On a recent sunny day in Woodside, Derek Liu got himself ready to saddle up. This might not seem unusual, except that two years ago, the Marine Corp veteran was not able to stand up.
"I was in a coma for 2.5 months, so my body forgot everything," he tells ABC7.
Liu is rehabilitating from a devastating heart attack he suffered during a training run in Hawaii. His rehab partner goes by the name of Cowboy. Liu is one of a growing number of injured veterans who are regaining their mobility with the help of horses.
The program is a joint project between the Palo Alto VA and National Center for Equine-Facilitated Therapy in Woodside.
During hour-long sessions, therapist Sharon Tiraschi lead Liu through a kind of horseback ballet designed to strengthen his posture and improve his balance.
"Horses really play into that because their movement is three-dimensional and it actually mimics that of a human gait," Tiraschi explains. "And, so horse riding can help somebody restore their own natural motion just by allowing the body to follow the horse's movement."
The heart attack left Liu with neurological damage that affected his arms and legs, but during his therapy he uses both to lead Cowboy through a series of twist, turns and bursts of trotting.
"After doing that, your muscles retrain and adjust to the balance, making your balance a lot better," Liu says.
Liu's wife Nicola says his progress was steady but subtle, after he literally relearned to walk.
"After several months, I remember watching his walk away from me, thinking, 'Wow, he's walking a lot smoother now,'" she says.
Researchers at the VA say the equestrian therapy has also shown benefit for the types of severe head and spinal trauma that have increased with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Liu has spent more than a year in the program and believes it has helped his cognitive function along with his physical rehabilitation. He now plans to continue riding, letting his body follow the lead, of his graceful and powerful tutor.
"My vision is a lot better and my balance is better. Day by day, it's been getting better," he says.
Written and produced by Tim Didion.