PEGRAM, Tenn. (WKRN) – At a farm in Pegram, Hilda Keller gets Moose ready to meet AC. She brushes the 1,300 pound horse, feeds him and cleans his hooves.
As she hands the reigns to AC Lopez, he whispers, “I’m in charge, remember? I’m in charge.”
Lopez gives a gentle pull and says, “Come on.”
Moose obliges and follows Lopez’s lead.
“If you walk off a cliff, he’s going to walk off a cliff with you,” said Lopez. “To have somebody or something to trust you that much, I mean, it’s…”
There are no words to describe the difference Moose has made in Lopez’s life.
Lopez is a combat veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and all the demons that come with it.
Battling the depths of his disease, Lopez says at his lowest point, “I was like, if this [is] what living is, I didn’t want no part of that.”
“Before, I was pretty numb and ready to give up.”
A few decades earlier, Joe Cottingham found himself feeling a little like Lopez.
“All you really knew was you weren’t quite the same as when you went over there,” said Joe Cottingham, a Vietnam Veteran.
When he came home from Vietnam, there was no parade, no welcome home celebration and certainly no help for his PTSD.
“That’s why we wanted to get this going.”
Before retiring, Cottingham and his wife, Claudia, started saving money for what would eventually become Heroes and Horses Healing, an equine therapy program that pairs rescue horses, like Moose, with veterans like Lopez.
“There are wounds that you can’t see that need to be dealt with,” said Cottingham.
“We want to provide a community with other people and the horses that allow for a place to bring what’s going on with them that really doesn’t work in the rest of the world,” said Dede Beasley, Licensed Professional Counselor. “You know, they need to unpack that here.”
Beasley is a volunteer with Heroes and Horses Healing and developed the curriculum for the veterans to follow.
Each session starts with the veteran leading the horse through the obstacles. The end goal is to have the horse follow the veteran of his own volition. That means the horse is at liberty and Beasley says that’s when transformation can happen for the veterans.
She explained, “When you do that, you tap into the neurobiology of the folks and you get to rewire a little bit.”
With the rewiring, came a new way of living for Lopez.
“That’s what I got out of it. I was able to express myself and know that what I was feeling was OK and that I wasn’t alone in these feelings,” said Lopez.
“That’s what I really liked about this therapy that I was able to feel again.”
All thanks to a veteran, who he knew just how he felt.
“It’s like veterans only understand what veterans are going through because we experienced the same type of things,” said Lopez.
Cottingham added, “In leaving the service, we kind of felt like we had to let go of each other. The reconnection for all of us is very important.”
Heroes and Horses Healing is possible because of volunteers. Everything is donated from the time of the licensed therapist to the use of the horses, no veteran is ever asked to pay a dime.
The program is accepting new veterans, and there is an open house on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. It’s at Keller Horse Training, 2198 Sam’s Creek Road, Pegram, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.