DANVILLE, Ill. (WCIA) — A team leading a horse therapy program for veterans surprised a Vietnam veteran on his 70th birthday.

Gateway Family Services brought several horses in a trailer to the VA Illiana Health Care System for a five-stop parade. At the third stop, Chuck Buck waited with a group of fellow veterans and therapists, unaware of what would be pulling into the parking lot momentarily.

When the trailer arrived, team members at Gateway Family Services hopped out to wish him a happy birthday.

“This just caught me totally off guard,” Buck said. “I’m so happy.”

WCIA first met Buck in December, when he attended his first horse therapy session at the Potomac stable. He was paired with Kitty for the 8-week program and instantly felt a connection.

“The day you talked to me, I felt so relaxed and at home and talked about it [Vietnam] a little bit,” Buck said. “Every time I talk about it, it brings back memories. It was a rough deal, but I made it.”

Even though Buck has been apart from Kitty for the past month, he’s made sure his presence is still known. Buck has sent artwork to hang outside her stall every week.

“Chuck has become such a huge blessing to us,” Gateway Family Services director Michael Remole said. “Every week he colors her pictures and would put them on the stall. We’re continuing to get them in the mail every week and he sent our staff members cards.”

The drawings and letters led Remole and his team to come up with a plan to celebrate Buck’s birthday. At one of the other parade stops at the VA, veterans gave trainers more artwork to decorate the stalls.

The VA began working with Gateway Family Services on a pilot equine therapy program because horses, like humans, are wired for survival and have fight or flight instincts. During a pilot program that began in December, therapists monitored the veterans’ heart rates as they brushed, cleaned and even rode the horses. Remole said they saw their heart rates improve, and veterans told them their anxiety and depression levels decreased throughout the two month session.

“Just being able to go there and watch the transformation from some of the veterans, we really, really thought that was great,” VA recreation therapy service supervisor Travis Winkler said.

Remole said the team applied for a $100,000 VA adaptive sports grant. He is unsure when they’ll find out if they were approved because of the pandemic.