Journal on the Road

Walking, Talking, Riding … and Laughing

August 12, 2011

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.”