Steamboat Springs When Grayson Steur was 4 years old, he knew he was different from other children.
But therapy with horses and llamas has given Grayson, who has autism, self-esteem and the confidence to make new friends.
Grayson, now 9, has been a participant at the nonprofit Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center since his diagnosis with Asberger's Syndrome five years ago.
The first time Grayson visited Humble Ranch, he stayed about 15 feet away from the horses, said Janna Marxuach-Steur, Grayson's mother and the executive director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program. The family's goal was to have Grayson on a horse by the end of the summer, but within three weeks he was riding a horse named Jan.
Together, Grayson and Jan worked to improve his physical abilities. Grayson had weak leg and core muscles; riding Jan helped him get stronger and stand taller. Through other therapy treatments, Grayson learned how to follow directions, which were given to him step by step.
The biggest change for Grayson was his confidence. Before Grayson started therapy, he had trouble in social settings.
"Life was difficult at that point," his mother said. "It was hard for him to relate to other kids."
After his time at Humble Ranch, Grayson began to ap----proach other children and make friends.
"Being out at Humble Ranch gave him confidence, gave him self-esteem and belief in himself and what he could do," his mother said.
Grayson worked with the ranch's llamas and caught grasshoppers and frogs. During the past two years, he has done therapy with horses in small groups with other children during a weeklong camp.
Grayson always had a special connection with Jan. He was sad on Thursday because he recently learned that Jan died.
The horse, who was 25 years old, worked at Humble Ranch for about five years. She died last week from cancer.
Grayson said Jan was the color of honey and that she liked to be petted on her cheek and the side of her neck. Jan was always patient with Grayson's attempts to keep bugs he collected in hand as he rode.
"She's just a very gentle horse," Grayson's mother said. Among all the horses, Jan "was always a little more special to (Grayson)."
Jan helped about 20 to 30 clients during more than 1,500 therapy sessions, said Cheri Trousil, director of the Humble Ranch Education and Therapy Center. She said Jan was "real perky" and would challenge most riders, but, "When it came to people with special needs, she was totally tuned into them and willing to meet them where they were at and support them," Trousil said.
Jan was a teacher to everyone she was around, said Kathy McKinley, who donated Jan to the organization and helped with Jan's therapy sessions.
"There are horses out there who are very, very special," McKinley said. "They have a way of bringing certain characteristics out in people."
Grayson's family agrees.
"It's one of the highlights of his summers," his mother said. "Humble Ranch is the best program for children with special needs."