A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness, Wild Horses, Warriors (Part 1 of 5)

A veteran set out to ride from Colorado to Montana by horseback to help heal his PTSD and inspire other wounded veterans.

With Horses' Help, Army Veteran Finds Healing in Yellowstone

A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: Wilderness, Wild Horses, Warriors (Part 1 of 5)

A veteran set out to ride from Colorado to Montana by horseback to help heal his PTSD and inspire other wounded veterans.

With Horses' Help, Army Veteran Finds Healing in Yellowstone

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and Afghanistan war veteran, called me in January 2015 seeking advice on how to ride a thousand wilderness miles from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. Two years ago, I completed a 3,000-mile ride using wild mustangs across the American West as part of the documentary Unbranded, so I was eager to share my experiences with Ray for his journey to be successful. He told me he was a ten-year combat veteran and the purpose of the journey was to inspire wounded veterans and to heal his own PTSD and anxiety through the human-horse relationship and wilderness experiences. He explained how horses gave him focus and wilderness allowed him the ability to disconnect and think. Touched, I replied that if he needed anything at all, I would do everything possible to help. My chance came in July.

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Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell cautiously walks toward an old bison before giving it a wide berth; Photograph by Ben Masters

Ray called me on the trailer ride. He explained that he was scared that his journey would fail along with his potential to inspire other veterans with PTSD to use animals, nature, and physical activity to cope with their problems rather than drugs or alcohol. I remembered my promise to help him in any way possible and told Ray that he could use three of my personal horses that I trained on the Unbranded ride to continue his journey while his horse and mules healed from the poisonous plants. He took me up on my offer, but it came with one condition… he had to let me ride through Yellowstone with him!

The next week, Ray picked up three of my tried and true mustangs—Tuf, Dinosaur, and Violet (AKA Violent)—and trailered them back to Wyoming to continue his journey. We planned to meet three weeks later at the southern border of Yellowstone to ride through the nation’s first national park together with my horses while his rested and healed. I was ecstatic to join him through Yellowstone and honored to be of assistance. That happiness was crushed the next day.

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Ray Knell finishes tying down his packs on his mule, Top Gun, as he travels through Yellowstone National Park near the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana, for the veterans’ group Heroes and Horses; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

Clint Stevenson, a friend of mine, co-worker packing horses in Yellowstone’s backcountry for two years, and army veteran, took his life without a note or phone call. Clint was a strong man, an incredibly hard worker, and someone you could rely on. I knew he battled with drugs, alcohol, and a difficult past, but no one though he would ever kill himself. I was crushed, confused, angry, and wanted to know why.

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Mustang Luke deep in Yellowstone’s Backcountry; Photograph by Ben Masters

I knew that Ray was depressed, on drugs, and suffering anxiety attacks and PTSD before his ride began. I wanted to know if he ever had suicidal thoughts and if so, why he chose physical exertion, wilderness, and bonding with animals over ending his life. My personal journey to join Ray through Yellowstone became much more than a stroll through the woods. I wanted answers, understanding, and alternatives.

Today is August 4th. I’m at Turpin Meadows Trailhead on the edge of the Teton Wilderness south of Yellowstone National Park. I’m near the center of the largely undeveloped 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Horses and mules are crunching hay 30 yards from me and the soft sound keeps me us as I switch focus between my headlamp while I write and the starry sky completely devoid of light pollution above me.

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Ray Knell kisses his mule, Magic, after giving him an ear massage on the trail through Pelican Valley in Yellowstone National Park; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

I should be sleeping but I can’t. Tomorrow, my close pal and director Phill Baribeau, Ray’s cousin and photographer Michael Ciaglo, and I will be riding 33 miles through untamed wilderness to meet Ray at Hawk’s Rest, the most backcountry location in the Lower 48. From there we will ride a hundred miles with Ray south to north through Yellowstone National Park. We will cross one road, see zero telephone lines, and experience the exact wild landscapes that inspired an unprecedented conservation movement of establishing national parks almost a hundred years ago today. And that is worth losing sleep over.

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Green Beret and Army Veteran Ray Knell was a broken man with PTSD and severe anxiety when he returned home from Afghanistan. His trust in humans was gone. A friend introduced him to backcountry horsemanship and the wilderness and animal relationship gave him hope and peace of mind. To inspire others to use wilderness and horses to overcome their struggles, Knell embarked on a 1,000-mile ride along the Continental Divide with Mustang Sally and his two mules, Top Gun and Magic. Filmmaker Ben Masters joined Knell through Yellowstone to see the grandeur of our country’s first national park and to witness the importance of conserving wilderness to heal ourselves.