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One Eighty Out
For many veterans, the transition from active duty solider to veteran can be hell. Heroes and Horses, the nonprofit founded by former Navy SEAL Micah Fink, pushes veterans to tackle their demons, find a new purpose, and test their strength in the wild.
One Eighty Out
One Eighty Out
Prior to leading Heroes and Horses, Micah spent 10 years in the Navy SEAL Teams, both active duty and reserves. He conducted operations involving land and undersea mobility platforms in USPACOM, USCENTCOM, and a National Tasking deployment, which earned him numerous awards—including the Bronze Star. Also, Micah spent 4 years as a private military contractor where he conducted paramilitary security operations in some of the world’s most dangerous areas. Micah is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and skier, a sponsored free diver, tactical athlete, and Ironman.
Q: How did Heroes and Horses get started?
A: When I finished my ten years as a Navy Seal, my wife Mac and I moved to Montana along with our three kids. I continued to deploy overseas as a defense contractor and it was a pretty strange time. I’d go from high intensity jobs around the globe with life or death consequences to coming home and changing diapers. I’ll never forget going to the VA for a cold and they tried to give me a bunch of anti-depressants, painkillers, and therapy for all of my problems. Yeah, I’ve been in a lot of combat and have seen a dark side to humanity that I don’t wish upon anybody, but combat isn’t a disease. Combat changes you, just like any trauma in life, but talking to a therapist once or twice who’s never been in combat who prescribes you a bunch of life numbing drugs to fix your “disease” isn’t just useless, its harmful. Change has to come from the inside.
A few years ago my daughter and I were on a hiking trip in the Gallatin Mountains when we came across a group of veterans on a six-day horse packing trip with the group Soldiers’ Angels. They told me how working with horses and going on long pack trips with other veterans forced them to focus on the present and open up conversations that you just don’t talk about to people that can’t relate. I had a bunch of friends that I fought with overseas who were depressed, on drugs, or had PTSD and anxiety problems that I though would benefit from a hard backcountry experience like that. That fortuitous meeting deep in the backcountry inspired me to devote all my time to Heroes and Horses to help veterans. The suicide rate is crazy high for veterans and there is just so much more that I, and other citizens, can do to help.
Q: How does Heroes and Horses work?
A: Heroes and horses isn’t a vacation. We devote a lot of time, energy, and money into our participants and we comb through our applicants to the guys who need it the most. There are a lot of three-day fishing trips, hunting trips, and other appreciation type of programs out there but Heroes and Horses is different because it’s a huge time commitment. We want guys who truly need help but more importantly, have the desire to help themselves. In 2016 we only had 16 participants. We’ll be expanding some, but we’ll never be an organization helping out hundreds of people because we’re focusing on making a huge difference on guys that really need it instead of a small difference for lots of people.
The program starts with Phase One, Stress Inoculation. The veterans that we chose to go through the program fly into Bozeman, MT and then we go to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Paradise Valley just north of Yellowstone National Park. The first five days is spent learning horsemanship. Volunteer horse trainers come out to teach the basics, how to saddle, bridle, walk, trot, and lope. We don’t do dude rides. The Veterans are in charge of their own tack and horses and we train them right from the beginning. We do a lot of day rides, learn different skills, and learn the basic knots and hitches. Once they have a foundation, we embark on a six day pack trip through the Gallatin Mountains in some of the most beautiful country on the planet. We move camps daily and work on different packing techniques. At the end of the trip, we have a big dinner and the students go home for two weeks while we take out a new group.
Phase 2, the Application Phase, starts with a five day guide school where students get their Wilderness First Responder training and learn more advanced hitches like the double diamond. We then go on a 100-mile pack trip into one of the deepest backcountry areas in North America such the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Each student takes turns doing the logistics, finding camp sites, and is given a lot of responsibility. We’re flexible and if everyone wants to take off for a day or two to climb a mountain, find solace, or rough it with no provisions we’ll make that happen. We do a lot of fishing and a lot of talking around the campfire, something that is super important because we’re creating a an environment where people can talk about their experiences in war, what they went through when they got home, and stories they’ve never told people before. A lot of these guys have a huge amount of guilt or confusion and haven’t ever opened up to a therapist, family member, or friend on the dark periods of their lives that have consumed their minds for years. Talking about PTSD, moral injury, or carrying your dismembered teammate from a battlefield is a lot easier surrounded by people that can relate. You can almost feel the weight of the stress and guilt leaving them. As for the horses, its hard to describe how they help people. One of our students, Ray Knell who went on to complete a 1,000 mile solo journey, said it best “Horses have the amazing ability, once you gain their trust, to look for you for leadership. When someone is looking to you for leadership you cannot fail them. That is a beautiful thing, you stop worrying about yourself.”
Phase 3, the Integration Phase, is where the students take what they’ve learned and use it in the real world. We have a network of outfitters that take our students and put them into the workforce for a month. At the end of that month, many of them go on to become guides, packers, and find employment. We’ll send guys to Wyoming, Idaho, Alaska, and even Japan. Outfitters are keen to take them on because they have weeks of dedicated training and because of their military experience, they know how to work hard in high stress conditions. Even if they don’t go on to work for outfits or ranches, they leave phase three confident, in good physical shape, and a lot of the participants completely stop using the prescription drugs they’ve been on for years.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges for struggling veterans?
A: Our society has a tendency to dull pain or anesthetize the problem rather than confront it. Veterans struggling with PTSD, anxiety, or moral injury aren’t going to be healed with prescription drugs because that doesn’t confront the problem. Struggling veterans need purpose, they need a confidant, and they need the opportunity to talk to other people with the same issues they’re dealing with. If you enter this program you are going to struggle. You are going to feel pain, freezing temperatures, burning muscles, and exhaustion. You’re going to feel alive. Change through Challenge. We’re trying to complete the trauma cycle and help veterans understand that they can’t change the past but should embrace it, learn from it, and use it to make yourself stronger. Prescription pills and medications have their place, but they’re given out way too often to veterans who need to look inside themselves for answers rather than to a pill bottle. What they are seeking they already have.
Q: How can a citizen get involved with Heroes and Horses?
A: We’re a non-profit company reliant on volunteers and donations. We have horse trainers that spend months training mustangs to supplement our herd. We have volunteers that give weeks of their time to give one on one horse training. Other people bring food, donate saddles, donate horses, donate trucks and trailer, and give money for our operating costs. Mountain Sky Guest Ranch has given us facilities to use while outfitters have signed up for Phase 3. Companies like YETI have supported us with gear and publications like Western Horseman and National Geographic have helped spread the word about our program and mission. Fundraising is a constant challenge. The amount of support we’ve received has been humbling and we’re fortunate to live in a country where citizens really care about our veterans. We're excited about continuing to fundamentally change lives. To learn more and get involved visit Heroes and Horses at heroesandhorses.org.