MOUNT DESERT — Camp Beech Cliff, long known for its summer programs for school-aged children, has found a new partner this year in Whistle Pig Farm.
Together, Whistle Pig Farm and Camp Beech Cliff are offering a horseback riding specialty camp for children in grades 4 through 10.
“Whistle pig” is a common name for groundhog. However, the historic saltwater farm on Bartlett’s Landing Road is dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating much larger animals: horses.
Holly Riordan, who owns the registered nonprofit farm with her husband Jamie, said she is happy to share the farm and the rescue horses with children from Camp Beech Cliff.
“We could sit here and drink iced tea,” Holly said, gesturing toward the horse pastures, gardens, and shoreline, “or we could share this. How could we not share this?”
Though years ago, she said, she never would have expected to be living on a farm on the coast of Maine, or hosting a camp.
“Everyone’s searching at [age] 60 for what the next chapter will be,” she mused.
The Riordans’ “next chapter” came when the couple moved from Baltimore, Md. to Mount Desert Island. They had inherited the 200-year-old saltwater farm on Bartlett’s Landing Road from Jamie’s mother. The farm was established in that spot by the Freeman family in 1818, according to its website.
Wanting to make it a working farm again, they adopted their first horse in 2016. They have since rescued an additional three horses and two miniature ponies (or minis) from slaughter auctions.
They also provide “foster services,” boarding and caring for horses whose owners need help caring for them. Six horses and two minis now live at the farm.
According to the Riordans, horses are at a greater risk of neglect than any other domestic animal, due to the expense of owning and maintaining them.
“With limited ‘retirement’ options,” the Riordans wrote in educational materials they prepared for campers, “ … over 100,000 equines go to slaughter each year.”
Horses brought to Whistle Pig Farm are given a second life, lots of hay and grass, and, in the summer, lots of love from campers eager to learn horsemanship.
And the horses give back as well: the tons of manure left behind by these animals is used for compost. Campers learn the art and science of composting — and the fun of playing on a seasoned compost pile.
“And then it goes on my garden,” Holly Riordan explained. “It’s a full-circle moment.”
Extra compost is bagged and sold to support the farm, she said.
Spending five days on the farm, campers learn grooming and tacking, horse anatomy and riding skills. They also learn about farm chores and ecology. Even the wild animals on the farm, the garter snakes, “whistle pigs” and barn swallows are worked into the camp curriculum.
Riordan says campers also gain self confidence, learn about the big commitment involved in owning a horse, the importance of rescue and rehabilitation and the joy of horseback riding.
The last day of camp, parents are invited to an informal horse show in which campers show off the new skills they learned in the riding arena. But that, Holly said, is not the crowning achievement of the camp.
“The message of this camp is the horse. Not the horse show, not who has the most expensive horse. It’s about loving the animal.”
By opening their farm to campers and sharing their own love of horses, the Riordans hope to inspire the next generation of rescuers and responsible caretakers of these animals.