1,000 Miles to Purpose: Veteran Rides Horse Through Wilderness in 'Backcountry Recovery'

Posted by Mateja Lane
Backcountry to Recovery

Green Beret Veteran Ray Knel found purpose again by riding his horse 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide. 

Ray Knel served in the Army for 11 years and when he was finally home again, he struggled with PTSD and severe anxiety. He went through a nine-month period where he couldn't leave the house.

Last year he took a trip with Heroes for Horses, a free-of-cost program for veterans where the participant must rely on horses in the deep wilderness. It changed his life and he found purpose again. Knel decided to ride along the Continental Divide to Manhattan, Montana in order to donate his ponies and tack to the program.

Ben Masters, who rode mustangs from Mexico to Canada, went along for the ride to honor his friend who had recently committed suicide due to PTSD.

The journey turned out to be self-exploratory, and truly meaningful for both men.

 Knel and Masters ride through incredible country, seeing all kinds of wildlife along the way. From buffalo, to black bear, to bald eagles, the men become close with the land.

As Knel is fly fishing and laughing with Masters, you can see how being in nature changes his perspective. Not only is the backcountry wilderness helping with the healing process, the connection with the horses and mules gives Knel a sense of purpose again. The animals have to trust Knel and Knel has to trust in them to get him to his destination. That sense of meaning and the physical task of taking care of living, breathing animals makes Knel feel needed again.

"When someone is looking for you for leadership, you can't fail them. And that's an amazing thing...you stop worrying about yourself." 

"Backcountry Recovery" was beautifully shot by National Geographic Adventure and produced by Ben Masters and Phillip Baribeu, who also directed the short film.

 The film was recently shown at the Wild Texas Short Films event on October 20 in Austin, Texas. After the showing, Heroes and Horses' Executive Director Micah Fink, a NAVY Seal veteran, spoke about the program and the film. He discussed the incredible sense of purpose the participants in the program feel when they come out of the backcountry.

Participants in the program go for an initial Phase I introduction to horses, riding, and packing followed by a six-day trip into the wilderness. Phase II is a nine-day pack trip into the Montana mountains with another veteran in the program. Finally, Phase III puts the skills learned in the first two phases to practice in a larger, more dynamic camp, which helps the participants readjust to society. Fink concluded that he has seen amazing recoveries in his time with Heroes for Horses.

Participants in the program are often recommended by American Legion, the Veterans Administration, military hospitals, or military family support units. If you know a veteran suffering from PTSD, you can fill out an application process here.

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1,000 Miles to Purpose: Veteran Rides Horse Through Wilderness in 'Backcountry Recovery'