Saratoga’s Hall of Springs was a flurry of red, white and blue on Aug. 14 as over 300 patrons gathered for Saratoga WarHorse’s fifth annual Blue Spangled Gala. There was reason to celebrate: more than 700 veterans have now graduated from the equine therapy program that pairs retired racehorses with veterans suffering post-traumatic stress and other assimilation issues.
Founded by Vietnam War medic Bob Nevins, Saratoga WarHorse now has a satellite program in Aiken, S.C., where a study is underway, and further expansion is planned. Nevins recently reconnected with Gus Kappler, MD, a trauma surgeon at the same Phu Bai hospital, who is now a Saratoga WarHorse grad. Kappler shared a copy of his memoir — “a doctor’s truthful accounting of war’s devastating effect on the body, mind, and soul.”
Troy Huggard, a 10-year Navy veteran and the program’s first graduate in 2012, described being on the brink of suicide in Florida when Nevins gave him a call-back and said, “Don’t do anything foolish.” Huggard told the crowd: “In boot camp they build us up with armor; you’re unstoppable. When I got out I didn’t know how to cry… I came through here severely broken.” But during his two weeks in Saratoga bonding with a horse, “it was like a bolt of lightning hit me that said it’s OK to feel.” For so many returning veterans, “it’s a lonely, lonely place…they need this so badly.” He has been working, in a relationship and recently bought a home. “The life I lead now is unbelievable.”
Huggard said the transformation was “almost on a spiritual level”; Nevins described it as “physiological.”
“I absolutely believe in this program; I know it’s having an impact,” said Brigadier General Jeffrey Foley, a 32-year Army veteran, now retired. “The demand is high… So many of our vets have reached a state of despair that life is not worth living.”
Army veteran Arturo De La Garza of Texas mailed the board his Purple Heart medal, and his letter was read aloud. Before coming to Saratoga, he feared he would become a statistic who “ultimately finds ‘the way out’ through the barrel of a gun … My experience knocked that thought out of my head and reset my human switch… I am now closer to my wife, Diana, than I have been in over nine years. I am now able to communicate to her my darkest memories, deepest pains and wretched feelings” to become “a better partner, friend and husband.”
Eclipse racing syndicate chairman Brian Spearman chairs the WarHorse board, which includes Paul Oreffice, former CEO and chairman of Dow Chemical; Anne Campbell, co-founder of Dogwood Stables; David Cornell, Sharyn Neble, James Price and Robert Murphy.
Longtime track announcer Tom Durkin was emcee. Saratoga’s racing community and local community were well represented.