Coloradans have a special relationship with horses, from the wild herds roaming the rugged backcountry to farm horses that are the backbone of the state’s agricultural heritage dating back to the Old West.
Today, Colorado’s equine industry is thriving, but it goes beyond agriculture. In addition to riding trails and dude ranches, the industry includes horse competitions, breeding, racing, rodeo and even therapeutic riding opportunities.
“Colorado has a very vibrant equine industry,” says Bill Scebbi, executive director of the Colorado Horse Council. “We are dynamic not only in local activities, but also nationally and internationally. We are very well known for our equine industry.”
Trail riding is very popular, “with over 45,000 people enjoying the outdoors on the back of a horse on our fabulous trails, dude ranches and camping sites,” Scebbi says. The state also offers excellent youth programs, like Pony Club and 4-H, which entail a variety of riding activities. Additionally, rodeos – including the popular barrel-racing competitions – are huge sporting events in Colorado.
There are more than 75 different horse clubs in the state and Colorado boasts fine equine facilities including the National Western Complex in Denver, The Colorado Horse Park in Parker and Arapahoe Park in Aurora. These facilities and others draw thousands of enthusiasts to shows, competitions, and horse racing.
“I don’t think there’s a weekend that goes by where you can’t go to those facilities or their websites and find an activity to enjoy horses,” Scebbi says.
Bonding with Colorado Horses
The state is also known for its therapeutic riding. “It seems to be a real natural experience to help people out physically or emotionally,” Scebbi says.
The Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center focuses on helping clients become stronger physically and mentally through adaptive riding lessons that teach riding skills. The program serves children and adults facing physical, cognitive and other challenges. The program’s success stories point to clients, including children, gaining confidence and forming stronger ties with their peers and community.
Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center in Elbert serves veterans, active-duty service members and family members, as well as children and others in need. The center is on a mission to assist those with psychological challenges, such as PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, and other physical disabilities or challenges.
“We find using horses really enhances the therapeutic process,” says Shannon Mitchell, executive director of the center. “Our youngest client is 2 years old and our oldest client is 87, and we serve everyone between.”
According to Mitchell, horses provide insight to our own emotions, which is key to the psychological therapeutic work. “A horse can sense when someone is scared or timid, and will back away,” she says.
The riding center uses this insight to help its clients learn the skill of approaching a horse and horsemanship.
“They mirror what we do, and they don’t hide their own emotions,” she explains. “You’re always told that if you’re riding a horse, they can tell if you’re scared. They really can. The horse teaches clients to face their own emotions and accept them.”
As for the physical side of riding, the center uses hippotherapy, which engages a horse’s movements for physical therapy purposes to help the rider develop and enhance balance, posture, coordination, core strength, and other aspects.
Healing Colorado Warriors
In Colorado Springs, the Warrior Wellness Program is helping military members heal from PTSD. Warrior Wellness is an equine-assisted therapy program at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s (AFA) Equestrian Center.
Army veteran Billy Jack Barrett heads the program. Barrett, who has been the stable manager since 1980, developed the idea for the program nearly a decade ago. Boeing provided funding for the Equestrian Center staff, he says, and the OK Corral Series Equine- Assisted Therapy Program provided the volunteers’ training for certification.
Eligible military members board approximately 135 horses at the AFA Equestrian Center and about 30 government horses are used in the program, he says. Warrior Wellness supports The Knights of Heroes, spouses and children of Killed In Action and Missing In Action, Gold Star Families, and Make-A-Wish Foundation, along with many others.
“There are many warriors and their families who need healing where traditional therapy is failing,” Barrett says.
However, he says the heart and soul of the program is the “dedication and loving, caring hearts of the staff and volunteers, to help warriors and their families heal.”