A young girl on a therapy horse surrounded by adult helpers

Healing With Horses

Katie Navarra

Some impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak are obvious: businesses have closed, the economy is struggling, and the lives lost exceeds 120,000 in the United States. What’s less apparent is the emotional and mental toll of social isolation, serving on the front lines at medical facilities and caring for sick loved ones.

When social distancing mandates are finally lifted, Jonathan Friedlander ’85 and his wife, Stacy, are likely to be overwhelmed with requests for services at EquiCenter, the 200-acre farm near Rochester, New York, that uses 30 horses to deliver therapeutic programs to at-risk youth, individuals with disabilities, and veterans. 

“It’s amazing what horses can do for individuals facing a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional challenges,” Friedlander says.

While at St. Lawrence, Friedlander studied political science and English literature and spent a semester abroad in Kenya. He then went on to receive a master’s degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs before developing an international distribution business in Eastern Europe. Beyond his business interests, Friedlander has been involved in Olympic organizing committees for years. At the 1999 Special Olympics World Games, he was the senior director of international relations and villages which hosted 10,000 athletes and coaches from 150 countries. He went on to create a licensed cultural exchange program with Cuba prior to establishing the EquiCenter. 

The Friedlanders founded the nonprofit organization in 2004, to support individuals in reaching their full potential through therapeutic horseback riding and unmounted activities. As a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Premier accredited facility, EquiCenter is an international model for others aspiring to expand or open similar programs.

Most of their participants are children, some as young as 2 and nearly 40 percent are on the autism spectrum. Active duty military and veterans are among the fastest growing populations served at the facility. The riding program has a consistent waitlist which is why the EquiCenter is currently in the midst of a capital campaign to build a new indoor riding complex which will allow them to develop additional therapeutic programs and serve more people.

Friedlander’s Laurentian connections influenced programming when, in 2012, he reconnected with friend and classmate Colin Heffron ’85. Heffron is the chair of the board for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which ensures veterans, service members, and their families have access to the highest level of support and resources. The relationship has led to the current collaborations at the EquiCenter to support efforts to improve the lives of veterans and their families. 

“We’ve really listened to the veterans and let them guide some of our new programs,” Friedlander says. Veterans have also inspired the farm to expand into therapeutic horticulture, yoga, canine-assisted activities, and a farm-to-table culinary programs. Today, the farm works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on one of largest veteran-supporting contracts in the country. Like the equestrian programming, the therapeutic farming has become a national model.

“We’ve had veterans tell us that before coming here, they had lost their purpose for living and that they were close to becoming another suicide statistic,” Friedlander says. “Others tell us when they’re here, they can finally let their guard down and breathe.”

In 2018, with the arrival of six wild horses from Wyoming and Nevada, the EquiCenter launched Mission Mustang. During the 10-week program, skilled horse trainers guide veterans through exercises that teach the wild horses to accept human touch and earn their trust, ultimately preparing the horses for new homes. By nature, horses are prey animals and are hypervigilant. Being removed from the open range adds to their anxiety. Veterans, many who have PTSD, can relate—they too experience hypervigilance and stress and may struggle to reintegrate into their “herd.” 

“I realized working with Hero (a Mustang) that if I was to help him, I was going to have to find this calm centeredness within myself,” says Teegan Manning, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. “And that calm centeredness…I haven’t felt it in years.”

Witnessing the powerful transformations makes Friedlander want to reach more veterans. Pairing his vast international relations experience with Stacy’s equestrian expertise, the couple established a relationship with the British Army and Prince Harry’s regiment known as the Household Cavalry. Both have exchanged best practices for supporting wounded veterans over the past six years, visiting each other’s facilities for collaborative programming.

“We’ve been continuing to develop the relationship, which gives us the chance to have a greater impact serving veterans around the world,” Friedlander says.

His involvement with the British Army connected him with the organizers of the Invictus Games, which were created by Prince Harry. The Invictus Games offer injured armed services personnel an opportunity to compete in nine sports.

“We had a presence in Australia at the 2018 Sydney Invictus Games to introduce the work we do with veterans to the 19 allied countries that participated,” he said. “The next Games have been postponed because of the current situation, but we’re continuing discussions for our participation in 2021 in the Netherlands.”

“Life is a journey; every step along the way is an important one,” Friedlander says. “Each experience has allowed me to try to make a difference in the lives of people around the world.”