Horse People Help: Alex Sabin’s Long Journey Back to the Saddle
By Betts Coup
[Editor's Note: The following story was featured in our March 2020 issue.]
Alex Sabin’s story is a difficult one to hear, but it is also a story of great courage and love for horses—and of the community coming together to support a young man during a difficult time. Twelve-year-old Alex spent his early years riding and showing horses with his parents. His mother, Cindy Marshall, rode Thoroughbreds and evented, and his dad, Chris Sabin, is a lifelong member of the show horse sport, showing Morgans and Saddlebreds since he started riding at the age of 8 with his aunt Margaret Miner. When Cindy met Chris, she also met the Morgan and Saddlebred world and fell in love with the show horse sport. “We have always done our own training, showing, grooming, trailering and the daily caring for our horses together,” Cindy explains. Even after Cindy and Chris divorced, the horses bound the family together, and they continued showing together and traveling around the country from Maine to Florida, Illinois and Kentucky to show. At home, Cindy and Chris taught Alex together, though he has also ridden with Luman Wadhams and Elaine Gregory, and more recently, Jean Degutis.
Alex made his show ring debut on a lovely black Saddlebred named Rare Exception and loved the experience. In November 2018, Cindy rescued an American Saddlebred from a kill pen and rehabilitated him with Chris. The original plan was for the elegant gelding, X-Ray Vision, to be a driving horse for Cindy, but he turned into a perfect walk-and-trot mount for young Alex. When Alex was without a mount for the 2019 season, the family put him on X-Ray Vision for the Rock Creek Horse Show, and they were a perfect match, earning a Reserve Grand Champion title in their first show together.
Sadly, Alex’s last time riding was at Twin State Octoberfest in Massachusetts in early November. Just weeks later, he sustained a severe injury at school, the tragic result of bullying. Repeated harassment from the same student, including being pushed down multiple times, resulting in damage to his L5 and S1 vertebrae. He has been out of school since that injury, unable to sit up, stand or walk without a walker, and even then, he’s only able to stand or walk for a very short time. Cindy had to withdraw from the college classes she has been taking in order to care for Alex full time. They start their days at Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Massachussetts, a little more than an hour away from where they live, where Alex goes to an hour of physical therapy. Cindy has been homeschooling Alex, so they fit classes in between the physical therapy and a chiropractor visit. The week that I was working on this piece, Alex’s pain was so severe that Cindy had to take him to the emergency room near their residence. Despite the fact that Alex was unable to sit in class, even in his wheelchair, the school denied him a tutor for three months after two of his doctors made requests, though he finally started professional tutoring in late February.
The family is hopeful that Alex will be able to return to riding and showing, as well as his other beloved sport, basketball, but keeping his spirits up has been difficult. Cindy reached out to some friends in the horse world, Jeffrey Fetzer, Gail Kirker and Lark René Henry, to set up a card shower, asking that anyone who could also include a basketball trading card. The response from the horse community was amazing for the family, especially Alex. “Alex has received cards from all over the globe, along with thoughtful, unique gifts,” Cindy explains.
Shortly after, Selene Carlisle, who runs Leap of Faith Equine Rescue and Sanctuary, reached out to Cindy on Facebook, having seen a post by Jeffrey Fetzer announcing the card shower. “When I saw his post, it struck something in me. I also have a son who will be 12 in April, and my heart went out to his family,” Selene explains. She asked Jeffrey to put her in touch with Cindy, and asked if she could share Alex’s story and try to expand the card shower across the horse industry, bringing additional joy to Alex and raising awareness about bullying.
Though they had never met, Selene felt like she could help. She has about 5,000 Facebook friends, as well as a separate group who follow the Leap of Faith Rescue page. “I shared his story on both my personal page as well as on my rescue page, and it just started taking off from there. So many people from all over the world started reaching out and wanted to follow his story, so I set up a page for Alex and made his mom an administrator,” says Selene. She also suggested that the family start a GoFundMe page to get additional support, as the family’s insurance coverage was insufficient to cover the costs of Alex’s care and there were going to be additional legal fees and potential tutoring costs if the school didn’t come through. Selene volunteered her time to manage it so it wouldn’t be an extra burden on Cindy. “Our first thought was to say no to the GoFundMe, as there will always be people suspicious of where the money actually goes or the legitimate needs, but as the expenses piled up, I took her up on her offer, suggesting that any unused funds will be passed along to a horse or dog rescue,” Cindy explains. “Alex is very passionate about that and has helped with a local dog rescue in our area for years.” The fund has certainly helped the family continue his treatment, including chiropractor and laser therapy appointments, which are necessary to get Alex back in the saddle and on the court.
The response to Alex’s story has astounded the family, as has the general outpouring of support and compassion. Selene says, “The reaction has been amazing. So many people have reached out in support and also to share their own stories of being bullied. Alex has received hundreds of cards, gifts, and has been invited to special events.” Gail Kirker, a good friend of the family, arranged for three tickets for the family to see the Boston Celtics play, a dream come true for Alex. Just Say Whoa to Bullying and its founder, Shelly Mizrahi, have also been involved. “They’ve been nothing short of awesome,” Selene says. The program uses Miniature Horses to teach bullying prevention, so Alex’s story really connected to Shelly’s mission. She got Alex and his parents a VIP invitation to a Harlem Globetrotters game and arranged for one of her teams to visit Alex with their therapy Minis. “This was the first time Alex was able to touch a horse in months, and the smile on his face showed how much it meant to him,” Selene says.
Though the response from the industry has been incredible, Selene hasn’t been shocked by the support they’ve received. “I know how wonderful the horse community is, and that is exactly why I asked Cindy if I could share their story. The thought of little Alex lying there getting more and more depressed day after day didn’t sit right with me, when I knew the horse community could lift his spirits,” she explains.
Alex’s journey is far from over. Cindy continues to bring him to daily treatments, and they are dedicated to getting him back to his regular life. It will take time and a great deal of effort and courage on Alex’s part. Having the support of the horse community has brightened Alex’s spirits and helps him along that difficult path to recovery. “We cannot express the gratitude for all our Saddlebred and Morgan horse family, extended across the nation, for helping us during this difficult and frustrating time. It makes it a little easier knowing there are so many good, kind people, all with a passion for horses,” Cindy says.
If you’re interested in helping, you can visit Alex’s GoFundMe site or his Facebook page: “Alex’s Journey – A young man’s fight to recover from bullying gone bad.” Beyond helping Alex and his family directly, parents, relatives and all those who work with kids can teach kindness and empathy to kids in order to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. “Talk to your kids and grandkids, show them just how devastating bullying can be for someone,” says Selene. No one should go through what Alex is experiencing. We can help make that experience better for Alex through our support, compassion and consideration—and by sharing his story so that someday we can live in a world without bullying.