Windwalkers

One of WindWalkers equine residents eyes the camera curiously. 

It was an especially happy Valentine’s Day for WindWalkers this year, as the much-loved therapeutic riding and learning center in Missouri Heights closed Feb. 14 on the purchase of the ranch that has housed the center and its equine teachers for the last decade and a half.

The 14.49-acre ranch was purchased for $1.45 million from longtime Basalt businessman Eugene Chiarelli, who no longer lives in the valley. The property had been on the market for about five years, meaning that one of central Colorado’s few equine-assisted therapy centers had been facing a bit of an uncertain future.

Not anymore.

“We did it,” said WindWalkers Executive Director Gabrielle Greeves the day after the closing. “It’s one more movement toward our bigger dream.”

With the center’s permanent home secured, Greeves sees that bigger dream as an expansion of WindWalkers’ programs, which pair riders of all ages with human instructors and horses that have found their way to the ranch because of their gentle natures and their ability to connect with people who might not always be so good at making connections.

Now it’s just a case of handing the reins over to those who could most benefit from them.

“We’ll be talking to community stakeholders about different issues that they see as emerging trends and how we can answer them,” Greeves said.

As part of its expanding reach, WindWalkers, which is best known for its youth programs and camps, recently struck up a partnership with Renew Roaring Fork, an assisted-living senior community in Glenwood Springs. Greeves also hopes to “say more yeses” to youths who want to come to WindWalkers for therapeutic classes or just to learn how to ride one of the ranch’s 18 horses.

“We can work more on the social and emotional issues of our youths through out-of-school and after-school programming,” said Greeves, “even getting into different issues with our community partners regarding teens with depression and suicidal tendencies.”

With roots going back as long as horses have been domesticated, equine-assisted therapy is somewhat of a known commodity — think of a cowboy and his beloved horse — and has been used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, social workers and other professionals to address a wide range of mental and physical health conditions.

Therapeutic programs make up the bulk of what Greeves and her staff do at WindWalkers, but there also are summer camps that are just for fun for kids and adults who just come to ride and soak up the calming atmosphere of the ranch. The property has massive views of Mount Sopris and the Elk Mountains, as well as two goats, two cats and three lucky dogs who get to spend their days there.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Windwalkers

WindWalkers program director Beth Gusick, center, leads two students through riding lessons on Valentine’s Day.

Well, there are three dogs there most days, anyway, but not on Valentine’s Day. That day, Callie and Becca, Greeves’ dogs, were off with their mom closing on the ranch. That left just Roo, an ultra-friendly black Labrador mix, as the sole representative of the canine persuasion.

All the rest of the regulars were there, though. Tanner, a true cowboy who helps wrangle steer each summer at the Carbondale Rodeo, was bucking hay. Thelma and Diesel, the ranch’s resident felines, lolled about in the barn, and Sage and Griffin, the two caprines — the taxonomic name for goats — awaited dinner in their stall.

In the ranch’s spacious riding arena, Roo’s owner, program director Beth Gusick, led a student around on a white horse named Nicky while another student practiced trotting on a friendly mare named Telitha with the help of another WindWalkers instructor. It was much like any other day, except there was palpable excitement in the air from knowing there was no more uncertainty about where Telitha, Nicky and all the other animals would go if someone else bought the property.

That doesn’t mean the work is over, however. The ranch was purchased with money that came largely from five anonymous donors, but to keep everything running and make sure equine bellies stay fed, Greeves and her staff will need to court additional donors and grantors who see the value in what WindWalkers offers. Fees for riding lessons bring in some income, but it isn’t enough to cover the actual cost of the lesson.

“We are below cost or no cost at all times,” said Greeves, “but every time a client walks in for a lesson, it’s $165 an hour for us.”

Add that to the fact that expanding programming equates to an expanded budget, and it makes for an operation that still needs a lot of love to stay afloat, even if WindWalkers no longer has to make rent payments each month. With that in mind, Greeves plans to launch a capital campaign in June with the moniker “Hearts and Hooves Make a Difference.”

It’s a statement that may be hard to quantify with scientific data, but one look at WindWalkers’ riding arena is proof of its veracity. Always festooned with drawings and notes from young students, on Valentine’s Day the arena’s gates were hung with about 20 paper hearts that included professions of love and affection from riders to horses.

It’s nice to know that love won’t be going away anytime soon.