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May 18, 2022
Debby Sabin Built Her Career by Knocking on Doors
Debby Sabin
Debby Sabin: “I wanted something to live on past me.”
Debby Sabin, executive director of Lovelane in Lincoln, which provides high-quality therapeutic horseback riding for children with special needs, forged her career, as well as her nonprofit, by knocking on doors.

Here is her story:

Watching a friend in high school learn to walk and talk again after being in coma following a car accident inspired me to be a therapist. Back then I didn’t know there was such a career as therapeutic horseback riding.

During college, I took over the adaptive horseback riding program for people with special needs at a barn in Weston after the person who ran it quit. I wasn’t really qualified to do it, but I did it. Then I coached the Massachusetts Special Olympics equestrian team. That motivated me to go back to grad school, because I was seeing some amazing therapy going on.

When the barn where I worked closed in 1988, I went looking for another location for my clients. I knocked on 20 barn doors. No one really wanted the program because it doesn’t make a lot of money. Then I knocked on Elsie Rodney’s barn on Love Lane in Weston. She had always wanted to do something like this. We’ve been together ever since.

After getting my MS in occupational therapy from Boston University in 1990, we built up the program, basing it at my property and Elsie’s. I was always a mess-around rider, not an equestrian. Now I ride all the time. I’m addicted. It’s a wonderful way to combine progress in therapy in a setting that is so positive and happy and stimulating.

In 2005, a grandparent of one of our riders offered to build an indoor arena, so people wouldn’t have to ride in snow and ice in the winter, but only if we found a site. Once again, we knocked on doors. We got lucky when another parent of a rider, who is a developer, helped us find a five-acre property in Lincoln, where we are today. We jumped in feet first with the idea that we would figure out the financing later.

We were struggling with construction when a major donor gave us $1 million at the eleventh hour. Then we decided to do a capital campaign. We wanted to raise $5 million in 18 months. We hired, and fired, four consultants. While each was helpful in their own way, such as advising us to do a feasibility study, we decided to push ahead and did raise the money.

We could write the book on the wrong way to do fundraising. The fact is we’ve had had some unbelievable supporters, people tied to our riders as well as outside supporters. So many people have joined in this mission. And there has been great acceptance from the medical profession of therapeutic riding. When I started, there were maybe 50 similar programs in the country. Now there are probably about 500-600.

I had a real heart-to-heart talk with myself when my house was being torn down before the move to Lincoln. Did I want to continue? But there was a lot of momentum behind Lovelane and people seemed to keep dropping from the sky to keep it moving.

We grew and succeeded beyond our level of organization. One hundred ten kids come here every week, and another 250 are on the waiting list. For me, as founder, it has been funny. I don’t want us to lose what has made us unique, winning, and unusual. A lot of staff have been with me 15, 20 years. We have time to love our clients and make it individual. But we also have a responsibility to donors and the business.

Now we have to do things more professionally. Twenty years ago my board included my dad, sister, boyfriend, and Elsie. Meetings now don’t end with “I love you.” Today, we have professionals who help us think about sustainability and the business and our future. Five years ago, we didn’t have an organizational chart. Now we do, along with employee manuals.

I hired an organizational coach to help me figure out what to do. I’m non-traditional and a non-conformist. It has been a particular challenge for me to get more formal and more corporate in some ways. I see a value in it; we don’t have a choice. I’m keeping my eyes open to balance all the things we do need, to be transparent about what we need while keeping the passion to sustain what we do.

The whole point of building this is that I wanted something to live on past me. A lot of times special needs populations don’t get the best. Here they do. I feel like this program was supposed to happen. I still work in the ring with the kids. I’m as happy as I was 20 years ago.

As told to Peter Lowy, March 2010.
Learn more about Lovelane by clicking here.
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