PTSD Brings Racehorses and Vets Together

Beautiful red horse portrait isolated on black background.
by Linda Miller, Health21 Magazine Contributing Editor
November 20, 2017

“As of Sept.1, 2012, 66 percent of our most seriously wounded soldiers were suffering from post traumatic stress (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). The injuries we believe are most common – namely amputations and burns – only represent 10 percent and 2 percent of the population, respectively. The truth is, because we cannot see these injuries affecting the brain, they don’t receive the same level of focus and attention as amputations, burns, shrapnel injuries and other readily visible wounds. IMH will tell you that from the onset of whatever caused the post traumatic incident, it is 12 years before someone seeks their first treatment. Twelve years, and a bunch of bad stuff happens in that 12-year interval.”                                               

General Peter Chiarelli, Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army (Ret.)


On a beautiful spring morning in 2012, Troy Huggard rose from his bed, retrieved his weapon, put it in his mouth and cocked the trigger. In a moment’s flash, he looked in the mirror and said to himself, “What kind of Sailor am I? I haven’t shaved; I haven’t had a haircut, and I don’t have my uniform on. Ok, I’m gonna get a shave and haircut, and then come home, lay out my uniform and kill myself.”

Huggard, a Desert Storm veteran who served on board USS John F. Kennedy CV-67 and USS Simon Lake AS-33 from 1989 to 1999, was medically discharged from the Navy in 2000 after suffering two traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The first came in 1993 at age 22 when his ship was conducting battle maneuvers at sea. He suffered a fractured skull on the right side of his head, was unconscious for one week and given a one-year convalescent discharge. One year – 365 days – to recover and return to active duty. Huggard was young, and because he stayed in shape, passed all the physicals and returned to his ship. But he knew something had changed; something was wrong. He had become extremely aggressive and easily agitated.

“I felt like a lit fuse always waiting for something to happen. It was bad, but I went back to duty,” explains Huggard.

Five years later, in 1998, he suffered his second TBI – another fractured skull, again on the right side of his head, which occurred while on duty in Italy. One year later Huggard was, again, medically discharged. When asked if he was ready to be medically discharged, he said “absolutely not” because he had “an extremely difficult time dealing with the civilian world.” Yet Huggard knew he was one of the lucky ones. Although he returned home to Florida and had a great job, family and nice home, he began to see friends and friends of friends killing themselves with drugs and alcohol.

Huggard kept asking himself, “God, am I next? Gosh, I would never kill myself.” But everything changed that spring morning in 2012 when he said, “Today’s the day.” He had recently lost a close Marine friend to suicide, as well as his mother to suicide a year earlier. Huggard was suffering from debilitating physical pain from his injuries, as well as never-ending mental anguish. He felt he could not go on any longer, so he said to himself, “I’m killing myself today.” It is ironic, Huggard thought, how a decision like suicide can be so methodical and common sense under the right circumstances – something those not suffering day-in and day-out can ever understand. “It’s not that I want to die,” he thought, “but I absolutely don’t want to live.”


Suicide and the Local Barber

Huggard’s suicide plan included going to the local barber ship in Orlando where he always got his hair cut. Sitting there, waiting his turn, he overheard the barber and another customer discussing Saratoga WarHorse (SWH). Huggard didn’t wait to get his hair cut. He immediately rushed home; jumped on his computer and called Bob Nevins, founder of SWH in Saratoga Springs, New York. Nevins was a former Vietnam vet, a combat medevac chopper pilot, so he knew all about mental anguish. Discussing his suicide plans, Huggard opened-up; Nevins replied by asking him not to do “anything stupid.” He would make arrangements for Huggard to come to Saratoga Springs in two weeks to do whatever was necessary to help him.

“Bob really listened, and he had answers to questions before I even asked them. Two weeks later, I was in Saratoga Springs and going through the program,” explains Huggard.

Nevins was one of the hundreds of thousands, or more, of Vietnam vets who brought the war back with them in the form of PTSD long before a diagnosis existed. He knew firsthand the mental problems that returning vets were wrestling with and the difficulties veterans face long-term. So in 2011 he ditched his 24-year career as an airline captain and founded Saratoga WarHorse, which evolved from his personal experiences to find an answer to his own PTSD. An unusual but successful program, SWH matches retired racehorses with vets – a common bond that changes not one, but two lives in the process.

Huggard was the first out-of-state veteran to go through SWH and the third veteran to complete the program. It was new, exciting and scary, but Huggard had faith in Nevins and Nevins had faith in himself, his commitment to vets and the horses. Unusual in scope, process and length, SWH is only a three-day program – fly in one day, have the WarHorse experience the next and fly out the third day.

“There is no touchy-feely dialogue – no talking about issues or war experiences – we all knew why we were there.  I can try to explain the program until I am blue in the face, but unless you witness it and go through the program, it’s just fluffy talk,” explains Huggard.

The program is 100 percent free, which includes roundtrip airfare, accommodations and meals. A SWH employee picks the vets up at the airport and drives them to their hotel. According to Huggard, the hotels that participate in the program are excellent and provide every convenience. SWH wants “to make sure the veterans are as comfortable as possible.” Upon arrival, the vets have nothing to worry about. If they need a doctor, SWH takes them to the VA.


Vets and a Dunkin’ Donuts Run

Huggard, who has remained actively engaged with SWH, says, “The vets I picked up the other night wanted to go to Dunkin’ Donuts so off we went, so they could get their donut fix.” He says anything the vets want, they get, because they are at SWH to get better. The program not only supports vets with PTSD but also those with military sexual trauma (MST). With female MSTs, they try to plan an all-female class to provide the most comfortable experience, with Nevins being the only male they interact with during their stay. Huggard explains that SWH does “anything and everything” it can to help the vets.

The day of class, all participants spend time in a classroom with SWH “horse whisperer” Melody Squier, who developed “Equipoise” natural horsemanship techniques and communication skills that create balance, respect and understanding.  Squier explains the history of the horse, history of horses in the military and how horses communicate and behave amongst themselves. She also explains how humans “need to talk non-verbally to horses” so horses can not only understand the vets but also vets understand the horses. Then a debriefing occurs after class before dinner.

“Before the class the vets are quiet, they don’t say much. But after the debriefing, the emotional floodgates are wide open – laughing, joking, interruptions – you have a room full of human beings whereas before the class you had a room full of mission-ready military men and women. It’s pretty awesome to experience the transformation in such a short time,” says Huggard.

“Personally, when I started the program, I felt no pain, happiness or emotion. I just felt hurt and confusion. I was going through the motions of life without the emotions. After the class you reconnect with your emotions. My mother committed suicide, and it didn’t hit me until I went through SWH. The suicide part hit me but the actual loss of my mother, well, until I could feel what loss was, I couldn’t mourn her passing.

“As far as animals go, I would protect a horse with my life, but I never knew the story of horses,” says Huggard. He says he never understood that horses are herd animals with a natural instinct toward fight or flight. SWH uses racehorses because they are frequently discarded after their usefulness is over, with no concern for their welfare. They closely resemble the military, having been trained every day for a very specific job with no normal socialization. A racehorse’s war is the race, running the next mile and one-quarter to win. If he/she wins, they have another “war” to fight and then another and another until they no longer win and then their lives change drastically.


Horses and a New Life

When retired racehorses come to SWH, they need to make significant changes in order to adjust to their new lives. They must be introduced to being outside in a social environment with other horses in a pasture. In essence, they must relearn how to be a horse. Huggard says SWH “teaches them these new skills while, at the same time, teaching veterans how to be more human. When they successfully do that with a veteran and a horse, you’ve just rescued a veteran and a retired racehorse. It’s unbelievable to see it work over and over again.

“The first six months after going through the program, I was in contact with the staff constantly because they seemed to be the only sane people I knew at the time. I asked Bob and Janelle Schmidt, the program coordinator, what I could do to feel like I was part of the program. I said, ‘You guys saved my life, and I’ve said thank you, but is thank you really enough?’ They put me to work writing personal, handwritten letters thanking every person who had made a donation. ‘Listen, this is who I am, this is where I was, and you saved my life . . . your donation saved this life,’ I wrote over and over again on one donation thank you card after another. ‘This letter is from a real veteran who went through the program,’ I explained.

“I continued to do this for six months and then I asked Bob, what else you got? SWH was having a big fundraising dinner, and they asked me to attend and tell them about myself, about SWH and where I am now.  I came up from Florida, participated and while there HRTV (a 24-hour television-based multimedia network dedicated to horseracing) did a documentary special. I did my thing, and it ended up getting an Emmy,” says Huggard.

Eventually he returned to Florida and a good military friend, who was going through some tough times. Huggard told his friend about SWH and encouraged him to go through the program. He came home having the same results as Huggard and subsequently climbed out of a very deep, dark hole. At that point, Huggard told Nevins about his impending divorce from his wife and his wish to leave Florida to start a new life in Saratoga Springs.

“Listen, I’m going to be knocking on your door,” Huggard told Nevins. “Hopefully you’ll have a job ready for me, so I can start working because I’ll need a place to stay and without a job I can’t do that.  Bob gave me a long speech about how they won’t hire any veterans out of the program.  Well, I’m not any veteran since I was one of the first to participate and am an integral part of the startup.”

Nevins laughed and figured Huggard would never show up. On Jan. 4, 2014, with two feet of snow on the ground, Huggard was in New York wearing a tank top and shorts fresh from Florida. Freezing cold, he knocked on Nevin’s door and said, “I’m here, can I come in?” Huggard now does internal IT work for Saratoga WarHorse. He has graduated from college with his second degree, with honors, and last year bought his dream house. He is a certified chef and pastry chef for his regular work and also does the cooking for the vets while they are in the program.

“By me doing all this, it continues to help me with my issues – coming full circle from where I was. I do this for my military brothers and sisters,” explains Huggard.


Whiskey and a Good Cry

When asked about his interaction with horses and, in particular, Whiskey, the horse he went through the program with, he said, “When I hung up the phone the first time talking to Bob, I asked myself, what the f**k is a horse going to do for me?” But now he knows.

When recalling that first encounter, Huggard said Whiskey was already in the field when he walked over with Nevins, Schmidt and Squier. They said, “Go get Whiskey.” As soon as he took one step, the horse took off and ran toward a shelter. “Thanks Whiskey,” said Huggard, “you really make me feel like you love me a lot.”  When he said that, Whiskey stuck his head out and shook it, providing Huggard with an opportunity to eventually take him to the training pen. “We did our maneuvers, and I felt really happy. I felt excited because the thing that was supposed to happen, happened,” explains Huggard.

At the end, he was given a “moment” – and a moment can be 20 minutes – with his horse. He turned and looked at Whiskey, broke down and started crying. “When that happened, Whiskey stepped into me so I could put my head on his neck. It was one of the most unbelievable moments of my life. I call it my ‘shazam’ moment – the exact moment I connected with Whiskey.  When I stood there exposed, feeling like an open wound, it actually felt good to cry. I took in my next breath so deeply that I felt my shoulders rise up, and I stood taller. I guess that’s how Superman must feel when Kryptonite is around. Suddenly I felt like Whiskey was the lead safe I could put my Kryptonite in to make me healthy again.”

When asked if he thought the other vets felt the same, his answer was “yes.” More than 750 veterans have completed the program and all with the same results – simply put, freedom. Freedom is always taken for granted until it is lost. For many vets suffering from PTSD, TBI and MST, the most cherished freedom of all is freedom from never-ending anguish, desolation, despair and hopelessness. Robbing a person of his or her soul – their very being – robs them of their will to live because they cannot love, cry or feel. They lose what it means to be fragile; they lose what it means to be human.

“I went to Saratoga Springs with an open mind because they threw me a lifeline, and it truly was my last resort. It’s not a miracle,” explains Huggard, “but it changed my life. It made me feel again, which is when I knew everything would be Ok.”


Troy Huggard is currently a veteran liaison for SWH.