The girl, just 5 years old, was recovering from sexual abuse and wouldn’t say a word during her usual counseling sessions. She had shut down as a way to cope with her trauma, and the emotional walls she built made therapeutic treatment difficult. But after three sessions communing with horses in an equine therapy program, “she just opened up,” says REALTOR® Joy Nelson. “She’s such a confident little girl now. It’s really amazing to see that change.”
For Nelson, founder of Joy Ranch in Watertown, S.D., which operates the equine therapy program known as Hope, Healing, and Horses, it’s one of countless examples of how the powerful connection between animals and people can turn lives around. “I believe in the healing power of horses. They’re so intuitive, and somewhat spiritual,” she says. “I’ve been around them so long, I can tell when that horse-human connection happens. That horse will hook onto that person and just kind of take care of them. It’s almost magical.”
“Horses don’t judge,” agrees Mark Dunn, whose son Lincoln, 11, has spina bifida and participates in equine activities at the ranch. “They don’t see a kid with special needs; they see a child. You can feel the connection right away. The horses have such a calming presence on each individual child. It’s truly a magical experience.”
A Barrier-Free Western Town
“Magical” is the word most people who have experienced Joy Ranch use to describe it. The 126-acre ranch in Watertown, a community of about 22,000 in northeastern South Dakota, plays host to corporate retreats, church outings, children’s camps, weddings, and family reunions. One of four sites operated by Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota, the facility is outfitted like an 1880s Western town.
What makes the ranch unique is that it was built to be completely ADA accessible, indoors and out, including the riding arena and paths to a nearby lake. “[Before construction] we talked to folks with various disabilities and compiled all the barriers they run into when trying to go places, and then we built that all into the design before we put a shovel in the ground,” says Nelson. Because of this feature, Joy Ranch is known for the camps and retreats it hosts for people with physical disabilities, veterans suffering from PTSD, nursing home residents, and others with special needs.
“I’ve always had that strong sense of motivation in my career, and the same goes for what I do for nonprofits—whatever I do, I do 100 percent. I don’t know how to do it any other way.”—Joy Nelson
Beyond fulfilling the medical and therapeutic aspects, the ranch strives to give the people it serves a place where they can enjoy life and be themselves.
“We do archery, BB guns, paintball,” says Marilee Kontz, children’s camp coordinator at Sanford Health Medical Center, who brings groups of children with spina bifida and cancer to the ranch each year. “We go tubing and have inspirational bonfires every night. We have yoga and drama. This year, we added an escape room adapted for children with wheelchairs, and that’s been one of their favorite things.”
For parents of a child who is medically compromised, says Kontz, “being able to tour [the facility] and everything being very transparent and accessible, it means the world to them.”
“A Much Grander Scale”
The eponymous ranch bespeaks the passionate feelings it engenders in participants. The owner and president of Haugan Nelson Realty in Watertown, Nelson purchased the 100-acre ranch in 1989 as a place to raise her show horses. Soon, she recognized how her land and animals could fill a need, as churches, Special Olympics, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters approached her to use the indoor riding arena.
“I’ve been involved with horses all my life and understand what they can do for people, especially people with afflictions. So I started with children’s therapeutic riding, staging everything for them,” recalls Nelson. “Soon, it wasn’t just a few rides now and then. It got to be on a much grander scale. There was no way I could continue to do these programs by myself, and I knew there was so much more we could do if we could get the right facilities.”
In 2002, Nelson donated the property to Lutherans Outdoors as a life estate and then partnered with the Watertown Area Community Foundation to facilitate donations. Those funds allow Joy Ranch to offer scholarships for people in need and also allow doctors, nurses, and other caregivers to accompany children with disabilities to summer camp. Several South Dakota colleges bring their nursing and physical therapy students to Joy Ranch for on-the-job training. In addition, the camp employs counselors who have physical disabilities and other adults with developmental or intellectual impairment.
Helping Her Community Thrive
Over the years, Nelson has donated more than $3 million to Joy Ranch and raised millions more, recently soliciting donations for a therapeutic saddle to accommodate people who are completely immobile. She still lives on the ranch and remains deeply involved in daily operations, from fundraising to promoting Joy Ranch’s benefits to caring for the horses and other animals on weekends.
But the ranch is hardly her only commitment. Nelson sits on the boards of at least 10 other local organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Sanford Healthcare System board, and the Codington County Historical Society. She was instrumental in starting Watertown Artwalk to help revitalize the downtown area. “We’re involved in a lot of different community events [with Joy],” says Dunn, a banker with Watertown’s First Premier Bank who also has been Nelson’s colleague and client. “Joy is always present, if not one of the top contributors to whatever project is going on. She wants to see Watertown do well, and truly believes in the goodness in each person in our community.”
Nelson acknowledges that navigating the demands of her brokerage and the ranch can be challenging. “Typically, Monday through Friday, I’m at my real estate office. But when I go home, I change clothes and go right down to the barns and see what needs to be done. Sometimes, I’ll have clients on weekends, so I have to shuffle and get someone to fill in for me. It’s a balancing act for sure.”
Nelson’s dedication to helping others is a reflection of how she approaches her life, and she actively encourages clients, real estate colleagues, and neighbors to do the same.
“There’s a mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life are happiness, freedom, and peace of mind,” Nelson says. “I believe the way to attain those things is to give them away to someone else.”