Photo:  Students are guided by several volunteers at the Therapeutic Riding Center   Courtesy Photo

Grand County’s Best Kept Secret: Young Cowboys and Cowgirls with Disabilities

One of the world’s largest outdoor therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports agencies in the world operates smack dab here in Grand County, though many local residents seem unaware of this fact.

Indeed, the National Sports Center (NSCD) for the Disabled celebrates its 48th anniversary this year, an achievement that seems downright newsworthy to those remarkable folks whose lives have been changed by it.

That includes NSCD volunteers like Terry Blum, a Tabernash retiree who has devoted more than 10 years to working with people whose disabilities have not kept them off the Winter Park ski slopes.

“Although I have volunteered with numerous programs during my career, this program is the only one where I can say that I receive more than I give!” Blum said recently. “Not only do you meet the students, you also meet parents, siblings, even grandparents and then get invited to their high school graduations, and birthday parties.”

And flying even lower on the public’s radar than NSCD’s winter ski program is its summer schedule of horseback riding lessons.

Officially known as the Therapeutic Riding Program, NSCD’s staff and volunteers teach kids with disabilities how to get comfortable in the saddles of specially-trained horses on the breathtakingly beautiful grounds of the Therapeutic Riding Center at the YMCA – Snow Mountain Ranch in Tabernash.

More than getting comfortable, these youngsters learn to control their gentle giants with a tug on the reins, or nudge from a boot heel.

“Everyone knows about NSCD’s adaptive ski programs but one of our best kept secrets is the Therapeutic Riding program,” says Nicole Robinson, “While most therapeutic riding programs only offer lessons in an indoor arena, ours is unique in that all of our lessons and trail rides are outdoors.”

Therapeutic riding continues a centuries-old legacy of the West by teaching young cowgirls and cowboys western- and English-style riding techniques as well as other horsemanship skills. These children, and many adults, have various disabilities. Some are deaf or blind, have autism or Down syndrome, others have traumatic brain injuries or paralysis.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million Americans (20 percent of the population) are disabled. Many of those people rely on the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) to lead healthy, rewarding lives.

Since its inception in 1970, NSCD has provided ski lessons for children with amputations, among an array of other physical and cognitive disabilities including paralysis, blindness, deafness, Down syndrome, autism and traumatic brain injury.

NSCD has grown dramatically in the intervening half century, evolving into a multifaceted nonprofit that serves more than 3,000 children and adults with disabilities in year-round activities that include horseback riding, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, as well as alpine and Nordic skiing.

They learn more about sports and themselves with the guidance of trained staffers and volunteers. Programs are designed for individuals, families and groups at all levels of ability.

This summer, NSCD offers a variety of opportunities for children with disabilities at its Therapeutic Riding Center. Horseback riding has been shown, in clinical research studies, to benefit people with disabilities.

Sydney Sklar, a University of St. Francis researcher who studied NSCD’s horseback riding program, led a team that measured students’ outcomes including physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and leisure functioning.

“An interesting finding of the research is that in most cases it took at least three lessons to see improvements in functioning and riding skill,” Dr. Sklar said.

“This finding suggests that repeated and regular participation in the program increases the likelihood participants will make progress toward their goals and improve in their riding skills,” he added.

Lessons range from beginner to advanced.

Inexperienced students learn basic fundamentals, such as tacking, mounting, stopping and steering, with a focus on their own body control and balance in the saddle. Intermediate and advanced students learn more steering patterns at a walk or trot, as well as a deeper understanding of how best to interact with a horse.

But learning opportunities aren’t limited to kids with disabilities.

Volunteers of all ages drive the program and play an integral role by supporting and encouraging participants to ride NSCD’s specially trained horses.

Terry Blum, a year-round volunteer, enjoys the “open air” aspect of the program, and has become a favorite “ranch hand” whose big smile and friendly demeanor make kids and other volunteers feel welcome.

“Although the weather most days is beautiful, it can get interesting with hail, rain, graupel and snow!” he chuckles.

Volunteers work with NSCD staffers in all facets of the program. They greet youngsters upon arrival at the Therapeutic Riding Center and introduce them to the horses, then help to guide them through lessons. Volunteers also pitch in on typical ranch duties like grooming horses, saddle horses (called tacking), and lead or side-walk horses through lessons in groups of students, other volunteers and staffers.

No prior experience with horses is required. Volunteers learn proper techniques from NSCD staff and other experienced volunteers.

For more information, call NSCD at (970) 726-1518 or visit