YREKA, Calif. — Iraq war veteran Craig Coggins held his arms outstretched as he sat astride Keeper, a 19-year-old registered paint walking inside a covered arena at the Double H Ranch.
The no-hands exercise to improve Coggins' balance and increase his confidence was carefully supervised by therapeutic riding instructor Cathy Fitzpatrick, who led the horse.
Judging by Coggins' grin after he dismounted, the equine therapy provided in the Horses for Heroes program was galloping along.
"I didn't even know if my hip would allow me to get into a saddle when I started this program," Coggins said. "Now I find that being in the saddle is the most comfortable place for me. I love this."
Medford-resident Coggins, 39, a former Marine wounded in Iraq while serving in the Oregon Army National Guard, and Loren Carrell, 25, of Keno, an Army soldier also wounded in Iraq, are the first veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City to participate in the Horses for Heroes program. Both veterans suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq, according to the SORCC.
Like Coggins, Carrell sees working with horses as a path back to his former life.
"You get on a horse, you get a piece of normality," Carrell explained while sitting on a bale of hay, speaking slowly with a slight slur. "You aren't limping and people aren't looking at you. You feel normal. You feel good."
The veterans practiced riding on empty 50-gallon barrels before they graduated to horses. They learned everything from the ground up, including saddling and brushing.
Both say their ultimate mission is to hit the trail.
This marks the first time Stable Hands has worked with veterans. The nonprofit equine group in Yreka began helping disabled people get back on their feet through working with horses 13 years ago.
"I'm really impressed with Craig and Loren's grit, the way they push themselves," said Fitzpatrick, Stable Hands' executive director. "They challenge themselves. Whatever we ask them to do, they are willing to do.
"They have that freedom people feel when they are in the saddle," she added. "It's about a relationship with the animal, a connection with the animal."
It's very empowering for them to be able to maneuver an 1,100-pound animal in an arena or on a trail. It takes both skill and a relationship."
Occupational therapist Marcia Cushman, who is also a therapeutic riding instructor for Stable Hands, agreed.
"A horse has three dimensional movements," she said. "It moves up and down, side to side, forward and back. That's how we move. There is no exercise machine that does that. It stimulates the brain and the muscles to work without you having to think about it. The body just responds on an automatic level. You exercise without feeling like you are exercising."
Noting that both veterans walk with a limp, Cushman said a horse levels the field for the soldiers.
"For Craig and Loren to walk is difficult," Cushman said. "But when they are on a horse, all of that awkwardness on the ground goes away.
"It's been really exciting working with the veterans," she added. "They have responded so quickly. When they first came, they were pretty apprehensive. They weren't really sure how this was going to work."
Coggins had ridden once before he joined the military, but Carrell had never been astride a horse until he started the program. Ranch owners Mickey and Pat Hayes are providing the large covered arena for Stable Hands and have created a new horse trail for the veterans on the 1,000-plus-acre spread that fills a picturesque mountain valley a few miles southwest of Yreka.
"Craig and Loren have gone from being very tentative and having difficulty doing many things to being able to do it easily," Cushman said. "When we first started, Loren was barely able to walk down to the end of the arena leading a horse. We weren't sure he was going to make it back to the other end. It was so difficult for him.
"And Craig had a great deal of pain and we weren't too sure how far we wanted to push him," she added. "But he has been willing to do anything and everything."
The pilot project for the soldiers started in June with a six-week session, followed by two months off. The second, more advanced course began Wednesday and ends Nov. 4.
The veterans work with the horses every week.
"This helps veterans build confidence in what they can do in their lives," said Chris Petrone, SORCC's Operation Enduring/Iraqi Freedom program manager. "It builds their muscles as well as their memories."
There have been noticeable improvements in the abilities of both Coggins and Carrell since they started the program, added case manager Billy Haden.
"This was a gentleman who would barely get out of his house six months ago," he said of Carrell. "He didn't want to get off the couch. He didn't have any energy to do anything. He didn't seem like he wanted to touch a horse when he started. Now look at him," he added, noting that Wednesday marked the first time Carrell has circled the arena on Keeper without assistance.
As Haden spoke, Carrell led Jose, a 9-year-old quarter horse being trained for the program, out of the arena. When they stopped at the edge of the arena, the horse nuzzled up against him.
For a moment, the wounded warrior and horse stood together, seemingly in a peaceful world of their own.
Discharged as a specialist 4, Carrell said he served in Balad and Fallujah in 2007, both hot spots in the war.
"I got blown up three times, twice by mortars and once by an IED (improvised explosive device)," he said. "I was going for 28 years in the Army, but I only lasted three and a half."
Coggins served in the Marine Corps from 1988 to 1993 before joining the Oregon Army National Guard. The sergeant injured his hip during a battle in Sadr City in Baghdad on Aug. 4, 2004, and survived an IED explosion early in January 2005.
Like most veterans, the two have formed a bond that includes friendly ribbing.
"All the guys in my squad who were in the Marines, they were the first to get shot," Carrell said, prompting hearty laughter from Coggins, who was wearing a cap stating, "God, Country and Corps." A tattoo on Carrell's right forearm reads, "INFANTRY," reflecting his pride in being in an infantry unit.
"I'm so impressed with the way the two soldiers work together, support each other, help each other, teach each other," Fitzpatrick said. "It's phenomenal to see that from two men who never met until they started this program."
The veterans say working with horses has been the best therapy they have experienced.
"When I'm on Keeper, my only thought is about the horse and what the objective — that's a bad word — whatever it is we are trying to have the horse do," said Coggins, a 1988 graduate of South Medford High School.
"I don't worry about anything else when I'm on a horse," Carrell said. "It makes the pain I have easier to deal with. It makes me feel normal again."
When the two veterans started out riding the 50-gallon barrels, both wondered if they could ever ride horses. Now they say the two hours spent at Stable Hands is the highlight of their week.
"Our goal is to get them both out on horseback, riding together," Cushman said, although noting the trainers will be close at hand.
It's a mission the former soldiers intend to accomplish.
"We know we need to go through steps before we are able to do that," Coggins said. "We need to be able to control the horse. But we hope to ride the trails in this session."
Both veterans looked up the valley to the horse trails leading to the hill on the Double H Ranch.
"Out there — that's where we want to ride," Carrell said.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.