people who take care of the horses and understand what they do,” said Gruber.

Camp helpers include three older working students, more experienced riders who continue to take lessons and learn from Gruber, but also take time to mentor younger riders.

Haven Jakubowicz, a sophomore at Marian Central Catholic High School, is interested in becoming a veterinarian. She’s gaining experience as a working student at Bull Valley Equestrian Center where she boards and works with her own horse, Luke, an off-track thoroughbred.

“Patti is my favorite trainer,” she said, citing the no-drama policy Gruber has all her students and training customers sign.

Gruber began leasing the 32-stall facility in November and has been working with the owners to rehab the Bull Valley stable to its former glory. 

A native of Vernon Hills, Gruber started out in 4-H, riding Western and competing in local open shows with appaloosa and palomino horses. 

“Then I found dressage, and I loved it,” she said. “It’s a journey with horses.”

Dressage has become her forte, with horses and ponies excelling in the show ring and competing in prestigious competitions across the country. She earned national attention when her mustang stallion Padré became the first of his breed to qualify and compete in Dressage at Devon, the premier North American equestrian event, held in Devon, Penn., that features world-class dressage competition and the world’s largest open breed show.

Gruber offers lessons, fields a show team and trains horses at Bull Valley Equestrian Center. She hosts clinics that are open to the public with professional trainers, and she also hosts Operation Wild Horse, a mounted color guard program for veterans executed by Veterans R&R and the Marine Corps League Detachment 1395.

Her latest project is Luck, a young rescued sport pony that had a lot of physical issues to overcome. After six weeks under saddle, she exhibited him to a third-place finish in the National Dressage Pony Cup, a competition held in early July at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

“It’s a huge team effort here. I have an exceptional group of people. We get great results but have fun doing it.”

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