Riding a horse at twilight in the Montana high country, somewhere deep inside Gallatin National Forest, I struggle to make out the silhouette of the rider in front of me. We are supposed to stay nose-to-tail on the trail, but it has gotten too dark to see. Our route hugs a mountainside; the landscape drops off sharply to the left before plummeting 100 feet down to Big Creek below. I am helpless to steer my horse in the darkness. All I can do is take a deep breath, and trust that it knows better than to step off trail.
When my group of five reaches camp without incident, I feel wildly relieved. There, in a wide-open field beneath a starry Montana sky, a fire beckons. I can make out the outline of mules grazing nearby, and people sitting around the campfire. A voice, presumably Micah Fink, the founder of Heroes and Horses, calls out greetings. I watch his commanding 6-foot-4-inch frame stride toward me. “How was it?” he asks, taking the reins as I dismount. He knows this is my first horse packing trip. “Hard,” I answer truthfully. “And scary in the dark.”
“That’s good,” he says.
I learn later around the campfire that Fink is a strong proponent of the notion that the greater the struggle, the greater the value. He believes that struggle is an essential element of a satisfying life. If everything is always easy, life begins to lose its value—a lesson Fink learned from experience. After spending 14 years in the military, first as a Navy SEAL and then as a private contractor on a special operations force, his return to a comparatively easy civilian life left him severely depressed.
Fink began to find relief from the listlessness, the numbness, when he started horse packing. The activity is a highly specialized style of backcountry camping in which campers ride horses instead of hike, and are accompanied by pack mules to carry their tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, and cooking supplies. Unlike the activities that most veterans programs—which aim to reduce all forms of stress—recommend, horse packing is challenging, potentially dangerous, and comes with a steep learning curve. “It’s pretty much the opposite of the kinds of things I was told that I was supposed to be doing to heal,” Fink says, “and yet it’s all I wanted to do.”
Soon after, Fink got the idea to expose other veterans to horse packing. In 2013, he created a prototype trip—four days in the wilds of southwest Montana—and got such a favorable response that he founded Heroes and Horses, a non-profit dedicated to inspiring personal growth in combat veterans suffering from mental and physical scars, in 2014. The three-phase program brings participants out to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, near Yellowstone National Park, for five days of horsemanship training (the majority of the program’s participants have never been on a horse), followed by an eight-day horse packing trip in Gallatin National Forest.
Participants progress to a second session where they learn other backcountry skills like fly fishing, and then embark on a more demanding horse packing trip for 10 days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area near Whitefish, Montana. The program finale is the opportunity to work with a wilderness outfitter as a hand, setting up high camps like the one I’m visiting, and leading pack strings, the term for the nose-to-tail chain of horses and mules on horse packing trips.
“The program isn’t horsy ride for veterans,” says Fink. “The guys learn to do everything themselves, including how to take care of their horse. And the stuff we’re riding isn’t for town dandies. You make one wrong move and you fall 500 feet off a cliff.” Despite the difficulty of the program, or because of it, according to Fink, Heroes and Horses has a transformative effect on its participants.
Consider program graduate Jeremy Svejcar, 37, who has been out of the military since 2010, following 10 years of service. Even after earning his college degree and entering the workforce, Svejcar suffered from PTSD, anxiety, and bouts with alcoholism. He went on and off a myriad of medications to no avail, becoming more and more withdrawn. “It got so bad that if I had a choice between going through a checkout line at the grocery store with a checker clerk, and an automated one, I’d pick the automated one even if it had a line because I didn’t want any interaction with people,” Svejcar had told me over the phone the week prior to my horse packing trip.
Svejcar also said that Heroes and Horses changed his life; that out there on the back of a horse in the wildlands of Montana he found something he hadn’t been able to find since returning from Iraq: himself.
“The way I described it to my wife is there are holes in my soul,” said Svejcar. “For the past 10 years I’ve been trying to fill those holes with stuff—whether it be drinking or physical objects or activities—and what I found was that I don’t need to fill those holes with anything. They’re a part of who I am.”
When Svejcar stopped looking at his combat experience as a disease that needed to be cured, his mental demons lost their power. Perhaps more importantly, Svejcar said he identified a new purpose for his life, something many veterans fail to find once they are done with their service. For the final portion of his Heroes and Horses program, Svejcar chose to learn to train horses under the tutelage of master horseman Val Geissler in Wyoming. He has since kicked off a project near his home in New Mexico to build facilities to house horses and mules. “Ultimately my goal is to pay it forward,” Svejcar said, “to get wild mustangs and train them and sell them, and give the money back to Heroes and Horses.”
The next morning at sunrise, I get my first real glimpse of the spot Fink had chosen to set up camp, a golden field lined with towering evergreens against a mountain backdrop. The sky is a peaceful pale blue, and I can hear the churning stream in the distance, mixed with the tinkling of the mules’ bells. The air feels brisk, yet refreshing, like stepping outside into the first real fall day of the season after a desperately hot and dry summer. As I stoke the fire to cook breakfast, I remember reading somewhere that the Gallatin National Forest contains three million acres where more grizzlies and big horn sheep roam than people, and that it’s part of the largest intact ecosystem in the Lower 48. Montana’s high country certainly delivers in terms of solace and solitude.
Fink joins me at the fire and shows me how to make “cowboy coffee,” without a filter. He agrees with my assessment that the wildness of the Montana backcountry plays a formative role in Heroes and Horses’ effectiveness, but says that the horses are the real stars.
Veterans ride the same horse for the duration of the program, and spend most of their daylight hours in the saddle, not to mention performing horse-related chores like saddling, unsaddling, and feeding. “A lot of these guys don’t like to communicate much, or even talk,” says Fink. “With their horse, they’re communicating 12-14 hours a day, and whether they like it or not, a bond starts to form.”
Most veterans get really frustrated in the beginning, trying to figure out how to get the horse to do what they need it to do. The situation often boils down to a power struggle. “What they don’t realize,” says Fink, “is that horses are a mirror to the soul, a direct reflection of whatever you are in that moment.”
When participants get desperate enough for their horses to cooperate, they start to experiment with what they need to change in order to get the mission accomplished. And that’s when the magic happens. Program graduate Chris Alvarado, 33, told me over the phone before my trip that he had never been within 20 feet of a horse, let alone ridden one, when he came to Heroes and Horses. He recalled the specific moment when he realized that the problem wasn’t his horse Wheezy.
“The horse and the mules, they can see beyond your physical, they can read what’s going on inside you, so if you’re stressed or anxious or nervous, they can sense that,” Alvarado said. “I figured out that I needed to start channeling what I was feeling inside in order to gain their trust.”
Repeating that mental exercise day after day for the duration of the program made Alvarado more self-aware, and less inclined to “just react.” It may not sound like much, but for a guy who’d been medically retired from the military since 2011 with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury), it was the beginning of a new level of awareness that Alvarado hadn’t been able to cultivate on his own, or through traditional veterans programs.
Fink pours me a cup of jet black coffee and says that Alvarado’s breakthrough is typical at Heroes and Horses. “I’ve seen the most introverted hard cases break down with these horses,” Fink says. “They’ll just stand in the field and hold their horse and cry, because they realize what they are seeing is themselves.”