Finding Peace on Horseback

Praying Hands Ranches use equine-focused rehab programs to help people with disabilities.


SADDLE SOAR Equine therapy at Praying Hands helps kids gain balance, focus and confidence. Photo by Paul Miller

To get to the main campus of Praying Hands Ranches, one must drive through the rolling hills south of Parker, a corner of the rural Douglas County horse country so beautiful that it could easily have inspired the descriptor “God’s country.”

The bucolic surroundings, coupled with what co-founder Shirley Hanson describes as a nonstop supply of blessings from above, do much to enhance the mission of this faith-based nonprofit, which uses horses, farm animals and sensory gardens to “make miracles happen” for children and adults with disabilities.

Hanson and her husband, Carl, founded Praying Hands Ranch in 1987 after witnessing the healing effect that horseback riding had on the youngest of their nine children, who was on the autism spectrum. Martin Jon Hanson was 50 when he died suddenly at the family home in August of 2016, but rather than mark his passing with a somber funeral, the Hansons staged a jubilee in the indoor riding arena of the original campus at 11892 E. Hilltop Road.

“Praying Hands wouldn’t exist had it not been for Jon,” Hanson reminisces. “We were heartbroken to lose him, but he had done his work here on Earth.”

Praying Hands No. 2 is located nearby, on 80 acres of land leased from Douglas County, and was established to provide recreation and rehabilitation programs for military veterans and their families through programs that include archery, woodworking and building bird houses that are installed along the ranch’s nature trail.

The decision to start the original ranch came, Hanson says, “after we saw what horses did for our son. We wanted others to experience that same joy. Carl had a dream and I had a vision.”

Hanson serves, without pay, as Praying Hands Ranches’ executive director. Her husband, the president, CEO and director at Dermex Pharmaceutical Inc., pitches in where needed, also without pay.

Licensed physical, occupational and speech therapists, along with riding instructors and specially trained volunteers, conduct year-round horseback-based hippotherapy and therapeutic riding classes to about 100 children and adults per week who are living with conditions that include autism, cerebral palsy, stroke, Down syndrome and multiple sclerosis.

The 15 horses in service must be good-natured enough to put up with kids who, though accompanied by volunteer side-walkers, can do things like pull the animal’s mane or jerk the reins in an unexpected manner.

Riding programs such as hippotherapy improve balance, decrease spasticity, improve posture and stimulate tactile, auditory and visual systems. The parent of a 14-year-old client with autism says, “He has been able to face his fears, not only in equine therapy but elsewhere. His self-confidence has increased (and) he is able to better focus in school. It has made a big difference in his anxiety overall and has helped to keep him centered.”

Thursday nights are devoted to programs that help troubled youths work on behavioral issues such as anger management. “They help prepare the horses or learn to work as side-walkers,” Hanson says. “Our prayer is that they’ll learn to treat people the same (gentle) way they treat the horses and kiddos who ride them.”

While there is a charge to participate, insurance and scholarships and “whatever other money we can get our hands on” can cover some of the fees, Hanson says.

Though Praying Hands Ranches is grounded in the Hansons’ faith, participating in the daily prayer is not required. “We do not push our beliefs on anyone,” she says. “We aren’t here to preach; we’re here to love. Praying Hands Ranch is a place for people to learn, teach, love and care. We want everyone to be loved, liked—and active.”



11892 E. Hilltop Road, Parker


GIVE: Donations of any amount can be sent to 4825 E. Daley Circle, Parker, CO 80138-6029.

VOLUNTEER: Teens, adults and grandparents are welcome to assist in areas that include equine therapeutic programs, crafts, horticulture and office duties. Necessary training is provided before each eight-week session, and between 60 and 70 volunteers are needed per session. 

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