STARS equine programs ride into future thanks to Zen Ranch purchase


Nobody would blame Gardner Flanigan, executive director of Steamboat Adaptive Recreation Sports, or STARS, if he let out a little “yee-haw” Monday as he talked about the new permanent home of the nonprofit’s equestrian programs.

“This allows us to have a robust program from May until September, and maybe even into October each year, with about seven therapy horses,” Flanigan said of the new Zen Ranch, which was named after a veteran therapy horse that is still part of the program. “It’s really fantastic because we have had contracts with other ranch owners. … We had contracts end or ownership changes and things like that. Gail Jensen purchased this with the intention of providing a long-term solution for STARS.”

Jensen, a member of the STARS board of directors and a longtime supporter of the organization, purchased the 35-acre ranch facility at 30100 Routt County Road 14E to provide STARS with a place for its popular equine rehabilitation programs.

“I bought it specifically so that STARS would have a permanent home, and so we didn’t have to search for some place to hold the equine program every two or three years,” Jensen said. “We had said that if it (the ranch) ever came up for sale, we would be interested in buying it, but then somebody came to the owners and offered them a ton of money.”

However, when the prospective buyers had problems getting financing, Jensen saw an opportunity.

“It wasn’t even on the market, and they had started the sale process, and then they were unable to finance it, so we stepped in and bought it,” said Jensen, who had been involved in equine therapy for 15 years before moving to Steamboat in 2004. “I just turned it over to God, and if it was to be, then it would happen, and if not, something else would turn up.”

STARS started its own equestrian programming in 2015 at Wandering Creek Ranch. Before that, STARS participated with Humble Ranch. Last summer, Gardner said the equestrian programs at STARS drew 49 of the 95 participants who took part in summer programs.

STARS is a Steamboat Springs-based nonprofit the mission of which is to empower and enrich lives through adaptive recreational activities, like skiing, snowboarding, ski biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing programs in the winter and equestrian, swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, climbing gym, hiking, biking, bowling, arts and crafts, tennis and pickleball in the summer. The programs serve youth, adults and veterans with cognitive and physical disabilities.

The STARS Equestrian Center at Zen Ranch will feature employee housing, an indoor arena, an outdoor arena, paddocks for seven horses and multiple pastures. Flanigan said the new facility means the important programs will continue and grow into the future.

“There is this incredible mental and physical benefit to equine therapy for people with disabilities,’” Flanigan said. “It’s a really symbiotic relationship with the horses. The horses really sense who’s on their back, and they’re very gentle creatures. Physically, these programs help with core strength and balance and things like that, but it really has full body benefit to the participants.”

Jensen agrees and said her experiences with equine therapy are a big reason she volunteers her time on the board, helps with equine programming and brings several of her own horses to be a part of the STARS programs.

“I have just been blown away for years about how well this works for people with disabilities, especially autistic children and adults,” Jensen said.

She shared a story about an 8-year-old boy she interacted with back in Nebraska before coming to Steamboat. The boy had severe autism and spent most of his days in a fetal position and was totally nonverbal. Jensen said the boy took part in the programs until he was 18, and his progression amazed Jensen, who is a clinical microbiologist.

“He stood up at one of our fundraising events and gave a speech about what equine therapy had done for him when he was 16,” Jensen said. “After that, he went to college, got his degree in computer programming, and he now programs for EA Sports in Dallas, is married and has children.”

Flanigan said Jensen owns the ranch, and STARS has entered into a long-term lease for use of the ranch facility. The acquisition of the ranch was made with the assistance of Cam Boyd of Steamboat Sotheby’s International Realty who donated his time and commission to help secure the sale between Ms. Jensen and the previous owners.

“The incredible generosity of Gail and Cam ensures a stable and bright long-term future for our popular STARS equine therapy programming,” Flanigan said. “The possibilities for STARS programming at the Zen Ranch are endless as we will explore opportunities to use the 35 acres in other creative means for local and visiting participants alike.”


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