While serving in Iraq as a recon cavalry scout in the U.S. Army, Jason Young survived three explosions.
But the ordeal left him with a traumatic brain injury and post-concussive syndrome, known as “shell shock.” Along with arthritis in his back and structural damage to his neck, Young was medically discharged.
For a man who wanted to make a military career for himself, the transition wasn’t easy.
“I had a real tough time transitioning back and a hard time losing the military,” said the now 34-year-old. “Having been taken away so prematurely, I had to deal with depression. When I went back to school, I was on the Dean’s List, but I wasn’t able to maintain a normal life without selfmedicating through alcohol.”
That was until Young discovered Horses for Heroes, a nation-wide program helping U.S. veterans cope with physical, emotional and psychological issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) which can lead to isolation and depression.
Now Young and fellow veterans are busy at work building a program in Traverse City.
The Horses for Heroes program is based on the concept of soldiers helping soldiers with the aid of horses and riding – a combination of physical and mental stimulation, surrounded by the camaraderie of fellow vets.
Charity Hill Ranch, a non-profit rehabilitation ranch based in Rapid City, recently purchased an 11-acre farm off Silver Pines Drive in Traverse City, known as Windemere Farms. It is located just out of reach of the sights, noises and distractions of town.
“When they’re having a bad day, when they are riled up and triggered, they can come over the hill and the city disappears and it’s peaceful,” Young says about his soldier comrades.
Wearing a ball cap and plaid button-up that reveals his tattooed forearms, Young stands in the meadow with his cell phone to his ear. Someone has offered to donate their horse to the program. It will join “Bob” and “Red,” two therapy horses already working at the farm, with another on its way.
In the barn, there is room for at least a dozen more, as stalls are being cleaned and repainted for their new tenants. On the west side of the building is an indoor riding arena.
Founded by Christine O’Connell, Charity Hill Ranch started as an equine therapy program for civilians with brain and spinal injuries. The ranch is certified through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, which utilizes Hippo-therapy (or the use of a horse as a treatment tool by professional therapists to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction).
Such therapy has been shown to improve balance, mobility, dynamic postural control, along with sensory processing and cognitive and communication outcomes.
Since Charity Hill opened its Rapid City location in 2010, the program has included the Horses for Heroes program, providing soldiers with peace, confidence and physical benefits.
That mission will continue at the new Traverse City location.
Horse riding has allowed Young to improve both psychologically and physically, which got him back to something he loves: physical labor.
“The therapy loosens up my back,” he said. “When riding, you have to match the stride of the horse with your hips. The horse forces you to do this because if you’re not doing it correctly, you feel it. When you are doing it correctly, it feels like you’re floating, like you’re one with the horse.”
The therapy has allowed Young to do manual labor on the ranch, something close to what he was doing before serving in the Army.
“I was in construction, so it works out great,” he smiles.
MORE THAN HORSE RIDING
The veterans at Charity Hill envision more than just a horseback riding facility. They see a community offering an outlet to those returning from the trauma of war.
“We’ve been talking about doing a little hangout spot, a plains teepee where you can come hang out and enjoy some morning cowboy coffee,” says Jonathon Reed, a discharged Sergeant in the U.S. Army who now serves as the veteran volunteer coordinator. “It’s projected to be like a working dude ranch.”
Young and Reed have been digging a community garden behind the property’s original barn. To the left of the plot will be a landscaped waterfall. Eventually, they hope for a bunk house.
“It’s just another opportunity for vets to come and work in peace, at their own pace,” said Reed.
The hope is that enough veterans will go through the Horses for Soldiers program where they will eventually have the opportunity to mentor other veterans.
For its most recent program, Horses for Heroes saw anywhere from four to seven veterans during the two-hour course, although they anticipate more.
“When I left the Army in 2007, there weren’t many Iraq or Afghanistan vets in the area,” says Reed, “but we know that population will continue to grow.”
JOIN THE CREW
The Horses for Heroes program is free to veterans through generous gifts and donations from the community. Aside from financial support (a two-hour session costs $83), Charity Hill is seeking help in many aspects of getting the program going full-speed.
“We’re looking for people with different expertise,” said O’Connell, while taking a break from installing fence posts. “We’re looking for masons or people with experiencing putting up fencing or who even have available fencing. We could also use people to help cook during the classes since we serve food.”
If you or someone you know is a veteran and would like to learn more about the Horses for Heroes program, visit charityhillranch.org or call Ron Smith at 231-631-2353. Volunteers may also inquire about opportunities by calling Christine O’Connell at 231-258-5437.