A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone: “These Horses Saved My Life” (Part 5 of 5)

“Life is very, very short. It’s up to you to fill the book of life with beautiful and interesting chapters.” – Veteran Ray Knell

The short days on an adventure are often the most memorable. The days when you relax, soak in the experience, and aren’t constantly pushing yourself. The days that you really get to know the people you’re with. For the first three days of our journey, we traveled 30 miles a day. For the last three days of our journey, we travelled seven miles a day. What to do with spare time in Yellowstone? Fishing!  (See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery)

Cinematographer Phill Baribeau had to abandon the camera for a trout hole like this one. We fished hard for introduced Rainbow and Brown trout to add them to our dinners. But unfortunately, or fortunately, all we caught were native Yellowstone Cutthroat which we quickly released; Photograph by Ben Masters
Cinematographer Phill Baribeau had to abandon the camera for a trout hole like this one. We fished hard for introduced rainbow and brown trout to add them to our dinners. But unfortunately, or fortunately, all we caught were native Yellowstone Cutthroat which we quickly released. Photograph by Ben Masters

Yellowstone National Park, like most places on the planet, has a problem with introduced non-native plant and animal species. Take the non-native Lake Trout for example. Lake trout were introduced into Yellowstone Lake in the 1980s. They began to eat the native cutthroat trout, which is a very important species because they spawn up rivers and provide food for bears, eagles, and other predators. An adult lake trout can eat 40 cutthroat trout a year and left unmanaged, the lake trout population can drastically impact the cutthroats and everything that depends on them. In response, the park service nets as many non-native lake trout as possible in an attempt to keep the cutthroat population healthy so they can provide the crucial role they play in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

But Lake Trout aren’t the only introduced fish in Yellowstone. Non-native rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook trout have worked their way into Yellowstone’s rivers, creeks, and lakes as well. These non-native fish compete with cutthroats and can dilute their genetics through hybridization. In fact, the problem is so severe that in the Lamar River, where we were fishing, you are legally required to kill every invasive fish that you catch. So we weren’t just fishing for fun and food, we went fishing to eliminate invasive species in an attempt to allow the native cutthroat to flourish!

Ray caught the first fish on his first cast, a beautiful 13-inch native cutthroat trout. It’s signature red “cut throat” red markings below its gills were vibrant and pronounced. What a beautiful animal. After a moment of admiration, we released it unharmed back into the river. Then Ray caught the second fish, and the third fish. Then he caught the fourth fish, and the fifth fish. He was smiling and jumping around like a little kid obviously very smug about himself to catch five fish before I got a single bite. I walked over to his spot, wanting to get in on the action, and found an incredible trout hole. The river took a sharp bend and piled a bunch of drifting logs into a big pile. The current went under the logs and had carved a deep slow pool under the bank and logs. The water was crystal clear and we couldn’t even see the bottom. As I looked into his honey hole about the size of a bus, I saw glimpses of moving fish below below the surface. I switched out my fly and cast, hooking a fish almost immediately! I brought him in, giggling like a child because there’s just something so fun about feeling a fish at the end of your line, and released the magnificent cutthroat back into the river.

Dinosaur shakes off a long days ride; Photograph by Ben Masters
Dinosaur shakes off a long days ride. Photograph by Ben Masters

Hours later, sunburned, exhausted, and happy, we went back to camp to find all the horses laying in the sun enjoying the midday breeze. In addition to being my preferred method of transportation, horses also make excellent pillows. So we went and lounged on them, enjoying a morning cup of coffee. It was the first time Ray had ever been able to walk up to his horse Mustang Sally and mules Top Gun and Magic while they were laying down. As a prey animal, horses don’t like other animals around them when they lay down because they’re vulnerable. There has to be a strong trusting between a horse and rider to allow that to happen. When Ray’s horses and mules allowed him to lean on them, Ray burst into an immense smile of pride and happiness. They had come a long way!

Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell laughs as he uses his mule, Magic, as a couch for his morning coffee in Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1000 mile ride from Lake George, CO to Manhattan, MT for the veterans group Heroes and Horses. Magic had never let Knell lay on him during the trip until this morning. When Knell finishes his ride in September, he will donate all his livestock, gear and money raised to the program, which takes veterans on extreme, expedition-style horse pack trips and teaches them skills they can use to get jobs; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo
Army Special Forces veteran Ray Knell laughs as he uses his mule, Magic, as a couch for his morning coffee in Yellowstone National Park as he nears the end of his solo, 1,000-mile ride from Lake George, Colorado, to Manhattan, Montana. Magic had never let Knell lay on him during the trip until this morning. Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

Seven months ago Ray bought Mustang Sally, Top Gun, and Magic as green horses and mules, meaning they’d received some training but were not experienced. For four months prior to the beginning of his journey, he worked with them every day to prepare. Progress was slow as Ray was an inexperienced trainer. He spent an immense amount of time, energy, and thought on how to train them to the best of his ability. While Ray trained the horses to ride and pack, they also trained him to be patient, to live in the present, and to listen to their body language. Over time, Ray experienced one of the most satisfying things on the planet, watching an animal begin to trust you and look to you for leadership. As Ray was explaining this to me, his mule/pillow Top Gun let out a deep sigh and leaned into Ray. Ray leaned back, smiled, and told me the trust was complete.

Army veteran Ray Knell kisses his mare, Mustang Sally, during their reunion on the trail. Mustang Sally had to be taken off the trip for a few weeks after she ingested poisonous plants; Photograph by Michael Ciaglo
Army veteran Ray Knell kisses his mare, Mustang Sally, during their reunion on the trail. Mustang Sally had to be taken off the trip for a few weeks after she ingested poisonous plants. Photograph by Michael Ciaglo

I asked him what the horses meant to him personally. His head went down for a few minutes while he gathered his thoughts. When he looked up, staring into the distance through glistening eyes, he simply replied, “These horses saved my life.”

See the previous post in “A Backcountry Recovery in Yellowstone”

See “A Backcountry Recovery” Photo Gallery

***

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 and his team 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.

Comments

  1. Tina Schäfer
    Denmark
    October 20, 2015, 3:44 pm

    So moving and awesome. Bravo to you and to the horses and mules and what they can do!

  2. Ellen Sheldon
    October 20, 2015, 4:01 pm

    So very proud of my son.

  3. Tammy Gauthier
    Las Vegas, NV
    October 20, 2015, 7:52 pm

    I want to do more to help veterans suffering from PTSD. Where can I start?

  4. Tammy Gauthier
    Las Vegas, NV
    October 20, 2015, 7:52 pm

    Where can I volunteer to help veterans with PTSD?

  5. Bonnie Jo Steffen Thompson
    So. Oregon
    October 20, 2015, 10:37 pm

    Wonderful!! Sharing with everyone I know!

  6. Kathie Garcia
    Paradise Valley, Montana
    October 21, 2015, 1:06 pm

    Wonderful, deep, soulful; a stirring witness to how to bond with Earth, friends, gentle horses for mutual love and healing….restoring inner harmony, making a difference

  7. Tami Sears
    Oregon
    October 21, 2015, 2:49 pm

    I watched a clip today on Facebook and I was so taken in by your story and your desire to be reminded of the Beauty still left in this world despite the ugliness of what you have seen.
    I am Thankful for your service and I am grateful you have found a way back! God Bless You

  8. Jennifer
    san diego
    October 21, 2015, 9:07 pm

    This article (and all of the segments of Ray’s journey) have accurately described the magical journey of healing that horses and nature provide. Ray is a very special human to take on this task, considering what he has been through. I hope we all share this story, to give hope and support to our amazing Veterans and Active Military, the ones who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. Let’s support them and show them the beauty of what they fought for, our magnificent lands and the amazing souls who have fought with them in history, side by side in battle, our equines. Thank you Veterans, Active Military, for your service. I am humbled by what you have done for us as a country.

  9. Gene
    Lexington, KY
    October 22, 2015, 7:49 am

    As a Vietnam veteran, I found new meaning in “Big Two-Hearted River” in the book of short stories Hemingway wrote after WWI. I don’t know to what extent I suffered from PTSD. I do know that once you serve in combat, your life changes permanently. Fishing, and trout fishing in particular, is theraputic. The moving water of a stream or river connects the fisherman with all water systems of the planet, which still fills me with gratitude for being alive.

  10. Jean Gonzales
    Mansfield, TX
    October 22, 2015, 12:32 pm

    I have always believed in the healing found in Nature. I myself tried a similar journey; unfortunately broken bones, horse issues, and my eventual decline in health has prevented me from trying again. Here’s to finishing your journey and finding the peace you search for.

  11. Jean Gonzales
    Mansfield, TX
    October 22, 2015, 12:35 pm

    I myself once tried a similar journey; unfortunately broken bones, horse issues, and a decline of health has prevented me from trying again. Here’s the best of wishes as you complete your journey and may you find the peace you are looking for.

    May your morning be glorious
    and your night peaceful

  12. Ginny Ramday
    New Zealand
    October 22, 2015, 1:20 pm

    I don’t have the right words to say how much I enjoyed this. Such a fantastic experience, wide open space, out living in mother nature. Hoses are good for the soul, natures secret healers. I loved this. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience. This is my dream, one day.

  13. George Filley
    Chicago
    October 22, 2015, 8:51 pm

    Very proud of my Nephew and the Heroes and Horses organization he is supporting. Way to give back Ray! For those who can, please consider donating to a great cause that is making a difference for our proud veterans. More information is available at http://www.heroesandhorses.com

  14. shela
    ohio
    October 23, 2015, 9:47 am

    This was beautiful, I’m not a vet of war but I am a vet from life I sat and cried watching this, I could use a time away like this myself.

  15. shela
    ohio
    October 23, 2015, 9:52 am

    Beautiful, this was amazing, I sat and cried watching this I am not a vet ,but I could use a time away like this myself. Life just gets you down and we need to revive ourselves

  16. Mario Kovacevic
    Croatia
    October 25, 2015, 5:50 am

    Wonderful and so beautiful…respect to all US and allied veterans…God bless you all

  17. Rafael Smart
    Patagonia
    October 28, 2015, 9:25 am

    Felicitaciones Queridos Cowboys !
    Life is very very short. Its up to you to fill the book of life with beautiful and interesting chapters.” – Veteran Ray Knell
    Lets go and feel pristine nature, a nice way to be better persons.

  18. jeannette Moore
    Pacific Northwest---Mouth of the Gorge on the Mighty Columbia River
    October 29, 2015, 8:07 pm

    This was an amazing video. I was in the Vietnam Era. A lot of my friends came back without legs or arms. They were not the same fun loving young men they were in high school. Thank you for sharing this video. The scenery captured your soul while the music played in the background reminding us that animals have a special healing bond. I am honored you took the time to share your wonderful discovery adventure.

  19. John lightsey
    Springhill. Fl
    November 6, 2015, 6:13 pm

    Did really help with the PTSD

  20. Jaro Kopcan
    Sarasota FL
    November 15, 2015, 10:45 am

    Beautiful Ray Knell. Wonderful country out there, breathtaking video and story of yours. Thank you .

  21. Tonia Wanecek
    Bellevue, WA
    November 15, 2015, 10:11 pm

    I am not a veteran but an incident over a period of years left me with Post Traumatic Stress syndrome. I live in the Northwest and over the years spending time in the mountains and in the desert in central Washington, I have been able to put PTS where I have been able to control it. I still have times when it comes to the forefront but knowing how spending that time in God’s country and spending time just letting nature wash over me has been a real healing. I hope that those who have experienced Post Traumatic Stress syndrome will find the peace they seek in nature and how that has a way of healing who we are.

  22. Jem
    Harare, Zimbabwe
    November 16, 2015, 2:28 am

    Thank you for sharing that beautiful story and the pics. Such a wonderfully refreshing glimpse into nature and its power of healing and restoration. I was moved to tears several times just by the share wonder and beauty of it all. Blessings to all four of you for allowing us to have this glimpse and in some small measure share your pain and your healing.

  23. Larry Beattie
    Ontario, Canada
    November 19, 2015, 10:21 am

    Wow, very inspiring Ray, I also served for 20 years in the military and also suffer from PTSD. I own 10 horses and have always wanted to do something like your doing. Now that I have seen you doing it, it brings me that much closer to make my own journey one day.

    Cheers.

    Larry

  24. Christine Cuchens
    Niceville, FL
    November 27, 2015, 2:51 pm

    Yes, Horses are an amazing healing spirit; we are working with a friend, Les Traylor, who is trying to get a program started in our area. He is currently in training with my friend, Bonnie Blackmon (certified PATH) and the Leaning Post Ranch; also, he is training with one of my horses. Les is recently retired (October) from US Army (Medic) and is dedicating his time to help our Military suffering with PTSD. I’m sure he would love to chat with you… “Many Blessings”, Chris

  25. Les Traylor
    Niceville, FL
    November 28, 2015, 12:15 pm

    I was deeply touched by one of my fellow Green Berets who sought out horses to help him heal. Ray Knell made a very poignant statement at the end which I think reaches to the heart of the issue of PTSD. “I hadn’t learn anything new about myself on this trip. I just found things I had once lost.” This is a statement I think rings true with most veterans dealing with PTSD.

    I am currently an instructor in training with PATH Int’l and my hope is to reach out to my fellow veterans (and anyone else) who suffers from physical disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD. Once finished I hope to build a riding facility where these guys and gals can come and start to rebuild themselves with the help of a horse.

    I noticed several people wanting to know how to get involved with these programs. The answer is simple. Most areas have some type of therapeutic riding center. That is your best place to start as a volunteer. Not all centers have a “Horses for Heroes” program but they can definitely direct you to a center that does reach out to veterans.