Good Samaritan

Robbie Siegelman uses horses to help veterans, children, and health care workers

story by Rich Fisher

Everyone knows about Robbie Siegelman, the good-guy trainer who has won 645 career races and $12.27 million. Not as many are aware of Siegelman the humanitarian, whose accolades in that area of his life may surpass those he receives as a Standardbred horseman. “What can’t I say about Robbie?” said Annie Broderick board president of HorseAbility, an equine therapeutic center on Long Island. “He’s just incredible. The time and energy and thoughtfulness he puts into our facility is just unparalleled.”

They are so unparalleled that Siegelman is being held hostage, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“We love him and we’ll keep him forever,” Broderick said with a laugh. “We’ll never share him to another barn.”

And then there is Paul Martinez, a former army ranger who saw six tours of duty in Afghanistan whose life was saved by working with horses upon returning to the civilian ranks. Martinez, an advocate for veterans, is an ambassador for the Trail to Zero rides— 20-mile treks in four different U.S. cities in which military veterans ride horses to raise awareness of suicide among their ranks.

It’s an effort Siegelman takes a huge interest in, along with several other projects that help veterans.

“Robbie’s invaluable,” Martinez said. “He just wants to help. He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met and extremely reliable and supportive. I know a couple vets that he’s become friends with, and we all say how much we appreciate his time. We all know we can count on him; we always know we have someone to talk to. He’s been around, he’s had a pretty interesting life, so we can relate to that. He understands the adrenaline rush we need. He’s just a salt-of-the-earth guy who would bend over backward to help a vet.

“A lot of people say that, but Robbie really puts his money where his mouth is.”

More accurately, Siegelman is putting his actions where his heart is. Since he was a kid, he has loved horses and loved helping people. Combining both passions is the proverbial perfect storm.

“Exactly,” Siegelman said. “It’s such a no-brainer. For me it’s perfect. I tell people, ‘I can’t fix your car, but I can fix your horse because that’s what I know.’”

Growing up on Long Island in the shadow of the now-defunct Roosevelt Raceway, Siegelman gained an interest in horses, which led to his harness racing career. He began driving in 1982 and started training in 1991. His drives slowly dwindled in the mid-’90s and his last race was in 2000 before he stepped down with 83 wins and $537,162 in earnings.

Siegelman became one of the top trainers at The Meadowlands. His best year was in 2002 when he won a career-high 39 races and $943,386. He equaled that victory total in 2008 and won $878,749, and the prior season he won 38 times and earned $842,045. His last race was in 2018, but Siegelman hopes to get back into it once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

In the 1990s, he discovered that horse therapy was a great way to help kids. Steve Wolf, who was director of marketing and public relations at Freehold Raceway at the time, and Chris McErlean, who was serving as vice president of racing operations at The Meadowlands, got Siegelman started with a hands-on program at the Big M for inner-city kids from Newark, N.J. The program received national TV coverage.

“They would go to The Meadowlands every Saturday and be one-on-one with a groom,” Siegelman said. “They’d learn about the care of horses and the business of harness racing. I’d take them out to jog a horse, stuff like that. They were these rough, tough kids who acted like they didn’t want to do this. But when you got them separated one on one with the horses, it was a little different. They all cried when the program was over.”

Seeing what horse therapy could do for the less fortunate, Siegelman made it his mission and became fully invested, while also still training horses. He became close friends with The Meadowlands’ former CEO George Zoffinger and persuaded him to open the complex to Tomorrow’s Children, a group of kids with cancer at Hackensack Hospital.

“We started a program at The Meadowlands where kids could go to a circus or a sporting event, and if they wanted to come to the barn, that’s where I came in,” Siegelman said. “Some of these kids who were going through treatments would come to my barn, we’d give them a barn tour, take them to the races. My owners had a box and we’d sit them in a box, feed them dinner overlooking the winner’s circle, and the kids could make a presentation in the winner’s circle.”

Siegelman continued to provide help on his own after that and began working with service veterans along with children.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for veterans,” he said.

In 2012, a wonderful marriage took place when HorseAbility relocated to SUNY Old Westbury, with Siegelman’s barn just a few minutes away. HorseAbility was founded by Katie McGowan in 1993. One of just two Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Inter-
national’s Premier Accredited Centers on Long Island, HorseAbility adheres to this mission statement:

“To be a leader in advancing and implementing continued education, while further developing innovative programming by embracing and sustaining the best business practices in the equine therapeutic industry. Our long-term view is to partner with our local community to provide hope and opportunity, stimulating positive change in the lives of people.”

The association found a textbook partner in Siegelman, who was quick to lend a hand to his new neighbors when they arrived on Long Island. It was serendipity at its finest. Upon meeting Siegelman, McGowan told him “This was meant to be,” as she was looking to start a driving program.

“I showed her the video of the program I did for the kids at The Meadowlands,” Siegelman said. “That was it. She said, ‘You’re in.’”

They became two of the most important words McGowan ever uttered, as Siegelman threw himself full force into HorseAbility. He began working with children, veterans, and even nurses and other health care workers who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing so much trauma with COVID-19.

Siegelman would teach the veterans to drive and then take them out to drive horses at Belmont Park, Yonkers Raceway, and The Meadowlands. He also was able to arrange for the veterans to lead the post parade in the first four races at Yonkers, and then did the same at The Meadowlands, noting that owner Jeff Gural and COO/GM Jason Settlemoir are big advocates of helping veterans.

Siegelman instantly saw there was a connection between horses and veterans when it came to their mindset.

“I was teaching a female Marine,” he said. “I was telling her horses are a flight animal. They’re always on guard, always watching out for the next thing that might be a danger to them. She said, ‘Just like a Marine!’ When she said that, I got chills. I said, ‘Wow, this is why the veterans relate so well to the horses.’ The horses become confident in them, they become confident in the horses. It’s just amazing.”

When it comes to working with children, Siegelman said the severity of each child’s disability determines what that child can do.

“Some of the kids are independent and actually drive on their own,” he said. “I have a little girl with cerebral palsy; she’s on a walker and doesn’t walk well, but she drives a mini-horse that we have. I taught her how to drive and we go around the campus for about 40 minutes. Someone walks behind her to check her back in case she loses her balance—which she doesn’t—and I’ll walk along the side with another set of lines.”

When it comes to the health care workers, HorseAbility used a converted minivan they call a “WhinnyVan” that helps ship mini horses to area hospitals.

“The doctors and nurses just get so much joy and comfort at lunch, going out and spending some time with these miniature horses after being in the hospital and dealing with such death,” Siegelman said. “It was horrible (at its peak). They see the horses and some of them say they haven’t smiled like that in months.”

Siegelman’s son, Max, got into the act of helping transport the mini horses. Although not in the racing business, Max has used social media as a way to market the Siegelman logo on shirts, hats, and other apparel. He has used some of the proceeds from that to cover the costs of transportation incurred by HorseAbility.

When he’s not traveling to hospitals or teaching folks to drive, Siegelman is busy helping with other aspects of the center.

“He is a huge support for whatever it is we need,” Broderick said. “He does a ton of horse support for us. Every single morning, he’ll help with turnout, he checks water. He’s always got his eyes and heart for the best interest of our herd. He’s all over the farm helping with facility upkeep, mending fences, whatever it is that we need done.

“I’ve been in the horse world my whole life and Robbie takes it to another level. He has such incredible integrity. It has nothing to do with money. He is here for the good of the horses and the people. He’s a wealth of information and he’s just there for the best reasons. He’s the heart of the farm for sure.”

It was at HorseAbility that Siegelman met Martinez, who was the facilities manager and director of the veterans program at the time. The Colorado native served as an Airborne Ranger Sniper from 2006 to 2014.

After being injured in the line of duty, he and a fellow soldier and close friend who was also hurt turned to horses.

“I said, ‘We can’t go backpacking or hiking anymore,’” Martinez said. “And he said, ‘Yes, we can. Just use the horses’ legs instead of our own.’”

After riding for a few years, Martinez landed at HorseAbility and began working with Siegelman to drive with the veterans. They also connected with Braveheart, the organization which sponsors the Trail to Zero rides. The rides are held in various cities throughout the country, and the 20 miles of the contests represent the average number of veterans who commit suicide each day.

Martinez is quick to admit the impact horses have had on him. “A horse saved my life,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

He went on to explain just how much the animals mean to returning veterans. Most civilians cannot understand why veterans have so much
trouble readjusting upon returning from a war, but Martinez put it all in perspective.

“Most of the time I felt like I was still back in Afghanistan and my body just happened to be here, but I was always over there in my head,” he said. “But I was grooming a horse in a stall and I felt I was home. You can’t be somewhere else when you’re with a horse. You have to keep your presence of mind or you’re going to get kicked or you’re going to miss something and the animal’s going to get hurt.”

Martinez explained that for service members, the top priority is to take care of their fellow soldiers, first and foremost. When their tour of duty ends, so does the mindset. It can be a tough transition.

“I had 20 guys in my platoon I knew I could count on. I knew I was always going to have a heads up before something happens,” he said. “When you get out of the service, that’s gone. You’re just standing all by yourself all the time, trying to make sure you don’t get yourself in a bad situation, and that starts to affect other areas of your life.”

Thus, being responsible for a horse can help fill that gap and halt a downward spiral.

“It gives you something to do,” Martinez said. “It gives you a mission and it’s life or death. If you don’t take care of this animal, it can die. There are not many veterans out there that would let that happen. That’s what brought me home. It was probably the first time I ever felt I was home again.”

Which is why he and Siegelman are so intent on introducing returning veterans to horses.

“They don’t even pick up on it consciously, but watching them, you can see their posture change; they just sort of relax, their breathing will slow down,” Martinez said. “They’ll start making more eye contact or being more engaged in a conversation. It’s because they know if something’s about to happen or there’s danger around, the animal is going to let them know. It’s just a natural, organic thing that happens.”

Watching things like that or seeing a child’s wide smile or watching an overwhelmed health care worker relax in the presence of a horse makes it all worthwhile for Siegelman. It’s like finishing first at The Meadowlands, but in a different way.

“There’s nothing like winning a race—that’s awesome. There’s so much work that goes into it and it’s financially rewarding,” he said. “But with therapy, you get such a good feeling helping people that just need it and it’s so easy to give it to them. It’s a very different kind of reward with HorseAbility.

“They’re both cool. So what’s wrong with doing both?”

Especially when he does them both so well.

Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

Siegelman Style

Max Siegelman was impacted by his father’s work, even if he never aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps in racing. Siegelman, the son of trainer Robbie Siegelman, is putting philanthropy at the center of his Siegelman Stable sportswear line, which launched earlier this year and has found fans in the worlds of sports, music, and fashion.

A portion of the proceeds from his designs has benefited equine therapy programs for military veterans, nurses, and doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, he is collaborating with North Philadelphia’s Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club on sportswear items, with 100 percent of sales supporting its programs.

“My dad didn’t want to be just a horse trainer; he wanted to use horses to give people opportunities they might not get otherwise,” Siegelman said. “I got glimpses of it when I was younger but didn’t understand it to the full extent. As I got older, I understood the world a little more and what he wanted to accomplish.

“Even though I do it in a different way, I think it’s in sync with his vision and goals. As much as we want to create great pieces that the public wants to wear every day, we also want to make sure that people know the story and that there is a cause, there is a purpose.”

Siegelman came up with the idea for the sportswear line after receiving compliments and inquiries whenever he wore his Siegelman Stable hat or jacket.

“I’d put those things away for a while, but when I started wearing them again—one of those what’s-old-is-new-again things—I got a lot of comments and positive reactions,” he said. “That’s what sparked launching the apparel line.

“I think most people have a connection to horses in some way. Even my friends who have grown up in the inner cities and never seen a horse in person are fascinated with them.”

Siegelman, a social media entrepreneur, used his business background to fuel the growth and exposure of the Siegelman Stable line.

“Career-wise, I do social media and marketing, and some experiential marketing, for different celebrities, music artists, athletes, and brands,” he said. “What I do varies, whether it’s trying to sell their merch or trying to get their music out in fun and creative ways. Taking something with your own name on it, a family brand, is definitely a lot more fun and I wanted to keep to the brand values.”

Siegelman started his own social media company after college and soon thereafter was introduced to rapper and entertainer LL Cool J through a trainer at the gym where they both worked out. LL Cool J became a partner in the business, which was invaluable to Siegelman.

“Working with LL for about three or four years, I met a ton of people, networked, and continued to build those relationships,” he said. “It’s been great to see the outpouring of support for this venture from the network of people I’ve worked with in the past and present. At the end of the day, we want to create a line of pieces that many will love and at the same time let our customers know that they are contributing to a good cause in the process.”

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