Creating real impact with Equine Assisted Therapies

Gaby Gurrla’s wheelchair sunk deep into the dirt inside the arena at the Colorado State University Temple Grandin Equine Center in North Denver on Friday afternoon. Her smile could not have been any bigger as she laid eyes on the statuesque horse approaching her.

From the outside, it’s an unassuming barn that will serve as a temporary location for equine assisted activities and therapy on the grounds of the National Western Complex, until CSU builds facilities as part of the reimagined National Western Center.

Inside, it’s changing lives.

Gaby is in eighth grade and has never met a horse before. She giggles nervously as the horse handler shows her how an outreached fist serves as a “horse nose” as a means of introduction to the horse. The horse – Drifter – gently nudges Gaby’s hand. Gaby reaches her hand out for another bump.

“I was having fun meeting a real horse,” 13-year-old Gaby said later on when asked what she would tell her family and friends about her day. “He was tall. He was nice. He was good.”

Working to innovate with Bruce Randolph

On March 17, more than 20 students with cognitive disabilities and affective needs from Denver Public School’s Bruce Randolph, joined an orientation to prepare them for equine activities every Friday through the end of their school year.

“This is great for CSU, this is great for Bruce Randolph,” said Roland Shaw, assistant principal at Bruce Randolph, which serves grades 6-12. “Our most impacted students are the ones benefiting from this.”

Bruce Randolph brought therapy dogs in classrooms and immediately noticed improvements in the social and emotional regulation of many of their impacted students. Horses seemed like the next extension, Shaw said.

Shaw and CSU’s Adam Daurio, director of the Temple Grandin Equine Center, began speaking about a partnership with Bruce Randolph in early 2017, and the March orientation kicked off programming at the Center.

“This is true community impact, real community outreach,” said Daurio. “CSU is supposed to do this outreach in Denver. The best way to show people the impact was just to do it.”

The Center will have programming every weekday and work with a variety of audiences that can benefit from equine assisted activities and therapies. It’s an effort important to all the parties involved, reiterated Paul Andrews, president and CEO of the National Western Complex.

“We are thrilled to have this amazing community program on our grounds” he said. “The community outreach and equine therapy programs are near and dear to our hearts. We appreciate how important these programs are for these remarkable kids and we are happy to be a part of it.”

Giving back to the neighborhoods

With the changes happening in the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods in North Denver, in part because of the planned National Western Center, this is a program that has the ability to bridge the historic GES community and the changes that are taking place, Shaw said.

“We take a lot of pride in being the neighborhood’s community school,” said Shaw. “It’s great to be able to bring access and opportunity within the stock show complex. A large part of what excites me about this is that it truly serves the community that is pre-existing here.”

Bruce Randolph eighth grade student Uriel Santos celebrated his fourteenth birthday during the orientation and the horses and all of his classmates sang ‘happy birthday’ to him. Uriel said it was a “really good day.”

“I like practicing how to get on the horse – I think it’s really cool,” Uriel said. “[I like] that they’re tall, that they run, and that they’re really fast. I like seeing the horses. They are sweet.”

Shaw hopes that this program will find a sustainable funding source so the students at his school can continue to participate in the programming as the National Western Complex site is developed.

He’s already seeing impact with the students, he said.

“It gives our kids the benefit of what is happening here and that is really important to me,” Shaw said. “The dividends are huge for the kids. If people want their dollars to go to impact, I can’t think of another program more impactful than this.”

Colorado State University and the National Western Center

Colorado State University has made a long-term commitment to the reimagining of the National Western Center in North Denver, and the communities surrounding the project. Efforts are under way to create partnerships with community schools, non-profits and businesses, and to actively engage in the community.

A key and founding partner in the National Western Center, CSU will have three buildings within the 250-acre campus upon completion. The project, which will break ground in the coming years, expands and regenerates the current National Western Stock Show site, turning it into a vibrant, year-round experiential, community-centric, life-long learning destination in the heart of Denver.

As Colorado’s land-grant university, CSU’s mission of research, service, and access, fits with the outreach mission of the National Western Center. CSU’s plans at the new campus focus on research and education programming in the areas of food systems, water, environment, energy and health. The university has initiated programming and service outreach efforts before buildings are constructed, as part of its commitment to the area. For additional information, visit