Nestled among vast, open spaces and Midwestern beauty, Joy Ranch of South Dakota in Florence is more than just a location on the map. It serves as a beacon of hope and a space for healing for anyone facing adversity.

Joy Nelson, president of the board of directors and benefactor of Joy Ranch, shares that when she originally purchased her 126-acre ranch near Watertown in 1989, she didn’t foresee this future.

“The only thing that was on the land when I purchased it was one single cottonwood tree,” reminisced Nelson.

For her entire life, Nelson shared a love affair with horses and an understanding of how horses can help people. After settling historical buildings and constructing her new home on her land, she built an indoor riding arena to hold her national championship horses.

“we are now joy ranch of south dakota, and people say that it grew from that one single tree.” -joy nelson

As travel slowed to a halt, Nelson began to host equine programs in the comfort of her backyard. With the help of volunteers, the group hosted entities like the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I understood how horses could benefit their quality of life,” said Nelson.

Since the beginning, it has been Nelson’s calling to help those living with medical, physical, or emotional challenges have a new quality of life.

Through the evolution of the property, Nelson ensured that the ranch would be accessible to all ages and abilities.

“The entire facility was built from the ground up to be accessible, from the paths and walking trails to the doorknobs, tables, and doorways,” she said.

Joy Ranch offers a varied and diverse landscape, packed with lively activities and a plethora of chances to explore.

One activity within the western playground is dedicated to the majestic bond between horses and humans.

“Horses are very intuitive creatures; they’re able to pick up on people’s emotions and form a bond with them,” explained Nelson. “For those experiencing troubles in their lives, their confidence is shattered, and it’s my goal to help them regain it.”

The equine-based activities are offered to visitors with disabilities. The adaptable equipment and passionate staff ensure that no matter the obstacle, everyone can hop on the saddle.

Nelson continued on to share a special moment she experienced with a visitor and her horses.

A young man with Tetra-Amelia Syndrome arrived at the ranch with doubts of being able to ride a horse, but Nelson responded with “Yes you can.”

With the support of dedicated volunteers and an adaptable saddle, the young man was horseback riding.

“It was the highlight of his life,” reminisced Nelson. “These are the kinds of things that impact people’s lives. We allow them to do something they thought they were never able to do.”

Joy Ranch also offers trail rides, horse lessons, guided scenic routes, and wagon rides. A heated riding arena is also available, perfect for year-round camps and mission-based programs.

Nelson revealed that all 15 of her mission-based programs are equine centered.

“Our mission programs are broad-based due to the diverse challenges people face. As a result, we designed our programs and facilities to serve a greater population,” she said.

Joy Ranch continually hosts non-mission-based events such as weddings, corporate retreats, quilting retreats, family reunions, and more.

“There’s not an event that you can create that we don’t do. Mission-based or not, we serve it all,” said Nelson.


In 2016, Joy Nelson was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame for her efforts with Joy Ranch of South Dakota. 

Another activity allows guests to travel back in time through the main western-themed attraction, 1880s Town.

The town provides old-time fun and comfort to those who visit. The on-site retreat center hosts three large meeting rooms, 16 themed retreat rooms, and a bunk house sleeping 72, perfect for various events or an overnight stay.

“We have one of the most expansive collections of western memorabilia in eastern South Dakota that adorns the walls,” said Nelson.

Western Rendezvous

Attend the first annual Joy Ranch Rendezvous on August 19, with special guests One Arm Bandit and Machinery Pete.

On the lower level of the center, there’s a new world of adventure. Wild Bill’s Game Room offers family fun with pool tables, ping pong tables, and foosball.

Visitors have the opportunity to explore accessible outdoor recreational activities, including archery, basketball, a playground, and the Ranchyard Petting Zoo.

“Our petting zoo has six ducks, eight chickens, a pony, two miniature horses, and a miniature donkey,” stated Nelson.

The outdoor activities don’t just end there. Wander down to Lake Lyle for an afternoon of merriment.

“On the lakeshore, we have an accessible fishing dock, as well as a dock with kayaks, canoes, and pontoons,” shared Nelson.

Surrounding the body of water are walking trails that also intersect with four different parks along the way. Continue your adventure outdoors by setting up a campsite on Coyote Campground.

The campground has 11 sites including electricity, water, a dump station, space for a fire pit, and picnic tables. One special characteristic of the campground is the unbelievable sunsets, says Nelson.

“joy ranch has been described as a western disneyland, and that’s exactly what i wanted to create.” -joy nelson

“The sunsets over the hills and across the lake are phenomenal,” she said.

The serene outdoor experiences foster a sense of adventure, self-discovery, and hope.

As Joy Ranch continues to touch the lives of countless children and adults, its vision for the future remains steadfast. Nelson says they strive to expand their reach, property, and programs, ensuring that no one goes unnoticed or unsupported.

“We have been described as the best-kept secret in South Dakota, but we want to push beyond that,” revealed Nelson. “Many visitors don’t realize that our whole property is accessible.”

Holding a strong commitment to fostering healing, resilience, and joy, Joy Ranch continues to stand as a beacon of hope, inspiring others to make a positive change in others’ lives.

For more information, visit JOYRANCHOFSD.ORG and VISITWATERTOWNSD.COM+
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