Heroes and Horses: Montana organization uses wilderness expeditions to help veterans
August 9, 2016
A Bozeman area organization is using pack trips in the back country to get veterans on surer footing.
Eschewing the label "wounded warrior" and replacing that with “seasoned soldier in need of a purpose,” Heroes and Horses pairs combat veterans with pack and saddle animals in an intensive boot camp-style program.
At its core, Heroes and Horses believes that war vets perform best under pressure and that challenging them to cowboy up is the best way forward.
Veterans may arrive broken from insomnia, substance abuse, failed relationships, and more. They may feel like they need a vacation, but they won't find one.
"We inoculate them with stress," says Anna Carroll, who teaches the horsemanship and works as administrative director at the Manhattan, Montana ranch. "We raise their stress level to make them achieve again."
Inoculation, application, and integration are three phases of the curriculum.
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Staff includes founder and executive director, Micah Fink, a 10-year veteran of the Navy Seals and a bronze star recipient. Fink arrived stateside to find stigma surrounding war vets, something he wanted to turn around.
Other staff members include former instructors from branches of the military and graduates of the program, all of them combat veterans.
Without dismissing the sometimes devastating experience of war, the Heroes and Horses seeks to create new memories with positive results.
The program has graduated approximately 45 participants in about two years.
For the first four days, participants are immersed in horsemanship, from dawn until midnight, flooded with information and new skills to acquire.
"They may not be sleeping well when they get here," Carroll says. "We want to exhaust them so they start sleeping better. We engage their body and their mind."
At the end of four days, they head to the back country on an expedition style trip. The six day trip emphasizes team work, self-reliance, and perseverance.
Participants encounter deep timber and narrow trails, shale and windy passes. They give up some control to the animal.
"We use the horse-human connection and the outdoors to clear their head," Carroll says.
As prey animals, she says, horses are well understood to reflect their rider's state of mind, and that teaches equanimity in a handler. "If we're scared, they will sense that. If we are calm, they feed off calm. Like mirrors to the soul."
A group of eight is typical. Applicants are interviewed and if it's a good fit, they come for free. Enrollment is by word of mouth, and the program is supported by donations.
The second phase plunges participants into the Bob Marshall Wilderness where they learn advanced packing, guide, and survival skills through the renowned wilderness guide school, the Bridger Institute.
A third phase, added this year, will match graduates of the program to work with outfitters.
The entire program requires a three-month commitment.
The season has been May to September, but the organization hopes to host a trip this October, and has been invited to expand and add a winter session in a warmer climate like Arizona. An all-women's excursion is in the planning stages.
Man or woman, engaging in life after war is about getting on down the trail.
Says Carroll: "What you do with your life after war is really important. It's about moving on and how to move on."
To apply to participate or to donate, find Heroes and Horses at their website, Heroesandhorses.com or on Facebook, or call the office at 406.284.2870.