Teaching Gratitude & Purpose
“How is everybody doing?” Kristi Hurley asks her class of 10 children, ages four to 13. The kids sit at a long row of picnic tables covered in red-and-white-checked tablecloths that run the length of the barn. Several girls cuddle velvet-soft rabbits. A Nigerian Dwarf goat named Charlotte has scampered onto a table where she bleats, demanding attention. She’s just a baby. A boy reaches for Charlotte, gently hugs her miniature body, and pats her coarse brown coat. Both kids are in heaven.
Kristi bends down into a pen filled with fresh straw, scoops up a newborn lamb, and cradles it in her arms. The mother, a therapy sheep named Dolly, doesn’t seem to mind. Kristi helped deliver the lamb, Woody, in the middle of the night. Woody is off-the-charts adorable, and all 10 kids erupt into a collective “Awww.” Kristi is tired after such a long night, but her eyes sparkle as she launches into the birth story. The lamb had gotten stuck. Kristi had pulled Woody free and helped him take his first breath. In her hands, she holds life, which is precious.
“I am so grateful for this little guy,” she says to the children, “and for all of you. Now, who’s ready for goat yoga?”
This is how class begins at The Giggling Life Care Farm, an animal therapy center located in the rural fringes of Thornton, Colorado, only 30 minutes away from downtown Denver.
Founded in 2019, the therapy farm is the passion project of Kristi Hurley, a woman on a mission to connect children with the healing properties of gratitude, animal care, and time spent on a working farm. It’s been her dream since she was a kid.
“It was amazing,” she says of her childhood in rural Dubois and Casper, Wyoming, during the 1970s and ’80s. She points to her dad — a cowboy raised in a humble sheepherder’s wagon — as a major influence on her appreciation of animals and rural living. He taught Kristi and her siblings how to care for cows, sheep, horses, and other livestock and encouraged his children to join 4-H. “I’ve always loved animals,” she says.
After high school, Kristi moved to San Diego, California, where she went to college and earned a degree in behavioral science. It’s also where she met her husband, Jon, settled down, and started a family. While she was pregnant with their second son, Kristi earned her master’s degree in education and began substitute teaching. After her third baby, she volunteered as an art teacher. Kristi was young, her days were busy, and she never had reason to question the fragility of life.
But in 2006, Kristi’s world was rocked by a cluster of three tragedies. Her cousin died suddenly from a heart attack. One month later, she lost her younger brother to suicide. Shortly after her brother’s death, his best friend was shot and killed in Iraq.
“It was so much loss,” she says, admitting that she sank into a deep depression. “It was like a bomb had gone off in our family. The trauma was just too much, and I didn’t know how to cope.”
GETTING BACK TO HER ROOTS
During a trip to visit one of her surviving brothers in Colorado, Kristi drove past a small farm that was in foreclosure. She developed an instant and protective attachment to the rundown property, which looked and felt as sad and broken as she did. Something in Kristi’s gut told her it was time to get back to the land and her ag roots and that this farm would be a great place to raise her children. Desperate for a fresh start in a rural setting, Kristi made an offer on the acreage.
“Who buys a house in another state without looking at the inside first? No one,” Kristi answers, marveling at her impulse decision that made no sense on paper, still amazed by her husband’s unconditional support.
While Jon stayed behind in California to sell their house and transition his business, a very pregnant Kristi packed up their three boys and moved to Colorado. The farm was in worse shape than she remembered; there were no fences and few outbuildings; everything was overgrown. The house, in Kristi’s own words, was disgusting.
The family was soon gifted two horses, and Kristi was about to give birth to a baby girl, which supercharged her desire to fix up the place. She admits now that the renovation project gave her focus and purpose during a time when she felt lost and adrift. “That’s when my massive self-growth journey began,” she says. “It was the hardest time in my life, but it was also the most beautiful. I was bringing new life to the farm and new life into the world with the birth of my daughter. It was a journey from grief to gratitude.”
Right away, Kristi involved her children in the care and feeding of the animals. She had a hunch that getting closer to the land, and to animals, was healing for everyone. Kristi would discover that her hunch was backed by hard science.
According to the Yale School of the Environment, “A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress, and promoting healing.” And the National Institutes of Health reports that “Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that contact with animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.”
“Moving to the farm,” Kristi adds, “was about getting back to a simpler way of life, digging in the dirt, spending time with animals. It was the best thing I could have done for my kids and for our family.”
As the farm began to blossom, so did Kristi. She started a blog that focused on the power of gratitude, where she shared her personal stories of loss and offered hope after profound tragedy. She became a certified life coach and wrote several books. And in addition to their two original horses, Kristi adopted two donkeys, two chickens, two dogs, and two rabbits on their Noah’s Ark-like farm.
FLOODED BY MORE LOSS
Just as they were finding peace and happiness, a second wave of tragedy struck Kristi and her family.
By 2018, a fire destroyed much of their farmhouse. Her oldest son’s best friend died. And Kristi’s nephew, who had been a big part of their lives, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Grieving or not, life went on at the farm. It had to. The garden needed watering, eggs had to be gathered, and livestock needed to be fed. Once again, the farm gave Kristi and her family purpose. They all leaned into the quiet meditation of daily chores and turned to their animals and each other for emotional support and healing.
“It was so heavy,” Kristi says, describing their second round of tragedies. “It was too much for the kids. But being on the farm — being outdoors, grounded in the dirt, watching my kids find laughter through the animals — it saved us again.”
Kristi was determined to share the healing power of her farm with others, especially children. Jon encouraged her to put a business plan together.
In early 2019, she began teaching therapeutic classes at The Giggling Life Care Farm. In addition to offering lessons in the care, feeding, and grooming of farm animals, Kristi created calm environments, like the cozy Bunny Bowl, a round enclosure where children quietly read books as they snuggle with rabbits. And there’s the long row of rocking chairs, where kids pet or groom animals while peacefully rocking. During every activity, Kristi reinforced the values of gratitude and a positive mindset. Word spread about the classes and attendance grew.
By January 2020, Kristi acquired her certification in equine assisted therapy. “I’ve been riding horses all my life, but when I started putting kids on horses, I thought, ‘This is another level,’” she says, citing the importance of formal therapy training. Kristi has watched horses identify kids on the spectrum, or kids who have been bullied at school, and “choose” them during a lesson.
“The horses will gently nudge them and stand beside them,” she explains. Kristi has seen quiet tears flow from kids after making a connection with a horse. “And that horse will follow them around the rest of the day and never leave their side.”
Just when The Giggling Life Care Farm seemed to be hitting its stride, the rug was pulled out from under Kristi yet again.
In early March 2020, a neighbor’s horse fell on Kristi and broke her leg. Less than one week later, a freak accident with another horse left Kristi with a second broken leg and fractured ribs. Again, she turned to her farm for healing.
Just as Kristi embarked on her long road to recovery, the world went into lockdown. During the early months of the pandemic, Kristi changed her farm’s programming to meet the needs of kids during COVID-19. She provided virtual visits to the farm, which served as a lifeline to children who felt lonely, anxious, and isolated. As soon as she could walk again, Kristi began teaching in-person classes to swarms of eager children.
“These kids were traumatized,” she says of the pandemic. “They needed to get outside, and they needed the comfort of animals.”
THE FARM TODAY
Today, Kristi’s in-person classes are back to pre-pandemic numbers — serving up to 150 kids per week in the summer, and 100 kids each week in the fall. Classes at The Giggling Life Care Farm are open to all children, not just kids who have suffered trauma. The farm is also helpful for children on the autism spectrum and kids with anxiety disorders.
Classes at The Giggling Life Care Farm include the Tiny Tots program, goat yoga, summer day camps, afterschool programs, horse camps and riding lessons, home school enrichment, and more.
“It’s all about unplugging, being outdoors, breathing, slowing down, and sharing time with animals,” Kristi says.
A firm believer in the 4-H motto that “Young people learn by doing,” Kristi created the Boots & Buckles Club through the Adams County 4-H program. Through Boots & Buckles, kids learn to care for animals and show them at the Adams County Fair by leasing and boarding livestock at Kristi’s farm.
CIRCLE OF GRATITUDE
Back in the barn, Kristi asks her class of 10 children to return the rabbits to their hutches. Once outside, the kids follow her like ducklings to the sheep enclosure where they unroll blankets on the ground. Miss Rikki, the goat yoga instructor, guides the class through several poses, encouraging her students to hiss like snakes and moo like cows.
“Are you ready to show me how strong you are?” she asks as she moves them into Warrior Two pose. “I am strong!” she says to the class. “I am strong!” the kids repeat with conviction. They all shift into Table Top pose, hoping Charlotte will hop across their backs. The baby goat is off doing her own thing, roughhousing with lambs twice her size, which makes the children giggle.
At the end of class, everyone gathers in a circle as Miss Rikki asks each child to share what they are grateful for. Charlotte nibbles on the hood strings of someone’s sweatshirt.
“Woody!” shouts a little boy, thankful for the newborn lamb.
“My friends,” whispers a shy teenage girl.
“Horsies,” offers another child.
“The donkeys,” says his friend.
“Every animal here,” says another girl, smiling.
“I am grateful for all of you,” Kristi says for the second time today.
When asked to describe her farm in one word, Kristi struggles. There are too many feelings and not enough words. Miss Rikki can’t help but chime in.
“Magic,” she says. “That’s how I always describe the farm. It’s pure magic.”
Becky Jensen is an award-winning writer and podcast contributor who lives and works in a little cabin on a big river in Northern Colorado. She’s a former farm girl turned mountain mama and a proud member of Poudre Valley REA. You can find her at beckyjensenwrites.com.