Healing Our Patriots with Equines

YOUNGSTOWN, Fla. (WJHG) - Many of the horses at the HOPE ranch in Youngstown are lucky to be alive. Some were on their way to be slaughtered when they were rescued.

The man who rescued them says he's just as lucky.

Retired Army Lt. Colonel David Trogden struggles with PTSD after being hit by a rocket while serving in Afghanistan.

"Struggling with PTSD, I've battled suicide thoughts a lot because you feel broken and you feel useless because you can't do what you used to do," said Trogden. "Honestly, if it wasn't about for faith, families, and horses, I wouldn't be alive now."

That blast also left him with a traumatic brain injury.

"It's not unusual to have combat stress or to have your triggers that make you jumpy," explained Trogdon. "I still don't like loud noises and I'm not crazy about crowds.

But at the HOPE Project ranch, this chaplain finds rest for his soul and body.

"Coming out here away from everything and all the noise and just hanging out with other vets and family members. Because when I get around civilians I feel out of place," he explained.

It's not just the peace and quiet that calms him. It's spending time with the horses.

"With TBIs and PTSD, I've got a lot of migraines and headaches and everything and none of the medication works," said Trogden, "but when I get around the horses they just go away."

After 25 years as a warrior, it's still tough for Trogden to transition to civilian thinking.

"I went from having a purpose in life. One day I was a soldier, and a chaplain and combat vet and I hung around long enough I was Lt. Colonel. The next day I felt like a nobody," he said.

Sitting in a room and opening up to a counselor just didn't appeal to him. Knowing the healing affect horses had on him, Trogden wanted to offer the same therapy to other veterans.

"They're like big therapy dogs is what I tell everybody," said Trogden. "You always identify with one of the horses or a horse will pick you out and will become your buddy. Horses are amazing because they read your facial expressions, they read your body language. And every part of a horse's body is as sensitive as your fingertip, so when you're hurting they know it. That's why they're so good with therapy."

Trogden began the process of rescuing horses.

"A year and a half ago when we started this. I didn't have any idea about horses at all," Trogden admitted. "I was nervous around horses, I was scared around horses. But after working with them now I love horses."

These days he's not only rescuing horses but also rescuing veterans and their families.

"I went and became certified to do equine assisted psychotherapy. And the way that works is instead of going into a counselor's office we would take you in here with three or four horses and give you a task to do involving the horses and myself and trainer. An equine specialist would watch the interaction between you and the horses and we would ask you questions. What happens is the horses become the therapist and the person or couple or group of family, they kind of work on their own issues. It's very powerful and we've seen it work very well," he explained.

Trogden says the secret is the horses just listen while responding with love. Such as the story of veteran name Buzz and a horse named Herman.

Buzz never talked about his tours in Vietnam. But his wife made him at least try the HOPE Project.

"Herman came from nowhere and got right up in Buzz's face. So here is this crusty Vietnam vet standing face to face, nose to nose with this horse. And literally within a couple of minutes, he started talking about Vietnam. He stood there in front of that horse with myself and a trainer and over an hour talked about Vietnam and cried. So he started coming back and volunteering and donated us some of the fencing here. A few months after that he passed away," said Trogden.

The military loves acronyms and so Trogden came up with HOPE or Healing Our Patriots with Equines.

"We've had vets come out here in severe physical pain and horses know and immediately start loving on them," said Trogden.

Most Sundays you can find any number of veterans and volunteers just hanging around the ranch.

"If we can build relationships with other vets, kind of support groups and that's really what Sunday's about," said Trogden. "We come and hang out. We're here to do everything from the actual therapy, equine assisted psychotherapy. But a lot of it is people coming out just like you see and hanging out what each other."

However, the horses aren't for riding.

"All our therapy is ground-based," explained Trogden. "A number of our horses have physical issues which is why three of them ended up in slaughterhouses."

If large horses aren't your thing there are three mini horses on the property.

"One of the reasons we ended up getting minis is for children and for adults that are afraid or horses they are less afraid of minis," said Trogden.

They also take the minis to Sims Veterans Nursing Home and any number of events.

Whatever your preference, the ranch and therapy are for the entire family.

"Any way we can reach out to vets, family members, first responders, children, that's where we are blessed," said Trogden.

Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Trogden holds a Bible study centered around the military and warriors in the scriptures.

If you can't make it out to the ranch for the therapy, they'll bring the horses and therapy to you. If your company is interested in team building, the horses are available for that too.

It's all free.

For more information, you call the HOPE Project at 850-896-4868.