Horse Power: How Wild Mustangs Are Helping Veterans Return to Civilian Life

rough riders
Photographs by Elliott Woods

Fifty yards ahead, a pale light silhouetted a cowboy hat and a horse’s ears bobbing in a cloud of snow. With a string of mustangs lined out nose-to-tail in front of me, my only choice was to suck it up and follow. I could ignore my numb fingers and toes, the snow pelting my face, the wind gusting across the ridge at what must have been 50 miles per hour, cutting through my thin jacket and jeans, and the knowledge that the darkness to my right obscured 100-foot cliffs. I could ignore all of it if  I just focused on the bobbing ears. If there was one thing our herd-bound colts were good at, it was putting one hoof in front of the other and staying close.

We’d departed camp at 8:30 that morning with five men and 13 green broke mustangs—horses that had been totally wild in the Nevada desert only a few months before. We had packed light, expecting to be at our next camp that same afternoon. Now it was well after midnight, and we were plodding uphill on the Continental Divide Trail to the 8,855-foot summit of John Kerr Peak, in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, on the receiving end of an April squall that might have been prepared to drop two inches or two feet. The snow erased the path, which was elusive to begin with, and our GPS was in constant argument with our Forest Service map. But they did agree on one thing: The way was up. So I tilted my hat to the wind and tucked my chin into my collar.

We were just two days into a monthlong, 500-mile pack trip in the New Mexico and Arizona wilderness with the goal of training the mustangs for service in a veterans’ program. Things were not going as planned.

Behind me, Landon Ames, an Arizonan who served multiple tours in Iraq as a cavalry scout, and who had nothing but an oiled-canvas slicker to protect him from the biting wind, was edging close to hypothermia. Just then, a stout Clydesdale-looking horse named Rolex decided to quit and collapsed on the ground, nearly pulling his whole pack string down with him.

Micah Fink, founder of the veterans’ nonprofit Heroes and Horses, the silhouetted hat we’d been following, leaped from his horse and flew into action, slapping Rolex on the flanks until the horse stood up. Fink and Russ Lewis, a former Marine who spent more than 20 years as a wilderness packer and hunting guide, quickly got Rolex’s pack saddle straightened out, and with a “Hup! Hup!” we were on the march again. Unfazed, Fink shouted down the line, “We’re having fun now boys!”

As far as Fink was concerned, nothing was wrong. We’d simply entered the pressure zone, the only environment where transformation is possible—and that was the whole point. Fink, 38, knows something about pressure. He racked up 13 combat deployments totaling about three years of  boots-on-the-ground time in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL and paramilitary contractor, during a 14-year career. In 2015, Fink gave up contracting work to devote himself full-time to Heroes and Horses, the Montana-based nonprofit he launched in 2013 to help troubled veterans find their way in the civilian world. Every summer, Heroes and Horses takes 16 carefully screened vets through a three-phase, five-month backcountry horsemanship program in Montana and Alaska in order to help them rediscover the confidence and courage that saw them through combat deployments, but which somehow got lost on the long journey home. So far they’ve worked with 59 vets.

Heroes and Horses was born partly out of Fink’s frustration with an emerging veterans’ nonprofit culture that he says treats vets in one of two ways: with bubble wrap, or with dream vacations and hero worship. There are good organizations helping vets with visible war injuries like missing limbs and damaged vision. But there’s also a growing number of organizations whose offerings have the flavor of the Make-a-Wish Foundation—ski and fly-fishing trips out west, tickets to NFL games, even riding ATVs with country star Brantley Gilbert. Fink doubts those programs do much for vets who are truly on the edge.

“So many of those programs are designed to create environments that don’t exist in the real world,” he told me over coffee one morning in Bozeman, Montana, before we left for New Mexico. In Fink’s opinion, a vet’s responsibility for getting his or her shit together starts with them. But many vets in his generation, he thinks, act as if society “owes them a debt of gratitude”—an attitude that compounds feelings of victimhood and thwarts progress. “Expecting society to praise you, accommodate your neuroses, and get out of your way because you’re a veteran,” Fink said, “is like expecting the VA to fix your life. Not going to happen.”

micah fink - heroes and horses
Fink, above on the trail, helps veterans adapt to civilian life by getting them to take charge of their own recovery through his nonprofit Heroes and Horses. Elliott Woods

Two program graduates were saddled up for our 500-mile odyssey: Ames and Mike Reilly, who served in Iraq with SEAL Team One. Lewis, who teaches horse packing for the program every summer, was along to keep the stock in line. A third program graduate, Austin Mandelbaum, who deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment, towed a horse trailer with our supplies to the trailheads where we made camp. That each of these men was willing to follow Fink on a monthlong sojourn for the express purpose of training a few wild horses was a testament to their dedication to the program after experiencing it firsthand.

Ames told me that he was in a dark place before he went through Heroes and Horses in 2016. Quick to anger, he had a hard time keeping a job—not because he would get fired, but because he’d get annoyed and walk off. His personal relationships suffered, too. “I thought I was a veteran badass and could do whatever I wanted, but then I got slapped in the face by harsh reality,” he said. His wife, with whom he has a young daughter, nominated him for the program and threatened to leave him if he didn’t go. Ames agreed to it, but he brought his anger along.

During his Heroes and Horses trip, a 10-day outing in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest, he was assigned a horse named Big Red who was terrified of the gear strewn around camp and especially of the campfire. Big Red refused to go near any of it, and Ames decided he was going to break him of  his fear. He spurred him back and forth through camp, but it only made the horse more stressed. Fink saw what was happening and pulled Ames aside for a tough chat.

“What I’m trying to do is create no safe spaces, because there’s nowhere on earth that’s really safe.”

“I realized I’d just been running over everything and everyone,” Ames told me one afternoon on our trip. “Heroes and Horses definitely helped me.”

David J. Morris, a Marine veteran and author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, told me Fink’s program shares traits with other nonscientific interventions that are delivering promising results. “Being immersed in nature, working hard, feeling useful, being gainfully employed, and being around domesticated animals have all been shown to have positive postwar effects for veterans, whether or not they have struggled with post-traumatic stress,” Morris says. Programs like Fink’s make the veteran an active participant in his or her own transformation, as opposed to being a patient sitting in a therapist’s chair, and that can make a big difference in commitment and success.

To make sure that applicants know they’re expected to show up ready to work, Fink adopted the hashtag #notavacation. “What I’m trying to do is create no safe spaces, because there’s nowhere on earth that’s really safe,” Fink says. Not surprisingly, he has run into criticism for his skepticism of what he thinks amounts to a “professional veterans class” and a cult of veterans’ victimhood, but he brushes it off. “I’m a professional trigger-puller in more ways than one, and I think triggers should be pulled,” he says. “They should be pulled so many times that when they’re pulled they don’t go bang anymore.”

heroes and horses
Tourniquet rears back as Ames 
approaches him with a halter on the 
first day of the ride. Elliott Woods

Last year, it became clear that the program needed new stock if it was going to expand, as Fink hoped to do, but Heroes and Horses couldn’t afford to buy 15 head from a ranch. Never one to take the easy road, Fink thought, “Why not adopt wild horses and train them?” As of 2017, there were more than 45,000 wild horses in holding corrals administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, with tens of thousands more roaming public and private rangelands. While they’re an icon of the West and stir passions among animal rights activists, most ecologists agree they’re overpopulated, and they’re wreaking havoc on the fragile sagebrush habitat they share with grouse, mule deer, and pronghorn.

Fink realized how much the mustangs had in common with the veterans he was trying to help: They were tough and brave and capable of thriving in harsh environments. But without someone willing to adopt them and spend hundreds of hours training them, they’d either starve slowly in the wild or spend the rest of their lives on a government feedlot. What they needed was a mission. Fink would give them one: He would train them, and then they would live out their lives in the Rocky Mountains, growing strong under the weight of packs and riders, helping veterans find their own purpose.

In January 2017, Fink traveled to a BLM adoption facility in Burns, Oregon, where he carefully selected 15 colts from two to four years old. Any older and the horses become dangerously untrainable. “When they get to be around six or seven years old, they have a black belt in horse jujitsu,” Fink explained. “They’re totally wild—it’s like training a bobcat.” He paid the BLM $35 apiece for the mustangs. That was the easy part. Training the horses was a round-the-clock job throughout the dark winter months back in Montana. Fink and the program’s staff and volunteers, including Reilly, ran the horses in circles at the end of  long ropes over and over again in an indoor pen, a training technique called longeing. They used flags to desensitize them to distractions like plastic bags and billowing tent flies that can cause a horse to “blow up.” By March, they were saddling the most stubborn horses and taking them through the gaits, teaching them how to turn their fore- and hindquarters with gentle cues from heels and reins.

heroes and horses
Elliott Woods

Our 500-mile pack trip was supposed to be the mustangs’ finishing school. By the end of it, they’d be legged up, confident, almost unspookable, and ready to carry the vets through whatever nature might throw at them.

On the trail, I watched Fink pull the mustangs’ triggers on a daily basis—and it wasn’t long before most of the ponies were as stoic as war horses. But there were a few holdouts. Tourniquet, a handsome sorrel who came from a different bunch than the rest of the mustangs, would flip out any time someone tried to saddle or pack him. One morning, while Fink was lashing a load to Tourniquet’s pack saddle, he reared up, threw the gear, and galloped off through the sagebrush like hell on hooves. Fink and Reilly managed to bring Tourniquet back to camp in about a half-hour, only to have him run off again.

“An IED blast changes you from water into gas in an instant, while a rock takes a thousand years to be broken down. We don’t have a thousand years. We have to help these vets change quickly.”

Fink could have just tied Tourniquet by his halter to the rear of a pack string, but he wasn’t going to give up on him. While others steadied Tourniquet, Fink approached slowly with a submissive posture, holding the canvas-wrapped load in front of him, gently resting it in place on the pack saddle, talking reassuringly to Tourniquet as he lashed it in place. The horse wasn’t happy, but was ready to hit the trail, and every day he’d learn more, grow more confident, more relaxed.

Fink’s guiding philosophy, with horses and men, is that pressure and time are the essential ingredients of transformation, the same as they are in the universe at large.

“An IED blast changes you from water into gas in an instant,” Fink says, “while a rock takes a thousand years to be broken down. We don’t have a thousand years. We have to help these vets change quickly.” What struggling vets need most, in Fink’s opinion, is the right amount of pressure and time to begin the transformation into the people they’ll be for the ever after that follows redeployment. It’s no walk in the park, but the pressure and time help veterans “peel back the layers to original thought, to who they are as a person,” Fink says. “What they find, they realize they already had.”

Fink stands 6’4″ and weighs 230 pounds, and while he jokes about how his busy schedule has left him with a “dad body”—he has four young children—he’s still built like the guy who worked out at legendary trainer Cus D’Amato’s gym as a SEAL and sparred heavyweight boxing legend Ray Mercer while he was going through special operations medical training at Fort Bragg. With a heavy black beard and thickly tattooed arms, wearing a felt cowboy hat, a wool vest over a flannel shirt, and a silk rag tied with a thief  knot around his neck, Fink looks like a Hell’s Angel who wound up on the set of a spaghetti western. It’s an unusual look for the son of a nurse and a missionary who grew up in Greenville, New York—a Catskills village of fewer than 4,000 people about three hours north of Manhattan.

heroes and horses
Elliott Woods

Ernie Fink took young Micah on his trips around the world, from Indonesia to Zimbabwe to Guatemala, where he worked on small-scale development projects in impoverished rural communities. Seeing the extreme sacrifices his father made to improve the lives of the less fortunate left a deep impression on Micah. But back home in New York, the Fink household was unbearably strict.

“I was in a constant state of living someone else’s ideas, which might be OK for some people, but I wanted to be in charge of what I wanted to do with my life,” he told me. At 16, Fink loaded up his white Honda Prelude and hit the road, moving first to Florida, where he worked construction and restaurant jobs, surfed, and tried to stay afloat. “Those were tough times for me. There were times when I didn’t have food for weeks,” he said. “It was a period in my life that I’ll never forget, and ultimately it was me who made those choices, and I had to live with them. Now I really understand people on all levels, whether they’re in the gutter or on the top.”

In 2001, at 21, he started a telephone- and Internet-line company on the outskirts of New York City. One September day, while he and a childhood friend were up on a telephone pole, installing Time Warner’s new high-speed cables, Fink saw smoke billowing from the city skyline. Without hesitation, the two hopped into Fink’s car and raced toward Ground Zero. “I was there when the Citibank building fell, helping to search for people. I was almost buried by dust and debris. I found a dead police officer, another guy ripped in half. I was right there—it was the creepiest thing, climbing into the World Trade Center, screaming and yelling for people,” he recalls. “I remember for the first time since I was a kid just crying, because of the loss of life.”

Fink went to a recruiting station and a Navy recruiter pulled him in. “Let me show you a video,” the recruiter said. Says Fink, “It was heavy metal Navy SEAL stuff. I just got roped in. I had no idea about the SEALs or anything.”

heroes and horses
Elliott Woods

Six years later, Fink had accomplished everything a hopeful SEAL could dream of—he’d piloted mini-submarines, landed on hostile shores with his teammates, jumped from airplanes at the cruising altitude of commercial airliners, conducted hundreds of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spearfished with his buddies for bluefin tuna in the open ocean while on leave. But he’d also seen friends drown, seen them killed in combat, and seen some of them slide into self-destructive behaviors back home. For some of Fink’s friends, thrill-seeking behavior wasn’t about taking the edge off—it was about keeping the edge sharp.

“I hate to highlight thrill-seeking as a bad thing. I think it’s what makes guys want to join in the first place,” Fink told me. “Risk-taking is not really risk-taking to us. It’s just a way to live.” Still, Fink said, “some fall into drinking, drugs, anger, and isolation. They become the victims of their own poor choices, and this all contributes to the inability to build upon their experiences.” As for Fink, he was unquestionably one of the toughest men on the planet, tested in nearly every way imaginable—and yet whenever the pressure was off, he felt the release as brutally as a diver ascending too quickly from the depths.

“You’re comfortable functioning at the red line,” Fink said one night around the campfire. “You can’t sleep because you’re always waiting to wake up. You function at a heart rate that most people run at.”

heroes and horses
Elliott Woods

In 2009, he decided to leave active duty and begin working as a military contractor. While he waited for his security clearances to transfer, he took a six-week trip up the Amazon River into the deep jungle with an indigenous guide who spoke no English. “I wasn’t thinking about my military life out there, I was just struggling to survive. We lived in hammocks, eating rats and caiman and fish, and it was just hot. What I learned was living in the now—I couldn’t think about my combat experiences because I was so immersed in the day-to-day of gathering food and making the plan to go to the next spot. I tied a lot of that into the Heroes and Horses program.”

Shortly thereafter, Fink met his wife, Mackenzie, while training to drive SEAL Delivery Vehicles—the official name for the SEALs’ mini-submarines—in Panama City, Florida. She was a 22-year-old advertising associate in New York City, and the couple built a relationship on the scraps of stateside time left in the wake of Fink’s nonstop deployment cycle, and on hundreds of  hours of phone calls and thousands of emails. In 2012, while Fink was on a contract in Afghanistan, he called up Mackenzie on a whim and said, “Let’s move to Montana.” She agreed. A few months later, they were living in a house they’d rented off Craigslist, in Churchill, about 30 minutes west of Bozeman.

On a solo backpacking trip up Spanish Creek, in the Gallatin National Forest near Big Sky, Fink ran into a group of guys with horses and mules, one of whom happened to be a former SEAL. “I started hanging around with those guys, and the time I spent with them really helped me—because I’d gotten into a pretty dark place. I just wanted to be home when I was deployed, but when I was back home I just wanted to be gone. It was just a tough time. That’s why I went into the backcountry. When things are tough, the best thing you can do is challenge yourself, to push yourself mentally and physically.”

We knew the worst shit would go down in the first week. Hell Week, right up front. It wasn’t anything to do with the difficulty of the terrain or the plans, but the simple probability that our inexperienced mustangs would learn lessons about how to move in the mountains the hard way, and at our expense.

On day two, we were planning to cover 20 or 30 miles—rough estimates based on the conflicting trail map and GPS. At three miles per hour, which is what a pack train ought to average, we were expecting a long day, but nothing too brutal. We headed out with blue skies, a warm breeze, and high spirits. Little loops of bailing twine connected the saddles of each packhorse to the lead rope of the horse behind him—strong enough to pull on the trailing horse’s halter, but weak enough to pop in the event of a horse wreck.

Of course, with horses, as with military operations, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. We were making our way up a set of switchbacks on the shadowy north-facing side of a mountain when we ran into a pair of ponderosa pines arched over the trail. While leading his string around them through a patch of snow, two of Reilly’s packhorses lost their footing and went tumbling ass-over-teakettle down the mountain. One managed to pop up and walk off without a scratch. The other, Rolex, was not so lucky. He wound up on his back, his neck pinned under a huge piece of deadfall, his hooves skyward.

Fink, Reilly, Ames, and I scrambled down to him. He was wheezing, but he couldn’t move and he wasn’t opening his eyes. Ames hastily rigged a rope around Rolex’s shoulders, which Reilly and I helped secure around two trees. Reilly and I hauled on our ends of the rope while Ames pushed Rolex from the rear. He struggled a few times to find his footing, but he finally got up. We picked up the scattered pieces of his load and his pack saddle and led him back up to the trail. With the exception of a few scrapes and a swollen eye, he was none the worse for wear. “That was about as bad as a wreck gets without a dead horse,” Fink said, once we got back up to the trail. “That was 10 out of 10 bad.”

A few minutes later, we were saddled up again, lined out, and heading up the trail. We wouldn’t see camp until 5:00 the following morning, and by then, we would have a handful more wrecks under our belts and a keener sense of what kind of pressure we’d be under throughout our remaining 400-odd miles, with the roughest country still to come.

“That was about as bad as a wreck gets without a dead horse. That was 10 out of 10 bad.”

For the remainder of the trip, however, the pucker factor never ramped up to quite the same level. Our biggest challenges were human ones: how to get a truck and horse trailer up a bombed-out Forest Service road with a load of feed and water; how to prevent Lewis, our packing guru, the old Marine, from waking us up at 3:30 in the morning; and arguments over things like who would be a better trail companion, Phil Collins or Billy Joel? I argued for Billy.

We covered an amazing variety of country, from windswept grasslands with 20-mile views in every direction to box canyons where we had to ford rivers back and forth all day, picking up the trail wherever it clung to the side of a cliff for a few hundred yards. We summited peaks approaching 10,000 feet, where we looked out on what seemed like infinite rows of identical peaks receding into the distance, clear to Mexico.

heroes and horses
Fink, right, and Reilly during some downtime on their trek through New Mexico and Arizona Elliott Woods

In the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas, between Quemado and Silver City, New Mexico, we slept on saddle pads beside cold, clear creeks, waking at dawn to the sounds of turkeys gobbling and horses shuffling their hooves. We never set up a tent once, which meant that we felt every shift in the temperature and every breeze or gust of mountain wind, just like the horses. One morning, in a sun-scorched meadow near a formation called Indian Peaks, we woke to find a herd of cow elk sharing a stock tank with our ponies.

In the evenings, we cooked in a big cast-iron skillet over fire and knocked back a few hard-earned gulps of whiskey. We spoke in the made-up voices of the horses—which, for whatever reason, tended to fall on a spectrum between Rocky Balboa and Gilbert Gottfried. We laughed hard, and we went to bed early. It was a reprieve that all of us probably needed, and one we might never have again.

heroes and horses
Elliott Woods

We ended 30 days later, on May 1, at Roosevelt Lake, beside the Tonto National Forest, east of Phoenix, finishing out our last miles amid towering saguaros and thick clusters of staghorn cholla. It was anticlimactic, but how could it not be? The lake, with its sprawling marina, was just another tourist spot, a reminder of the brutal hand of man that we’d been able to escape for the previous month but that would have us in its grasp again soon enough. The epic adventure, and the subtle but powerful transformations the horses and we had undergone, happened back there on the trail. Now there was little left to do besides drink a cold beer, get the horses loaded up on the trailers, and say goodbye. A little over a month later, the next crew of 16 vets would find themselves in the pressure zone aboard these once-wild horses.

The rest of us were going home, wherever home was. But Fink was on his way to Colorado, where he planned to help the Sombrero Ranch in its annual horse roundup. In a few days, he’d be chasing bands of ornery ponies across the range at a full gallop, holding on to his hat and whooping like a kid playing cowboy. It wouldn’t be much of a vacation, but it was the one he wanted and the one he deserved.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!