Magic is happening on the rural roads of Washington County in the Florida Panhandle. It’s not going on behind closed doors with secret potions. It’s out in the open pastures, where horses are help people overcome traumas and find peace.
“The real therapists are the horses,” says David Trogdon, founder of the nonprofit HOPE Project Inc.
The program—which stands for Healing Our Patriots with Equines—offers equine-assisted psychotherapy; post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury education and support; pastoral counseling; group functions; and volunteer opportunities for veterans, first responders and their families.
David, a retired Army chaplain, started HOPE Project after moving to Florida in 2016 to work with friends who were rescuing horses from kill pens. He has created a place where both horses and people can feel safe and heal.
“I didn’t know anything about horses, which is the funny part,” David says. “I Googled horse therapy, equine therapy.”
He opted to go with the Eagala model—a team approach to equine-assisted psychotherapy that includes a licensed, credentialed mental health professional, a qualified equine specialist and horses working together with the client in an arena. It is conducted on the ground, which means riding is not part of the therapy.
“I figure, ‘OK, that’s for me,’” David says. “I’m not a horse guy, but I’ve learned a lot more since then.”
Clients are given the space to interact with the horses, project and analyze their situations, make connections and find their own solutions.
Bonnie Blackmon, HOPE Project’s equine specialist, and David are both Eagala-certified and hold an Eagala Military Services Designation, which means they are specially credentialed and have a deep understanding of military culture and life.
Combined with the unique quality of horses, which are highly attuned and uniquely sensitive to human emotions, the treatments are believed to be more effective than hours of traditional therapy.
David has experience with what his clients are going through.
“I’m a retired Army chaplain, and I have PTSD,” David says. “I did three years in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries. I was medically retired after 25 years. The transition out of the military is so difficult because, you know, you’ve heard once a Marine always a Marine—or soldier, airman, sailor, whatever.
“I was medically retired because I had a lot of physical issues from 25 years. I was physically broken. But I had already been diagnosed with significant PTSD and depression. Not only was I in Iraq and Afghanistan for multiple deployments, but as a chaplain, I specialized in child loss and grief and trauma. Hundreds of deaths were part of my ministry and my service. One day I was a soldier, I was a chaplain, I was a lieutenant colonel. The next day, I was a nobody. That’s how I felt.”
That feeling led David, the recipient of three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, to follow his civilian calling to service.
Bonnie is also retired military, having served as an Air Force master sergeant. In addition to her Eagala certifications, she is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International equine specialist and therapeutic riding instructor.
David and Bonnie met after Hurricane Michael in 2018. Bonnie was offering treatment at a nearby animal rescue center.
“We started doing equine therapy with an addictions group there every week, and then she started coming out here,” David says. “Once we received certification as an Eagala military facility, we started really being able to do therapy with vets. It was then we really started growing.”
HOPE Project is one of about 40 Eagala military-designated facilities in the country, offering specialized care not widely available. Only two others in Florida have that designation.
“We’ve been blessed in so many ways,” David says, noting the aftermath of the storm not only led to his meeting Bonnie, but also brought them to their current 20-acre location and resulted in additional program volunteers.
“I know as many as we’ve reached, we’re only scratching the surface,” David says. “We’re just motivated to help as many people as we can.”
HOPE Project offers two eight-week equine-assisted programs for those dealing with PTSD. In each session, clients are given a task involving the horses, then David and Bonnie sit with them to discuss the interaction.
“That task is going to be something according to what you need to work on: communication, anxiety, depression, whatever,” David says. “You will interact with the horses and because the horses are—I call them big therapy dogs—they’re in tune with everything going on. They’re going to interact and react to what you’re doing.
“Bonnie is watching the interaction, and she’s paying particular attention to what the horses are doing. I’m watching the interaction, and I’m watching the people—what they’re doing. When you’re done with the task, we get you back together with us and we’re going to ask you questions based on that interaction.”
Once in treatment, David stresses that clients become part of the Hope Project community.
“As a chaplain, I can be more like a pastor,” he says. “That means that outside of that time we’re counseling or doing equine therapy, you can come here and hang out, or I can take you out to lunch if you’re having a hard time. It’s really about community and relationships.
“I was trained in every suicide model they could come up with to try to prevent suicide. I’ve counseled hundreds of soldiers that told me they were suicidal or struggling. Same thing with PTSD. I’m convinced that the best prevention of suicide and the best treatment for PTSD is positive relationships. PTSD is more than just a psyche issue in the mind. PTSD is trauma to the soul.
“Medications are great. I take my medication. Counselors, therapists are great. I’m not against that. But there’s got to be more. If there’s not more—if there’s not community and there are not positive relationships—that’s how we get to what’s on my shirt,” he says, pointing to the statistic that 22 veterans a day, on average, take their own lives.
To build community, Hope Project offers family events, Bible studies, volunteer opportunities and the invitation to “just hang out.” Two group sessions are also held each month for veterans. One is a child loss grief group, and the other is a PTSD group.
“Being able to be around others like yourself—who you trust and who you can talk to, who care about you and will check up on you—I think that’s one of the big advantages that we have,” David says.
While 90% of program participants are veterans or their family members, the project has expanded to work with abuse victims. That program is growing.
“There is some overlap, but they have a little bit different emphasis,” David says, noting the new program centers around treatment for survivors of abuse and those with special needs, using Natural Lifemanship equine-assisted therapy and learning—a process that progresses to horse riding.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Laura Bosco is the primary counselor at the new location, called Hope 20.
A victim of military sexual trauma, Laura leads sessions both for trauma survivors and children with special needs.
“She’s a riding instructor and she’s very gifted,” David says. “We focus more on the children with special needs and women. We work with the child advocacy center, so you have children—primarily teen girls—and women who’ve been abused.”
About 10 volunteer staff regularly work at Hope Project.
“Everything we do is free, and none of us takes a penny,” David says, noting everything is financed through donations and fundraising. With a smile, he adds, “It’s a faith exercise. I guess it’s good I’m a chaplain.”
Hope Project reaches more than 300 clients a month. With an additional location offering more programs, the hope is to increase the number of lives affected.
“We’ve got short-term plans, and we’ve got long-term plans,” David says of his quest to serve more people. “There are so many people hurting out there. The horses can help.”
Freedom Reins: A Program for Veterans
Marion Therapeutic Riding Association has helped veterans through equine-assisted therapy for more than a decade. The Freedom Reins program has grown since the Gainesville veterans hospital began regularly bringing a group of veterans about four years ago.
Executive Director Pamela Morrison says vets range from those just off the battlefield to those who served as far back as the Korean War. Each is evaluated individually, then instructors create a lesson plan. Depending on need, the plan includes life skills, coping skills, behavioral modification, communicating in relationships and conflict resolution.
“Almost all of them deal with depression and anxiety, and probably 90% of them suffer from PTSD,” Pamela says, noting many have physical issues, too, such as traumatic brain injury. She says one vet in his mid-30s is completely put together with steel bars and plates.
Veterans often struggle with transitioning from survival mode on the battlefield to returning home and acclimating to the civilian world. Through equine-assisted therapy, they learn to see themselves through their horse and start working to achieve some of their goals. Some see results within weeks. Others take longer, depending on their personal challenges.
“I have a drawer full of letters, but one is from a young vet pretty much fresh off the battlefield with severe PTSD,” Pamela says. “He was unable to be around his wife or children alone because he was afraid of what he might do. After a year with us, he wrote that for the first time, he was able to play in the backyard with his children and swing on the swing with his daughter. He attributed that to his relationship with his horse and dealing with his inner demons.”
Freedom Reins welcomes all veterans with no need for referrals from any agency or organization. For more information, call 352-732-7300.