Getting ready for a long horse expedition always takes longer than expected. The morning we headed into the Teton Wilderness to meet veteran Green Beret Ray Knell and travel with him through Yellowstone was no exception. A common misconception is that horse journeys are easier than bicycling or backpacking because all you have to do is sit on a saddle. While its certainly true that riding a good horse up mountains is physically easier than walking yourself, it takes a tremendous amount of preparation and work to get moving every day! Horses have to be caught, watered, fed, brushed, have their feet cleaned, saddled, and loved on. Packs have to be weighed perfectly to balance correctly, saddles have to be fitted just right to ensure horses don’t get sores, and you have to take more stuff to properly take care of the animals. Backpackers don’t need extra horseshoes, veterinary supplies, nails, 1-inch 50-foot rope, picket stakes, hobbles, extra pads, etc… So it was an embarrassingly late 9 a.m. start, especially since we had more then 30 miles of trail ahead of us! Our goal for the day was to meet Ray Knell, who was riding 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide, at Hawk’s Rest Mountain by nightfall. From there we would ride with Ray through Yellowstone National Park.
The trail to Hawk’s Rest from Turpin Meadows Trailhead near Jackson, Wyoming, is stunning. For the first few miles we traveled through an old-growth forest full of towering pines, firs, and spruce. Our horses picked up the pace when we went through small pocket meadows, many of which had willow-covered riparian areas. The horses were feeling fresh, so we let them trot when we reached a massive open valley with the North Fork of the Buffalo River winding through it. The temperature was rising so we brought our horses back to a walk after a few miles. They had a big day ahead of them. I rode up to Micah Fink, former Navy Seal and director of Heroes and Horses, an organization he created to heal combat veterans through horse training and wilderness physical activity. Micah spends months in the woods every year with veterans diagnosed with PTSD or anxiety and I wanted to pick his brain.
I told Micah that I recently had a veteran friend and co-worker commit suicide. His head dropped. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. And although he didn’t say it outright, I could tell he had suffered similar pain. I told him that I’m not a combat veteran, I’ve never been in the military, and its difficult for me to comprehend what its like coming back to a civilian lifestyle after a military tour. He said that everyone is affected differently and that PTSD or anxiety can’t be measured like temperature during a fever. Everyone is different, what they experience is different, how they experience it is different, and how they cope with the past is different with each and every person. He told me that the reason why he started Heroes and Horses isn’t because people have PTSD, its because of the way our society and government treats veterans when they come back from war.
He claims there’s a problem when high energy, physically active, tough, mentally capable, and hard-working veterans come home to be told that they have problems by PdDs in lab coats who’ve never experienced combat. They’re prescribed drugs, told that they have issues, live on government support, and begin a downwards spiral because they don’t have to work or struggle to live. Micah claimed that what some veterans really need is physical activity to keep their bodies and minds sharp. They need new tasks and mental challenges to keep them in the present and not dwelling on the past. And that’s why Micah believes that training horses heals many veterans better than best psychiatrist. When you’re working with the horses, you have to live in the present, they sense your feelings, and you have to work as a team to make forward process. Training is rewarding, fulfilling, and purposeful. And if you mix the training with a wilderness setting, the veterans get to see the incredible landscapes they fought for.
The massive meadows along the river slowly narrowed until once again we were swallowed by the old-growth forest. The shade was a welcome change, and I couldn’t resist swimming my horse in a deep pool below a waterfall. A few miles later, the forest gave way to the ominous and foreboding sight of a massive burn from a recent fire. Blackened tree skeletons dominated the skyline but the ground was bursting with a variety of grasses, berries, flowers, and new tree saplings. Leaves from knee-high aspens shimmered in the light breeze as I noticed the tracks of an elk herd and grizzly bear. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the recent burn.
We topped over a pass to see what Lewis and Clark sought but never found, the Parting of the Waters, which is the only waterway in North America where a creek splits into two and one side goes to the Atlantic and the other side goes to the Pacific. After filling up my water bottle from Atlantic Creek and Pacific Creek, we mounted our horses and continued towards Hawk’s Rest along Atlantic Creek. A few hours later, with the setting sun at our back casting the world ahead of us into a brilliant golden light, we came to the Yellowstone River meandering through a tremendous valley below Hawk’s Rest Mountain. The sun set as we rode next to the Yellowstone River to the base of Hawk’s Rest where we’d meet Ray.
Beavers slapped their tails, eagles soared above us, and cutthroat trout rose lazily to the surface to sip aquatic insects. Wolf and grizzly tracks dominated the sandbars of the river while well beaten trails from the largest elk migration in the world paralleled our own. Anticipation was higher than my butt was sore as we finished the last mile to Hawk’s Rest and tied the horses at our campsite for the night.
White teeth glowed in a huge smile under an unkempt beard as Ray burst out of the trees to greet us. It was my first time to meet him but we embraced like old friends. I’d been looking forward to this day for a long long time! After an ecstatic greeting we quickly untacked our horses, turned them loose to eat for the night, and sat our sore butts down to eat dinner right as the last bit of blue in the sky gave way to a brilliant display of the Milky Way.
Hours later, stuffed, exhausted, and laying in my sleeping bag. I can’t help but think how neat it is that the nearest light bulb is over 30 miles away. That thought makes the stars shine just a little brighter! Tomorrow we begin our expedition through Yellowstone. I feel very American.
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.