Seeking new opportunities, Haitian American therapist rides to the Midwest

By Dieu-Nalio Chery

Therapist Sabrina Cesaire’s equine therapy service helps her Detroit community, and herself

temp-post-imageSabrina Cesaire, Haitian American social worker, trains Charlie Brown in New Boston, Michigan, on February 19, 2023. Dieu-Nalio Chéry for The Haitian Times

Haitian American Sabrina Cesaire, a social worker and therapist, started an equine therapy business in Detroit to help her community after the pandemic. The Brooklyn transplant is among 3,700 people of Haitian ancestry who call Michigan home.

DETROIT — As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Sabrina Cesaire went with her parents to Manhattan’s Central Park at times to watch horses clip-clop on the iconic greenspace and sidewalks. To her chagrin, Cesaire never had a chance to ride one.

“My parents were strict; it wasn’t open to tell them that I want to be a horse girl,” said Cesaire, now a Detroit resident.

Thirty years later, Cesaire is surrounded by horses every day. Through equine therapy counseling, she gives children what she didn’t get to do: ride atop a horse.

"I’m at the point where I’m traveling from city to city, spreading and sharing my passion of what I enjoy doing,” said Cesaire, 48, co-owner of Detroit Equestrian Play Therapy. “The goal is to instill the knowledge and education I have regarding horses to actively engage children.

“I’m very, very confident, very proud of my accomplishments,” she added.

A social worker for more than 20 years and therapist, Cesaire is among an estimated 3,671 people of Haitian ancestry in Michigan overall, according to Zip Atlas, a population extrapolation site. Data for Detroit specifically are not available. However, both citywide and statewide, observers say, Haitian newcomers are arriving faster than official tallies are registering them.

Some are newcomers arriving directly from Haiti or coastal Haitian areas for jobs and more affordable cost of living. Others, such as Brooklyn-born Cesaire, the allure of professional opportunities pulled them from the East Coast to the Midwest city decades ago.

Ever the intrepid type, many of these Haitian Americans are building small operations that match their skill, passion and communities’ needs.

In Cesaire’s case, the need she is filling is through a summer camp program, Stop Horsing Around. The camp aims to help children overcome anxiety, depression, mental health, trauma and fears, some of which were triggered or exacerbated by the pandemic. The goal is to instill a sense of confidence in the children by helping them to tune in to the horses’ feelings so the youngsters can learn to recognize and handle their own emotions.

“It had excellent results because the children were allowed to release some extra energy,” said Cesaire about the annual program.

The western front beckons
For Cesaire, the fascination started as a child watching “Little House on the Prairie,” the popular TV series about the adventures of a family living in the Midwest during the 1870s.

temp-post-imageSabrina Cesaire walks with Charlie Brown, one of her horses, during her birthday celebration in New Boston, Michigan, on February 19, 2023. Dieu-Nalio Chéry for The Haitian Times

“I love that show,” she recalls now. “It just brought me peace. And of course, as an adult, as I got deeper into the horse world, it [horses] became my therapy. It became my peace as well as my safe haven.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn by Adrien Cesaire and Clenie Manuel, Cesaire is the fourth of six children, two of which were born and raised in Haiti. The parents strove to raise their children to the best of their ability, making sure to prioritize education. Outings such as periodic trips to Central Park were a treat.

After graduating from Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1999 with a master’s degree in social work, Cesaire moved to Detroit to join her husband for new opportunities.

The historic city – a magnet for Black families for generations – called to Cesaire with its unique qualities as the automobile capital of the world, birthplace of Motown music and place in history as one of the final U.S. stops on the Underground Railroad.

Plus, it’s family friendly and more affordable than her native New York.

“I’ve watched it develop over the years. I highly recommend that Haitians move here,” Cesaire said. “There is a variety of cultures and the Haitian community continues to expand.”

Born to ride and to soothe
Since arriving in Detroit, Cesaire has earned certifications in education and adult psychoanalysis. Over time, she has worked as a psychiatric social worker and certified substance abuse counselor in various capacities with youngsters, children in foster care, people on probation, families and individual adults.

In the mid-2010s, she began volunteering at various farms to learn about horses from experienced handlers. Then in 2022, Cesaire co-founded Detroit Equestrian Play Therapy with Maje-Lloyd Hogan, a public school teacher, to put those therapy skills and her social work experience into use. It was a need she saw arise in many during the pandemic.

“With the arrival of COVID-19, I couldn’t go out to do anything,” she recalls, speaking about her own tough time. “And then came the depression, which exacerbated, and I was just having a really rough time trying to maintain my job, take care of my family and being in such stressful, dire circumstances.”

Being around the horses has helped Cesaire’s own mental health and physical issues as well.

Known as “Queen Sabrina” in the community, Cesaire owns four horses – three percherons, Bell, 15; Babe, 17; King Solomon Dessalines, 3 months; and Charlie Brown, 20, a Tennessee Walker.

Due to her severe scoliosis, Cesaire is limited in her movements, she said. But she gets joy out of caring for them, which she does with the help of her three children – Afi, 24, Semu, 18, and Ishmael, 12.

“When I’m riding, I get a break from my pain,” she said. “I am not thinking about my back. When I’m just rustling through the air, there’s so much joy and excitement that comes out of it — just hanging around with my horse on the ranch and talking to the animals.”

Since becoming a horse owner and starting her business, Cesaire said she has had to overcome obstacles. One is being in a white, male-dominated industry where people often mistake her as the help or assistant. “They don’t see me as the owner of these animals,” she said. “I feel like I constantly must prove myself.”

Still, she says, anyone can fulfill their dream, if they “have faith and stay strong.”

temp-post-imageSabrina Cesaire with attendee during the Midwest Invitational Rodeo at Wayne County Fairgrounds, Belleville, Michigan, on June 10, 2023. Dieu-Nalio Chéry for The Haitian Times

Stepping out of the box
In 2022, Cesaire began providing services in the Stop Horsing Around program, a day camp available during the summer at Alkebu-lan Village – an organization on the city’s east side that provides affordable martial arts training for Black youth. With a contract from the organization, Cesaire was off and running.

Her first campers were children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. These children, Cesaire said, were “almost considered throw-away kids” because managing them can prove challenging. Some were difficult to reach through office-based talk therapy.

So with the parents’ permission, children could interact with Cesaire and the horses. As an incentive, after their sessions in the city with the horses, the children could ride the horses out in the farm.

The children, ages 6 to 15, attend the camp once a week. They learn to mount, dismount, load and unload the horses. They are taught about safety around the animals, horse anatomy, primary care, hoof care and saddle fitting.

Mario Thurman, 8, is in his second year of the program, much to his mother’s satisfaction.

“Honestly, it’s just amazing because he was so excited to go back this year; and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Kai Thurman said. “He was a little more self-confident. And he’s better with animals.

“It helped him step out of that box and helped him to try new things,” the mother added.

Cesaire is now thinking about expanding the program into Haiti. And leave a legacy.

That sense of heritage begins at home. Married to an African American, Cesaire said it was difficult to teach her children Creole at home. “But they are very familiar with the Haitian culture, Haitian food,” Cesaire said, and they have participated in Haitian parades in Brooklyn.

“I want to open and set that pathway so that my children, and other children coming behind me, know that this is an option for them,” she said.

This story is part of The Haitians Times’ Haitians in America series, supported by the Ford Foundation.

Originally Published: