Sara McLaughlin

I met Sara McLaughlin a few weeks ago while we were walking our dogs on the trails behind McDonough Park in Geneva.

Sara, 38, is not to be confused with the much more famous musician Sarah McLachlan, who made several appearances at CMAC.

What they do have in common is a love for animals.

Famous Sarah’s song is the heart-wrenching tune that has been used in many ASPCA television commercials. The organization is a national leader in animal rescue and protection.

Local Sara works as a certified therapeutic riding instructor, mentor and Equine Program manager at the EquiCenter in Mendon. EquiCenter’s mission is to foster the personal growth and individual achievement of people with disabilities, at-risk youth, and veterans, including the families of all participants, through the use of a wide range of therapeutic equestrian and related therapeutic programs. They offer equine-related programs that include therapeutic horseback riding, horsemanship, and a program that uses a variety of equine-related therapies to help war veterans and their families.

Sara (inset photo) lives in Geneva and is married with three kids. She has been at the EquiCenter since 2005, shortly after she graduated from Cazenovia College with a major in human services and additional coursework in equine business management.

Her fondness for horses started in her early teens, as part of a 4-H Club and riding lessons under the instruction of Nina McCarthy, the now-retired principal at West Street School in Geneva.

The EquiCenter is a non-profit organization that sits on 200 acres of fenced pastures. It was originally a breeding farm for thoroughbreds. Donations, fundraisers and grants keep the facility running each year. Income also comes in through the therapeutic riding lessons.

Another program involves inner-city kids getting a hands-on experience at the site, along with a classroom setting there. They are taught everything about a horse, from feeding to caring for the animals to tuning in to the creature’s telling body language.

Before COVID-19, more than 115 people with disabilities took part in the horse therapeutic program. That number, not surprisingly, has dropped, although expectations are that EquiCenter programs will gain traction again soon.

Sara has owned some of her own horses in the past, but for now she prefers watching the joy others are experiencing.

There are other things on-site that are directed toward the veterans community. One is a greenhouse: a veterans-sustained project grew and donated more than 2,000 pounds of vegetables to those in need last year. They also have beehives, where the wax is used to make and sell hand salve.

One thing in particular that interested me was the wild mustang program I observed.

Steve Stevens, who came to EquiCenter via Lollipop Farms and Texas, oversees the fascinating program. Wild mustangs were purchased from the Wyoming/Montana area through arrangements with the federal Bureau of Land Management. In some parts of the West, wild mustangs are as much a nuisance as deer are here.

Originally herded by helicopter, even today some newer mustangs at EquiCenter are too afraid and have yet to have a human touch them. They’re truly wild.

Stevens works slowly and patiently with veterans, many who have suffered PTSD, to create a bond through non-verbal communication to help build a comfort zone where each can understand one another. The extremely long process eventually will lead to being able to touch the horse, then bridle and saddle it.

Why veterans? Because these wild mustangs are being integrated, slowly, into society after trauma, much like war veterans. The veterans learn to live in the present with the horse, not the past or future. The motion of the body and ears are signs of how the horse is feeling. The idea is to lessen any environment that seems predatorial. The hope is for a connection of some sort, and in time it does happen.

See a short video at www.fltimes.com showing an effort to tame them.

Teagan Manning is a 14-year veteran of the Marine Corps, locked in a constant battle trying to overcome the invisible wounds of war. She participated in the mustang program.

Teagan offered testimony on the EquiCenter website that states: “Inside the ring, I gained confidence, trust, purpose and focus. Outside the ring, some of the things I was struggling with, they haven’t all gone away. But I’ve become less hyper-vigilant, less stressed, less anxious. I’m sleeping more. I’m getting out more and socializing. I’ve developed some meaningful relationships. I really think I have developed greater hope and healing in the process.”

Sara encourages anyone diagnosed with a disability, or any veterans, to contact the organization for more information on how to participate. Additionally, EquiCenter is in need of horses to be donated — not thoroughbreds, who tend to be too spirited, but your basic lazy farm horse.

Interested in donating or volunteering? Feel free to contact info@equicenterny.org.

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