Heroes and Horses: Not a Vacation Part II
Written by Tim Selbrede
I almost didn’t go. You’re damn right I was afraid. I was just waiting for someTHING to happen at the 11th hour so I couldn’t go. I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. I had real reservations/nerves about going. Am I taking someone else’s slot who needs this more? Am I REALLY someone that needs to be in this program? Is this the best thing for my future family and me? What if I really enjoy all of it? What are others going to think of me when they find out I went? That I’m going? Do I tell anyone? What are they going to think of me? What didn’t help is to hear things, tragically real things that have happened that others aren’t typically aren’t aware of: There have been men that have taken their lives waiting to go to the program, or that didn’t get into it. Is there something that these folks saw in my application that warranted me getting a slot, over someone else? What was I going to find there? Should I be here?
I expressed these concerns to my fiance, now my wife, Kacie. She told me I had to go. Not because of some fear of recourse if I don’t, but I had to go for myself, our family, and to bring back the message of the program to others. So I went. Heroes and Horses was kind enough to fly all the students out from their home towns. We had students from Ohio, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Idaho, Georgia, and Washington from all branches. The travel there didn’t go off without a hitch, due to some tornados in Dallas and around the central planes, but after crashing in the USO with two other guys from the program, we made it to Bozeman. It had been a number of years since I had been to Bozeman, and I had forgotten how incredible Montana was. It’s like I stepped back into another world.
We arrived at the Jumping Horse Ranch in Ennis, Montana, about an hour or so drive south of Bozeman in the middle of the Madison Valley. The wide Madison River slowly flows through the center of the valley. There’s no shortage of anglers fishing on the banks or fly fishing rafts. Ennis is the town near the ranch, full of antique and fly shops, and of course Willie’s Distillery. A little way east of town was Jumping Horse. A sprawling 10k acre working ranch. This place is a massive operation and they were kind enough to allow Heroes and Horses the run of the facilities and space and they deserve plenty of thanks for that. Pronghorn, Elk, Deer, and massive squadrons of magpies run around like squirrels in a park. It’s a bit of heaven on earth.
Our quarters for the 21 days that we would be at the ranch were a series of wall tents and a big yurt as our meeting hall. Cots, sleeping bags, tents on a platform, and showers that were essentially hoses attached to a makeshift open-top wood shelters for some privacy; you were set. Immediately, because of our extended stay in Dallas causing us to be late, we 3 stragglers were thrown into the pens with a halter and a rapid-fire catch-up class on knots, and how to catch your horse by our wranglers/instructors.
Our wranglers were the real damn deal. Everyone there was, but the wranglers and instructors are professionals. Brian, Brenden, Ethan, Cole, Zane, and Ben were essentially our full-time crew for horse related instruction, lessons, work, direction, plans so on and so on. Some were vets and graduates themselves, some were cowboys who wanted to teach, and help. A big, and I mean big, amount of the heavy lifting and human hours donated is from a small company-sized element of volunteers. Americans from all over the united states traveled great distances at their own expenses and time to spend days to weeks to the full duration at Jumping Horse and in the wilderness. There really is so many to name, and no one of their efforts or duties there was above, or below the others in importance or impact. You had whole families, like the Bishop family from Colorado, come up, for another year, to spend weeks there teaching guys how to ride, ride confidently, work the horses and mules, and just, ride. Maddie and her kitchen staff worked insane hours to make incredible meals; breakfast lunch, and dinner, with few days or time off. Doc Shannon is a veterinarian and proud Navy dad who recently moved his practice and family to Hawaii from Montana. Doc is one of the most respected men in his profession, and he has a heart for caring like seldom men do, rivaled only by his compadre Joel Keeter, everyone’s other dad/uncle rolled into one from Arkansas. Russ Lewis, a marine, is a world-renowned author and professional Animal Packer who helped Micah Fink (the CEO and NSW Veteran) during the “500 Miles” documentary. They broke the mold with Russ, and I mean that statement. There are more that deserve mentioning and for the sake of keeping this article as short as reasonably possible, I just want to convey that this program’s very soul is found in the heart of the volunteer. Wonderful Americans who want to help and thank their veterans by sharing their time and knowledge with these guys. They are the people that make this country beautiful and loving.
You find authenticity out there. The people, the animals, the landscape, the buildings, the work, all of it authentic. I was immediately in love with every single aspect of everything there. The air and the smells out there are clean and real. However, you have only a little time to soak in the world you’ve been thrown into because the work starts immediately.
You’re assigned a horse and a pack animal which may be another horse or a mule. Tristian, Stumbles, Jodi, Magic, Weezy, C-star, Dragon, Abby, Sinbad; some BLM mustangs, some repurposed rodeo stock, others donated ranch/cow horses. You are responsible for feeding the horses, grooming, saddling, catching, checking their coats, feet, injuries; basically all of it. That horse becomes the most important thing in your world while you are there. You are thrown on top of your horse right away to learn. Each horse is unique and his it’s own personality, what does and doesn’t work with each animal, and you’ve got to figure it out.
All that first week you are drinking out of the fire hose. As soon as you got this thing figured out and a handle on it, you’re off to learn some new element, or technique, or part, or rig, or set up, or knot; something!. There’s very little time that first week to sit around with your hands in your pockets. Being completely honest: my nerves were shot that first week. I was stressed about my fiance and kids back home, money, the rest of the world still happening, all of it. I was exhausted and worn out. It didn’t help that it took me two horses to finally get me on a third and final horse at the very last two days of that week. My horse was C-star. 5 am wake ups with PT and lessons made me pooped. But one thing you can rest your mind on was the food was incredible, healthy, plentiful, and hot.
Your basic needs are provided for you with food and shelter, so your focus can be on the tasks at hand and the daunting task ahead: 8 days in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness with only your horse, team, and everything you learned that first week. You had better be ready because it’s coming and the consequences and environment out there are very very real.
About the Author: Tim Selbrede is a veteran of 2nd Ranger Battalion where he served as a medic and a former Hotshot with the U.S. Forest Service. Tim’s journey has taken him from the lowest and darkest places to a life fulfilled by helping other veterans get out of their own way and start living their lives as they are intended to be lived: fully and colorfully. Based out of Southern California, Tim’s goal is to continue to serve his fellow veterans by engaging them in constructive dialogue and connect and network them into positive changes in their lives. Whether it’s through jiujitsu, horse work, fishing/hunting, or bullshitting over coffee, Tim’s goal is to spread the message of recovery and serve others while learning from other’s experiences.