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Local Hero: Happy Dog Ranch


Griffin was a three-year old thoroughbred racehorse considered unrideable by an eastern racetrack. About to be euthanized, he was shipped instead to a nonprofit 53-acre rescue ranch in Littleton, Colorado, adjacent to Chatfield State Park.

“He was very sensitive and untouchable. We had a hard time working with him,” says Bernadette Spillane, president of Happy Dog Ranch Foundation.

Then something amazing happened: Griffin walked right up to a young boy with Fragile X Syndrome, which causes intellectual disability. The horse put his head on the boy’s chest.

“Weirdly, things immediately changed for both the boy and the horse,” says Spillane. “It’s as if horses know something that we don’t. It’s so beautiful, personal, and touching to see how this enormous animal can operate at this level of sensitivity.”

Since 2006, up to 3,000 people have come to the facility to work with horses. Some are therapists learning the latest techniques; others are volunteers tasked with caring for 40 horses; and still more are veterans suffering from PTSD, recovering addicts, victims of domestic violence, breast cancer survivors, people with autistism, “younger onset” Alzheimer’s patients, and at-risk teens.

Happy Dog is often the last stop for troublesome horses whose owners can no longer care for them. It’s a last stop for many people as well,” says Spillane. “It can be a pretty ugly road for horses no longer deemed desirable. We rescue horses and, in the act of saving them, we save people.”
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Cover Photo: Bernadette Spillane, president of happy dog ranch foundation, poses with a rescue horse.

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