STARKSBORO — Last Thursday afternoon, children climbed hay bales at the back of the airy, open barn at Sentinel Farms, nestled in the Starksboro hills.
Kerry Kurt hurried from the barn past a nearby bright red sign reading, “Horse n Rebel Market, Gallery and Grille” and into her new store to check on a couple of customers. She waved to each car that passed on Route 116, and greeted her customers by name.
What may have looked like a three-ring circus from the outside was more than under control, as Kurt and her staff — partner Sonny Provetto, son Kyle Kurt and intern Morgan Cote — operated a day camp and the market with unhurried ease.
The 12 children in the barn were the campers, all from Starksboro and surrounding towns. They were there for the second weeklong session of the Sentinel Farms Arts, Ag and Equine Camp — a camp where kids who might not otherwise have the chance get to learn about horses.
“I like to focus on people who have always wanted to know about horses but never had the opportunity, no matter what age they are,” Kurt said. “Here you can have a constant relationship with a horse but not have all of that responsibility.”
The children had just finished their afternoon activity: building carrying boxes to hold brushes for grooming horses. Several of the children discussed their plans for painting the boxes while Provetto finished nailing the last of the boxes together.
Afterward, Provetto pulled the tractor around, with a hay wagon hitched to the back. The campers piled in with their duffels and sleeping bags, ready for a ride up the hill behind the house to do some painting with Jim Geier, a neighbor of Sentinel Farms and owner of Vermont Folk Rocker. Later, the youngsters would be grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, pitching their tents and camping out.
Provetto surveyed the wooden interior of the Horse n Rebel Market, which sits near the intersection of Route 116 and State’s Prison Hollow Road and opened just over six weeks ago in a structure rebuilt from its original 1789 frame.
“When we’re up there (on the hill with the campers), we’ll just put a sign on the door with our phone number,” he said. “That way if anyone wants to reach us, they can just call.”
The overnight camping trip was the last activity of a packed week of camp, which included classical horsemanship lessons every morning — including caring for and riding Kurt’s eight horses — and art and music activities in the afternoons. The agenda also included swimming just down the road in Lewis Creek and learning to hit golf balls at Cedar Ridge golf course.
To Kurt, the camp is all about allowing the children to pursue things they’re interested in, and to give them the opportunity to try new things and have adventures. Because of that, she made the two camp sessions offered this summer available to anyone who wanted to participate.
“A lot of the kids haven’t had the opportunity to attend camp, for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “(This offers) the ability to have a scholarship grant to go after something they’re interested in.”
Kurt said she knows exactly what it’s like to want to ride horses. Growing up in Charlotte and Burlington, her family didn’t have horses, so she hitched car rides to her riding lessons from neighbors whose children were also taking lessons.
“I talked about (horses) constantly,” she said. “Soon after that I was cleaning stalls, cleaning tack, doing whatever to get my lessons.”
Now, Kurt has eight horses in the barn that she rebuilt after she brought the property five years ago.
The main building, which contains the Horse n Rebel Market, also includes the “Revolutionary Room,” a cozy space off to the side of the store that contains well-worn couches and a piano. Come September, children who don’t have pianos at home will be able to take lessons using that piano, which Kurt cautioned one of the campers to treat gently.
“Remember, it was my great aunt’s,” she told him.
Kurt said that throughout the weeklong program, and especially for those who had opted to return for a second week, she had seen a noticeable change in the way many of the children held themselves and acted around the horses.
“One camper was afraid to even enter the barn,” she said. “Now he’s riding and walking and trotting.”
She added that when children learn to interact with horses and other animals, their behavior changes noticeably.
“Horses need your respect in all kinds of ways,” she said. “None of these horses have a mean bone in their body, but if you don’t act appropriately around an animal, they could kick at you because they think you’re something about to bite them in the leg. So you have to act in a certain way.”
But her campers pick this up pretty quickly, said Kurt.
“They pretty much get that the first day. They just respond.”
To further the camp’s mission, Kurt offered full and partial scholarships to the students this summer. In order to raise funds for the scholarship and future programming at the Horse n Rebel, she plans to hold a day of events on Sept. 18.
Events will revolve around history — it being the day after the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 — with readings of the Constitution and discussions of other historical matters. There will also be horseshoe tournaments and, later on, a barn dance with a suggested donation of $12.
Kurt also plans to put proceeds from sales at the Horse n Rebel into the programming at Sentinel Farm. The store sells local produce, milk and other groceries, plus homemade crafts and jewelry from area artisans. At the deli counter, patrons have all the standard sandwich choices, plus Italian meatball sandwiches and handmade burgers from local grass-fed beef. Kurt’s personal favorites, though, are the chocolate malts and vanilla milkshakes.
Provetto added that once the camps are over and the afterschool programming — which will include riding lessons and art and music lessons — has started up, they will begin applying for grants to further fund the operation.
Kurt grew up in the area and studied nursing at the University of Vermont. She lived in Colorado for about 15 years before moving back to Vermont. While out West, she founded Unbound Grace, a nonprofit that brings arts programming into women’s prisons.
Now she’s transferred her sights back to Vermont, where she’s focusing on enhancing the local community.
“It's important to do work all around the world, there’s a lot of work to be done around the world, and around the United States,” said Kurt. “But I find that it’s also important to focus on your own backyard.”
She said that when she set foot on the property five years ago, she knew that it would one day become a market and center for learning — somewhere to encourage local growth and education.
“I envision it as a growing community education campus,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.