An intensive program based in Montana uses the bond between horse and rider to give veterans a boost — in more ways than one.
Top photo courtesy of Heroes and Horses.
Heroes and Horses founder Mark White is no stranger to mental and physical hardship. When a serious electrical accident left him at age 22 with burns and an amputated leg, he knew that life would continue on regardless of his personal suffering — sitting out and watching life go by simply wasn’t an option. Mark went on to become a professional backcountry outfitter, leading pack trips into some of the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states and experiencing life in ways most of us might only see in a photograph. Inspired by his own father’s military service as well as the strength Mark found on horseback, he founded Heroes and Horses in Belgrade, Montana to help American veterans.
“Veterans are coming home and being told they’re sick, they’re given medicine,” states managing director Micah Fink, a former Navy SEAL. Often these veterans have difficulties adjusting back into civilian life, feeling isolated and marginalized by their experiences. While equine-assisted psychotherapy programs geared towards veterans are gaining momentum across the country, Heroes and Horses is different: the program follows its motto “change through challenge” by immersing veterans with physical and emotional scars in a world where they must rely on themselves and rediscover their personal strength and confidence.
To help these people renew their spirits, Heroes and Horses works in three phases. The first phase, also called “Stress Inoculation,” first puts a group of participants through an intensive two-day horsemanship camp where they learn the basics of saddling, riding and packing and handling a pack horse. The horsemanship session is followed by a four- or five-day wilderness pack trip, taking the entire group out into the Montana wilderness. “It’s not nose-to-tail riding,” Fink promises. “You’ll have a thousand-foot drop on one side and maybe a foot-wide margin of error. We use the raw power of the wilderness for recovery.” Participants work together to set up and break camp — but they also work closely, of course, with their horses. “It’s incredible to see the relationship between these guys and these horses,” marvels Fink.
The second phase sends the same group of participants back into the wilderness, this time as solitary individuals with the goal of meeting back up as a group and returning to the base ranch. The third phase and most recently-developed phase sends individual participants all over the country to working ranches for an intensive immersion in day-to-day work. The goal of this final phase is to integrate veterans into a working society out of their comfort zone, giving them the confidence they need to carry on a civilian life.
The program currently works almost primarily with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as single amputees and burn victims. The directors have developed accommodations in the saddle to allow amputees to ride and lead a pack animal safely and are currently working on developing special saddles for double amputees. Only a three year old program, Heroes to Horses supports 100% of the costs for its participants with help from monetary donations as well as the donation of horses, tack and equipment.
According to Fink, “recovery will define your life.” Heroes to Horses helps veterans return to the workforce and teaches participants that life goes on with mental or physical wounds. Veterans leave Heroes to Horses with renewed confidence and restored self-belief, found along the trail and in saddle.
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