As justifiable fear gripped their guts, wounded Iraq veteran Charlie and his wife, Vionette, whispered about the wisdom of climbing on a horse for the first time in their lives and riding off into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness.
Standing by the horse trailers, Vionette seemed quietly paralyzed. Then she found the grit to mount Dennis, who loomed above her.
“Truthfully, I was afraid. I expected to not do it, saying, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said later.
More than 2,000 miles west of their home, the New Yorkers joined three other couples brought to the Stillwater River by Operation Second Chance of Maryland. The charity, whose motto is “Helping Heroes Move On,” pays for weeklong adventures across the United States for those wounded, injured and ill from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of them, Mike, a vet from Oregon, was so weary of repeating the story about how the Iraq war claimed his left arm that he joked, “Hell, I just make stuff up. A shark bit it off!”
Second Chance asked that participating veterans be identified by their first names only.
Mike’s first trail ride up the Stillwater moved him so deeply that he and his wife, “Bree,” volunteer their time to drive to Montana to help other vets conquer their doubts.
His nickname is “John Wayne.” The one-eyed U.S. marshall that Wayne played in the ’60s Western “True Grit” rode with reins in his teeth so he could shoot guns with both arms. Mike rides with reins in teeth to take pictures with one arm.
During a hot week in late July, these warriors and their loved ones rode horses, rafted the Yellowstone River and drove ATVs across Hellroaring Plateau bordering Yellowstone National Park.
But the trail ride came first.
Climbing on a horse stirs up anxiety in people and spurs dramatic changes, said Steve and Debbie Mikels. They run Dream Dance Outfitters out of Roscoe, and for a decade they have donated the use of their backcountry skills and their seasoned trail horses to Operation Second Chance vets.
“I’m a warrior from a different time and place,” Steve said, explaining their commitment to help the vets. Debbie is nationally certified in using horses as therapy.
The beauty of the Beartooth Mountains helps riders relax, she said, but if they can find harmony and balance with their horse, they might rediscover creative places that have been covered up or lost.
“That’s what the horses are doing. They are showing them the way so they can lead a richer and fuller life,” she said. “That’s the gift from the horse.”
At the trailhead, the outfitters helped riders—injuries visible and invisible—onto their horses.
Charlie suffered back injuries from falling off a ledge during a mortar attack in Iraq. Then he went through two colon cancer surgeries he believes came from exposure to toxic chemicals. In 2001, he was a military first responder at Ground Zero after terrorists toppled the World Trade Center towers. This ride comes five months after his last surgery.
Charlie smiled a lot.
Like most of the others, Charity, of Maryland, mounted her tall horse from a boulder. But she got on from the right or opposite-the-normal side because her left kneecap was destroyed in a motorcycle accident. On this ride, there was scarce talk of the foot-long scar across a rib cage, traumatic brain injury or the purgatory of pain war brings.
To novices, horses can be powerful and scary. The Mikels want riders to see horses as intelligent, intuitive animals who can help them—if they can tune in.
“If you are grounded in who you are, they know it,” Debbie said. “They feel it.”
There was virtually no coaching and certainly no coddling on how to steer or stop a horse.
“Ride your horse. Trust your horse,” Steve commanded, before riding off in the lead.
At first, the trail up the Stillwater snakes through a gorge that leaves with little room for error. This start of the journey can make even seasoned riders suck in some breaths. On the right, granite cliffs climb straight up to the sky. On the left, the rock ledge drops off into the roiling river.
Because of the challenges of a first ride, much less through the canyon, Steve “ponied” or led Vionette’s horse. Razor-focused on staying on, both her hands gripped the saddle horn.
With no collective rhythm at all, 44 iron-shod hooves clip-clopped over uneven rocks. Riders tensed when a foot occasionally slipped off granite before the horse found footing again. If someone spoke, cascading water swallowed the words. The Stillwater doesn’t earn its name until miles downstream when it meanders through flatter ranch land.
After half an hour, the trail opened up into a small meadow.
Turning his sorrel gelding, Madison, around to face the party, Steve said that two weeks ago the Stillwater was running a couple of feet higher here—so high the turbulence sprayed both riders and horses.
“If you want to know who rules the world,” he said, “Mother Nature rules.”
That slice of adventure behind them, but not knowing what lay ahead, the riders’ wary faces relaxed some.
The outfitter handed Vionette her reins. About a mile later she dared to take control of her horse at one of many stream crossings.
“Dennis, stop drinking water and get going,” she ordered, pulling up his head and trying to kick him with her short legs. The horse obeyed—eventually—when he had drunk his fill and he was ready to go. Vionette looked ecstatic.
Wilderness trails carry their own risks. Grizzlies, for one. Steve, who is part Native American, wears a trio of bear teeth on a leather thong around his neck and practices Native American spirituality. Adopted into two Montana tribes, he is called Uukashee Sachee: man of clay or man of the earth, by the Crow. The Lakota call him Thunderbear. That was also the name given to the spiritual beings guarding the gates to the dream world.
Naturally, a rider asked, “What if?”
“If we meet grizzlies, they won’t touch you,” Thunderbear said. “I’m a relative.”
Besides, he said, the yellow, orange and red wild berries flanking the trail won’t ripen for another couple of weeks. When they do, the bears will move in to feast.
Ninety minutes and 3½ miles later, riders reached the wide spot in the river called Sioux Charley Lake. They dismounted—sore butts happy to leave hard leather—and walked around like stiff ducks.
In the briefest of briefings, Thunderbear said that the grandfathers had
asked him to bring the veterans here.
“Let your stress and sadness and pain go. Let it all flow out of you and down the Stillwater.”
“Release it all through your fingers and let it go.”
Smoke from wildfires, including the Lodgepole Fire scorching ranches 300 miles to the northeast, slightly obscured the high-country sun and blue skies. Among dozens of fires burning across the West that week, the Lodgepole blaze was the big one, consuming more than 400 square miles—a devastating burn as large as New York City.
Gravitating to the river, couples spread out quietly along the bank.
Heather and her staff sergeant husband, Derek, of Florida, settled by a large granite boulder. Most riders soaked their feet in the Stillwater, but Derek was gung-ho. Crawling up the largest boulder, the combat operations vet jumped. In a flash, he surfaced, letting out a war cry.
“That’s cold-ass water!” he shouted. “I think my nipples can cut glass.”
“No sir, that’s refreshing,” Steve shot back.
Songbirds serenaded the party. Wildflowers were in full charge, led by the wild rose, mountain bluebells and scarlet Indian paintbrush.
Charlie rested his back, lying down in the grass. Trying not to grimace, he swallowed an aspirin.
“I can take pain, but I was eight or nine riding up there on that horse today,” he said, speaking of the standard 1 to 10 pain scale. “I kept thinking when are we going to stop?”
Charlie, who works on the Veteran Advisory Board for the mayor of New York City, said time on a horse seemed to stand still. That reminded him of his favorite Salvador Dali painting: a clock melting off a table.
Speaking of riding a horse, Charlie said, “If you want to stop time, that’s the very way to do it. That’s deep.”
Debbie agreed, saying that horses live in the moment.
“They’re not worried we’re not done with lunch,” she said.
As Vionette watched over Charlie, she said she smelled something sweet, flowers probably, and the pungent pine. She put some souvenir cones in her shiny purse. Pairs of yellow wings flittered around.
“No way we see this in Central Park,” she said looking at the mountains. “Butterflies are good medicine.”
Maryland veteran Jason, who loves to shoot long-range rifles, and his wife with the wrecked kneecap focused on the river.
“I put the water on your leg and it started twitching,” he told Charity, wonder in his voice.
An experienced horseman, Jason said he often closed his eyes on the ride in.
“I listened to the birds and felt the air, which had a really calming effect,” he said.
When it seemed the natural time to head back, the vets resumed their combat camaraderie: good-natured, if sharp at times, ribbing.
Upright again, Charlie joked, “I’m walking back.”
After Debbie adjusted his backpack and stirrups and showed him a better way to sit his saddle, the New Yorker smiled and climbed back on his buckskin. Butter liked to trot from time to time.
Just before leaving, Jason helped Charity get back on Lawrence, a horse who once starred in movies.
As the sun dipped lower Steve turned his horse down trail and said, “Take us home Madison.”
Charity not only feared riding for the first time or with a missing kneecap. She feared the canyon with its heights and water.
“I was nervous, very nervous. And then I got to camp and I just felt it melting away,” she said.
But anxiety chased her again on the ride back.
No horse has ever committed suicide, Steve reassured her.
“Listen to the water. Feel the air. Smell the smells. Let the horse to his job,” he said.
Can Lawrence sense my fear?
“Yes, but he likes you.”
How do you know?
“He didn’t dump your ass.”
“OK, I’ll give it a try,” she said.
Back down through the gorge, Lawrence would sense when she tensed up and help her change.
“He would look back at me as if to say, ‘Stop it,’” Charity said. “I definitely have a different respect for him.”
The end of the trail approaching, Mike, aka “John Wayne,” pointed out the best pools to catch native cutthroat on a dry fly.
Back at the Dream Dance Ranch, riders loved on their horses and fed them grain. Charlie and Vionette were giddy, promising to find a stable and learn to ride when they got back to New York City.
“It was an amazing experience,” she sad. “It was the best I’ve ever had.”
After riding a mustang named Fox all day, Derek ranked the Stillwater at the top of his day’s adventure.
“I think getting in my undies and jumping in the river was the highlight of my day,” he said.
His wife, Heather, filled her wish list of riding a horse again and drinking in some mountain air after the dank Florida summer.
If people were as sensitive as horses, she said, they might understand PTSD better.
“They have a way to see things we people can’t. They are all different personalities,” Heather said. “Isn’t that amazing? You don’t even have to say anything.”
When Steve, the outfitter, asked the riders if they felt any different after their dose of wilderness, “John Wayne” drew roars of laughter when he quipped, “My butt hurts!”
That evening, volunteers from nearby Red Lodge served barbecue ribs they’d cooked for two days and all the fixins’. Popular guitarist and local singer Daniel Kosel played some original songs, including one about the Beartooths: “A mountain peace fills my soul and resets my heart…”
Mixing his own songs up with tunes by George Jones, Merle Haggard and even Guns N’ Roses, Kosel got the riders to loosen up even more, clapping and whistling at their favorite tunes, their arms around loved ones.
Dusk settled in. Wind and thunder charged in and a feared lightning strike that could spark another fire shot down into a nearby valley.
During the long goodbyes that evening, Jason mentioned that he’d never been in a tepee.
With mock horror, Debbie called her outfitter partner over.
“Steve, he’s never slept in a tepee!”
“What I did, we never had tepees,” he said, referring to his active duty time.
The Mikels invited him back to cut some lodgepole pines and experience the magic of those Native American lodges. The veteran, now working in law enforcement in Maryland, eagerly agreed and then offered to saddle horses, haul rocks, build fence—anything.
Talking quietly over food and song about the high country and the unpretentious folks they’d met in Red Lodge, Jason and Charity were already making plans to ride horses in Montana again. Maybe they’d return for good.
“I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “I’ve never felt this.”
Charity added, “I liked it when Steve said last night, ‘You’ll come as strangers and leave as friends.’”