It is REALLY great that people are trying to help others with horses and that the horses are given such special jobs! ~Declan
Horse ranch camp pops out of prairie
Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2013 9:05 am As posted on Tri-State Neighbor
Turning back time
Joy Ranch camp co-director Kyle Debertin of Watertown, S.D. stands in the 1880s-themed street that is one of the focal points of the Lutheran Outdoors horse ranch. At right is the main motel and retreat center. At left is the bunkhouse, root beer and coffee bar and “Country Doctor” health care facility.
Joy Nelson of Watertown, S.D., always knew what horses could do for children, and especially how they could help the disabled.
On her scenic horse ranch about seven miles northwest of Watertown on the rolling hills of the prairie, she would have disabled kids, her church’s families and at-risk children out to visit for rides and would see the benefits.
Nelson, a self-described “absolute horse lover,” originally built the ranch in 1989 to accommodate her paint horses, which she showed on weekends throughout the Midwest and Canada for about 10 years – with the highlight coming when a mare was crowned national champion.
However, when those groups started visiting the ranch in the 1990s, she thought, “I love this place, but I think I need to share this with everybody and let these kids have the advantages of what the horses could do for them, not only therapeutically, but emotionally. They are confidence building for these kids.
“I know there are documented cases of children with autism who didn’t talk, but after bonding with horses, they finally began to talk,” she said.
In 1999, she began discussions with Lutheran Outdoors of South Dakota to share her vision of incorporating her horse ranch and an 1880s historical theme into a camp that would be completely accessible for disabled children and their families.
A study showed that there were about 23,000 children in South Dakota with special disabilities or chronic illnesses and another 25,000 adults with the same difficulties.
An agreement was reached and Nelson, a successful real estate broker, eventually gifted the 110-acre ranch to the Lutheran churches. Then work began on fundraising and planning for the camp.
It took more than a decade, but the camp has been open for a year this month and is appropriately called “Joy Ranch.”
Not only are disabled children enjoying the ranch so far, but Nelson and others involved discovered that the aging population with mobility issues also could make use of a place for family reunions or a getaway that was totally handicapped accessible.
Thus, visitors from assisted-living and nursing homes also come to the ranch for rides in a covered wagon or buggy, reliving memories of the past.
Nelson is quick to point out, however, that the camp is open to all – people of all religions and all ages and those without disabilities.
In fact, many business, government, women’s and church groups, plus families, have held meetings, retreats or reunions at the camp.
It’s all designed as an 1880s prairie town with Old West facades on the modern, handicapped accessible facilities.
Features include a 16-room “Dakota Motel,” a bunkhouse with four large rooms and beds for 44 campers, a fine dining “Cattlemen’s Club” restaurant, a cafe, uniquely designed conference rooms with prairie-vista views, a “Thirsty Boot” root beer and coffee bar room, a waterfront on secluded Lyle Lake, a one-room schoolhouse and a prairie church.
Kyle Debertin, who directs the camp along with his wife, Betsy, said architect Paul Briggs of North Carolina, who specializes in retreat camps, helped design the camp structures.
Nelson said that as far as she knows, it’s the only camp built from scratch with the disability issue in mind, although she realizes many camps have retrofitted rooms or buildings.
Debertin and Nelson said doors, bathrooms, dining tables and everything else is handicapped accessible for people with wheelchairs, even the wheelchair-grade paths down to the lakefront. Then, aside from the dining and lodging facilities, there is the horse and animal part of the ranch, also accessible to all.
Kari Sorensen, who helps with programming at the facility, said the ranch has 23 horses, one donkey, a flock of ducks and a turkey named “Wilbur.”
The horse herd includes seven calm, gentle and friendly Norwegian Fjords, quarter horses, paints and miniatures.
The Fjord horses are used to pull a covered wagon, buggies and sleighs. The buggies are handicapped accessible; wheelchairs can be rolled up into them and clamped down.
Sorensen said other offerings are trail rides, horsemanship training, retreats, riding lessons and a huge indoor arena.
Horses graze the nearby pastures.
The camp has hired equine specialist Carmen Werning, a neighbor to the ranch, to help teach riding and horsemanship classes. She works part time.
When the elderly come out for buggy rides, Debertin said, “I hear from so many of them that they grew up on the farm or their parents did and when they get on the buggy with the horses, I see the gleam on their faces. It’s a way for the older generation to remember the joys and maybe the hard work on the farms.”
Adding to the prairie town theme of the ranch are the old church that stands atop a bluff near the camp entrance and the one-room schoolhouse on the lakeshore.
The country church, now used for weddings and camp services, is from Irwin, S.D. The congregation had closed and abandoned the church for about 10 years when Nelson purchased it and had it moved May 25, 2000. She immediately started refurbishing it with new wiring, a roof and paint and had the first wedding there in September of that year.
The one-room schoolhouse comes from a family farm about 20 miles north of Watertown. Nelson said “everything was still in there” when she bought it, including the chalkboard, desks, teacher’s desk and even a calendar on the wall from 1962.
“It was like they called off school one day and just left,” Nelson said.
It’s still in its original condition and had to be retrofitted slightly to make it handicapped accessible by widening a door and an archway.
It’s just part of the historical aspect to Joy Ranch. Old photos and memorabilia showing the history of the Watertown area and the northeastern South Dakota region hang on the walls of the lodging rooms and other parts of the ranch.
Debertin said countless volunteers have donated items for the collection and have played a key role in helping make other parts of the camp what it is. It’s been a community effort and is becoming a key attraction in Watertown, also known for the Terry Redlin Art Center, Bramble Park Zoo and Lake Area Technical Institute.
Nelson, the Debertins and others aren’t done yet, either. There are plans for more lakeside and bluff trails, a handicapped-accessible campground, a larger garden for chef Ben Richardson, fenced pastures along the entryway for grazing horses, a fishing pier for the disabled and more farm animals.
Sorensen said they would like to develop more of a “working ranch” with miniature cows, pigs, sheep and rabbits.
Overall, Debertin said “the thing I hear a lot is that it’s not the Bible camp they remember growing up with.
“Or they say, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I didn’t know this was here.’ ”
Nelson said with obvious pleasure, “It’s kind of like Disneyland.”
That’s in a ranch or country sort of way.
Any way a person looks at it, the fifth and newest ranch or camp in the Lutheran Outdoors system is a “gem on the prairie.” And Debertin said camp leaders don’t want that to be a secret anymore.