Walking, Talking, Riding … and Laughing

Trey Schwab comes back from a traumatic brain injury to compete at the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show.

Trey Schwab comes back from a traumatic brain injury to compete at the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show.

By Holly Clanahan

Trey Schwab exults after a successful stake-race run at the 2011 Built Ford AQHYA World Championship Show. Journal photo.

He wasn’t supposed to ride again. He really wasn’t expected to walk or talk.

But 16-year-old Trey Schwab has always had a little ornery streak and more than a touch of competitiveness, things that are serving him quite well. His eyes sparkle now as his sister chides him for going too fast in his stake-race run at the 2011 Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show. He also competed in barrel racing aboard Poco Jacko Express, or “Jocko.”

Just a year ago, that was unthinkable. Trey, who lives in Hamilton, Ohio, was critically injured in a truck-and-trailer accident on the way to a horse show May 22, 2010. He sustained a traumatic brain injury, and his mother, Cindy, also suffered near-fatal injuries in the wreck. Doctors warned the family not to get their hopes up.

“They pulled Tena (Collier, Trey’s sister,) and I off to the side one day and just told the two of us, don’t expect much. He was laying in that bed, and they told us, ‘This is pretty much what you’re going to have,’ says Trey’s dad, Paul.

But they didn’t know Trey.

“They said this won’t happen. And now we’re like, ‘It’s happening!’ ” Tena says. “And his doctors say it’s the best therapy in the world for his balance, and it’s strengthening his leg muscles for walking, so riding is actually really, really good for him.”

Asked how it feels to be back in the saddle, Trey says, “It feels like I just made a new life. That’s awesome.”

He’s talking. He’s walking. And, yes, he’s running in speed events.

“It’s awesome,” says Cindy, who has made a recovery from her injuries. “I’m just very, very proud of him. He has come a long way, and it’s not over yet. He’s going strong, and I’m really, really proud of him.”

Listening in on the conversation, Trey grins a lot, and though speech doesn’t come fluently for him yet, he makes his points by pumping his fists when certain accomplishments are mentioned (like a recent first place in the ground roping at his county fair), hugging Tena when she gets emotional and making sure his mother mentions that it’s not just dummies that he ropes when he goes to the barn every day. “Cats,” he says, grinning even bigger.

The roping was a huge part of his recovery. Paul says that when therapists wanted to work on sitting up and improving Trey’s balance, “they kept trying to get him to throw a basketball, and I said, ‘That won’t work.’ I went back to the room, and I got his rope. I handed him his rope, and he sat up, raised his arm and started spinning his rope. The therapist said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’ They just couldn’t believe it. He just keeps making leaps and bounds. The doctors, they just can’t believe the way he’s making improvements.”

Cindy and Trey Schwab, Tena Collier (with her son, Trevor, on board Poco Jacko Express) and Paul Schwab at the Ford Youth World Show. Journal photo.

All along, the family knew that horses would be an integral part of Trey’s recovery. While he was still hospitalized, only able to communicate by blinking for “yes” and “no,” Trey’s family made sure he knew that his good speed horse “Scooby” (registered as Bar Dee Boy 036) survived the accident. Later in the recovery process, the family tried to arrange for therapeutic riding sessions near their home, but they weren’t able to make that happen.

“So we went ahead and got a horse that we could really trust, and we started putting him on and walking, and we did our own therapy,” Cindy says. “Ever since he has been riding horses, his upper torso strength has been so much better, and he’s walking better, and he’s holding his body weight up.”

Don’t underestimate the mental health benefits of riding, either.

“That’s all he wanted to do,” Cindy says. “It was all about getting back in the saddle as soon as he came out of the coma and knew what was what. And that made him happy.”

Today, his accomplishments in the arena aren’t measured by fast times or top placings.

“It’s a personal progress,” Tena says. “He listens, he controls his horse, he makes him do what he wants … that’s all we ask for.”

It’s emotional for the family every time they see him enter the arena, balancing in the saddle, using his reins and his legs … such a far cry from where he was a year ago.

“I did good on this one,” Tena said after the stake race preliminaries. “I was in tears on barrels, but I handled this one better. I was shaking, but I did better on this one, I think because he was first one out and I didn’t have time to get nervous.”

Trey just grins.

His partner in these adventures, Jocko, is “a super, super nice horse,” Tena says. He belonged to a family friend who used him in youth rodeos.

“He got too old to rodeo, and we found out that he just wasn’t using him anymore,” Tena says. Many doubted that Jocko would be a good horse for Trey as he learned to ride anew, because Jocko still had lots of gas.

“He’s a 19-second pole horse, and then you can rope on him. He’s a jam-up head horse, runs barrels, he does everything,” Tena says. “But I said his mental state is just so calm and so laid-back, and we had seen so many kids ride him at all levels. I said, ‘I think he can do it.’ … That was the first horse that Trey was able to ride without anybody leading him or holding him.”

The horse’s previous owner, Derek Zurface, generously gave him to the Schwabs free and clear, provided that he not be sold and that Trey is his only rider. Tena keeps Derek updated on Facebook with all of Jocko and Trey’s accomplishments, “so that he knows he’s doing really good.”

Scooby, who Trey calls “the speed demon,” is waiting for him at home.

“I think he’ll be back on Scooby again,” Cindy says. “I’m sure of it.”

When Trey gets home from the Ford Youth World, he has some more medical procedures ahead of him – one a surgery to repair a leak in his airway where his tracheal tube was removed, and another to restore functionality to his left hand.

But beyond that, there are plans.

“He did make the (All American Quarter Horse) Congress youth team,” Cindy says, “and then I guess we’ll start up (competing again) next year. We usually start in early March and see if we can make it back out here (to the Ford Youth World) again.”

Then she stops to listen to Trey. He’s throwing one hand in the air while holding the other rigidly in front of him and laughing, and his mother knows just what that pantomime is about.

“No, you can’t go bull riding,” she says. “Absolutely no. It’d drive me crazy.”

Author: holly

Editor, America's Horse magazine

18 thoughts on “Walking, Talking, Riding … and Laughing”

  1. I would love to follow this story on facebook.please becaome my friend on face book.Great job Trey.

  2. So absolutely amazing!! This story touched me, and is a great reminder how horses can be great physical and mental therapy!!

  3. Trey this is just what I needed to read today! I came off my mare Fan in March/09…broke my back & neck…pretty bad, almost died a couple of times but…now i am walking though I can’t feel my legs (go figure?) I couldn’t part with my mare…tomorrow we go to our first clinic since the accident…I’ll only do the ground work tomorrow but you have inspired me to actually “ride” again….thank you…I’d love to folow you on FB if you would add me to your friend list….thanks :O)

  4. This is a wonderful story. I hope that many people read this that are struggling. Trey is an amazing young man with a strong will and a passion for horses. My horses have always been my therapy in whatever trials I am going through. Keep it up Trey. You are an inspiration to others.

  5. Trey you and your family are true Champions. You give hope and inspiration to each and everyone of us. Thank you for sharing your story and for reminding us that the human spirit is an amazing thing. Wishing you a continued speedy recovery filled with wonderful rides!

  6. Never under estimate the power of faith, determination, strength and the relationship one has with their horse! Many blessings and prayers to you and your family and continued success with your recovery and competing!! An inspiration to us all!! God Bless!!!

  7. Way to go Trey! Don’t you just love those good old Quarter Horses? They are worth their weight in gold!!!! Give your horse a hug for me, ok? 😀

  8. Trey is a member of my 4-H club, and he is such an amazing and inspiring young man. He took the time at our Fair this year to teach the other kids how to rope. He has a huge heart and spirit to go along with his determination. He has worked so hard to get back to what he loves, and we feel so fortunate to know him and his family!

  9. Trey it is so nice to know you are OK. Keep up the great work.We watch your every move on facebook.Give your horses a GREAT BIG HUG for us. Your cousins in Connecticut.

  10. Good job Trey!!Coming back from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is such a long process, and I wish you continued success and recovery.

    I noticed Trey is wearing an approved safety helmet in the picture, and though I understand that Trey’s injury was not riding related, please wear your helmets, properly fitted, every time you’re on horseback. Adults: it is up to us to help set the example for our youth riders as more and more organizations and shows are requiring the youth to wear them.

    For more information about helmets and TBI please check out:


  11. Pets/Horses are amazing healers both for physical and mental healing. 2 years ago I lost my first born son to suicide and in return almost lost myself. The emotional pain was tramatic and horrific! I mentally shut down (the Dr.s call it PTSD), then physically I began to shut down. I almost died as well. Depression can kill, it almost killed me! But thanks to God (giving me peace and strength, and my horse Minnie (giving me a reason to get out of the house and do something), I am now much better. Things will never be the same and I will probably not ever get back to “Normal” but thanks to my Minnie Im getting out, enjoying life and am able to smile again! 🙂 Animals are truly a Blessing from God! 🙂

  12. Grandma and Grandpa Schwab
    August 12, 2011

    Thank you for keeping us informed on how Trey is doing. We don’t get to see him as much as we would like but we hope you all know how much we love you.
    Keep up the good work and if we can help in anyway please let us know.
    God bless all of you

  13. I just want to say how blessed we are to have such a great nephew and his family to be able to keep going like they have, We all love you Trey and are very proud of you. Keep up the work and the fight you are doing.
    Aunt Pat

  14. I swear everytime I’m starting to take my life for granted or not seeing how wonderful just living life can be I come across a story about Trey or get to see him at a show. I don’t think he realizes how amazing he is. God bless you Trey and your family. You are truly a gift to this world. Keep it up and I’ll be there to watch you run for many years to come! 🙂

  15. I got to watch Trey grow up in my 4H club. He was an amazing kid when he was young and he is even more amazing now. He doesn’t know the word quit. He has always been an awesome rider. I am so thankful that all of our prayers for him were answered. I am so proud of Trey for accomplishing so much in such little time. It really puts life into perspective. Love you Trey!

  16. It’s been an honor and a privilege taking care of Trey throughout his recovery. He’s proven time and time again that prayer and perseverance pay off. As he told me today: “My life is a miracle”. Yes Trey, it is! and isn’t God great for allowing us to witness the miracle and wonder of you.

  17. Trey did an amazing job at the youth world show. Thank you for sharing this story. I look forward to cheering him on again next year!

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