These Colorado outdoor recreation programs help people of all abilities focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.

LEIGH SHAFER HAS ALWAYS been on the quiet side. She tends to be reserved and uncomfortable speaking in front of groups—which isn’t uncommon, but Leigh also has an intellectual disability, and a hard time with certain cognitive skills and social interactions. Her mom, Laura, worried about dropping her off at camps during the summer.

That is, until she went to horseback riding camp with the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NCSD) at YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby. Now 18, Leigh has been riding horses since she was in first grade; the camp welcomes participants of varying abilities who have a certain degree of self-sufficiency, and aligned perfectly with her interests. Along with tent camping and learning to ride and care for the horses, participants develop self-confidence, trust and social skills during their week at camp. “Leigh’s pretty adept at dealing with the horses,” Laura says. “It’s some of the intrapersonal skills that she really worked on and improved upon.”

Last summer, Leigh was asked to help MC the camp’s closing show. “It was a huge accomplishment for her to get up and do that,” Laura says. “She’s really taken a leadership role. She’s not afraid to be away at camp for an extended period of time. She’s becoming comfortable with herself and her friends and other people. I’m very proud of her.”

In Colorado, about 10.4 percent of the population lives with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, which defines a disability as a visual or hearing impairment, or a physical, mental or emotional condition that causes serious difficulty with cognitive functions, mobility, self-care or independent living.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six U.S. children has a developmental disability due to “an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas.”

Horseback riding is just one of the therapeutic outdoor recreation programs offered by the NCSD—one of the largest organizations of its kind. As the benefits of outdoor recreation for people with disabilities are becoming more widely understood, participation options are expanding, from specialized equipment to trained recreation therapists to volunteer support. From easy-access urban/suburban programs to adventurous mountain-town offerings, here’s a snapshot of three Colorado centers that offer adaptive sports and outdoor programming.

National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD)

SnapshotIn 2017, the NSCD served more than 3,700 people with disabilities from 41 states and eight countries. Beyond its extensive year-round programming (such as climbing, paddling, archery, obstacle courses, and its main draw, alpine skiing) the center’s overnight camps draw people like Leigh back year after year. “You come to something like this, and you know everything is taken care of,” says Diane Eustace, NSCD operations and communications director. “It takes away some of the pressures and obstacles of daily life. It takes away your disability and focuses on your ability.”

Extra coolThe NSCD prioritizes the therapeutic element on top of the activity, asking participants and their caregivers if they’ve got specific goals on which they want to focus, such as communication, physical boundaries or trust. “I’ve seen kids who are eight or nine years old who’ve never spoken a word say their first words on a horse,” Eustace says.

Summer highlights: Therapeutic Horseback Riding Camp (July 5–7, August 7–10 & 29–31) and Women’s Weekend for adults with physical disabilities (August 20–23) at YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch; sailing on Grand Lake (June 29, July 13, 20 & 27); Summer Woods Adventure Camp in Winter Park for adults with developmental disabilities (June 11–14 & July 23–26)

More info:

City of Fort Collins Adaptive Recreation Opportunities

Snapshot: This grassroots organization provides year-round adaptive classes and inclusion support—including equipment, alternative teaching, sign language interpreters—for people to join any class it offers. Adaptive Recreation Opportunities (ARO) teams up with organizations like Lakewood-based Adaptive Adventures, Fort Collins-based Rocky Mountain Adventures, and the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society to offer activities like cycling, climbing, yoga, and aquatics, to name a few. “There’s a sense of community,” says Renée Lee, therapeutic recreation supervisor for the city of Fort Collins, “in being connected with people that make you feel like yourself. That is really powerful for people with disabilities.”

Extra cool: ARO has about a dozen unified sports teams, composed of people with and without disabilities playing together. “It’s a great way for people to be more connected with the community,” Lee says, “and to have an awareness of their peers’ capabilities and potential.”

Summer highlights: Adaptive water sports at Horsetooth Reservoir (June 20, August 29); adaptive climbing clinics (July 17, August 8); raft trip on the Poudre River (July 14); group tent campout at YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch (August 10–12); unified softball league (12 teams of players with and without disabilities) on Mondays at Rolland Moore Park ball fields

More info:; (for schedule and descriptions)

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC)

Snapshot: More than 2,400 people from 39 states and 10 countries participated in the nonprofit’s wilderness and ski programs during the 2016-17 year. Though the concept is more group-oriented than open-enrollment (think partnerships with Children’s Hospital, the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado or a private family group), activities are customizable per a group’s request and specifics can be tailored to the individuals’ needs. Courses and activities, from canoeing and hiking to natural history and environmental ethics, might involve anywhere from a half day to two weeks at BOEC’s full-amenity log cabin–style Scott Griffith Lodge overlooking Old Town Reservoir in Breckenridge.

Extra cool: The robust internship program is a huge part of the leadership at BOEC, and it benefits the participants as much as the staff. “Every six months, 12 new faces with 12 new backgrounds bring new games, new ideas and new songs as they learn how to do adaptive programming,” says Jaime Overmyer, BOEC wilderness program director. “It keeps the program fresh and exciting. But the best teachers we have are the students themselves.”

Summer highlights: Wilderness Camp for people ages 16 to 25 with developmental disabilities at Griffith Lodge and the Colorado River (Jul 7–11); Heroic Military Families Mountain Retreat (Griffith Lodge, June 30–July 2) & Green River Trip (Gates of Lodore, (August 1–7); Challenge By Choice Adventure Retreats for survivors of brain injury at the Griffith Lodge (June–August, dates vary)

More info:

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