LIVE Program 2015
By Owen Yager
Every September for the past four years Lava Lake has worked with Veteran’s Administration recreational therapists from Boise and the Bay Area to offer injured veterans an opportunity to spend several days at the ranch camping and horseback riding. Our friends at Mystic Saddle Ranch, a wilderness outfitting business, provide horses, gear and expert guides for two six-day adventures exploring the ranch on horseback. We spent the first few days of each session introducing veterans to their horses, riding up the canyons above Lava Lake Main Ranch and feasting on delicious food while we spent long evenings chuckling at each others stories and gazing up at the stars above us. After those first few days, each session then went to Cottonwood, in the next draw east along Highway 20, for the second half of the program. We rode up Barn Canyon, one of the three canyons springing out from Lava Lake Main, and hopped over the ridge into Cottonwood. It was a route that we had ridden before and we had scouted it’s conditions on the second day but hadn’t ridden it with veterans in past years. When we rode out that morning, the guides were excited to show the vets a new adventure and the vets were even more excited to go on it.
That ride certainly turned out to be an adventure, of the best sort. After a few hours of steady climbing, we hit the top of the ridge, which is accessed by a road up through Barn Canyon to service the ridge’s power lines. As we pushed further and further up along the ridge, we began to be bombarded by tremendous billows of wind. The breeze must have hit 30 mph at times and whipped my hat off my head into a ravine without a hint of trouble. As soon as we hit the ridge line, we were quick to drop over the other side and into the shelter that the ridge provided. When we started stepping down the back side, though, the veterans, who hadn’t been up the ridge yet, began to get a little nervous. The ground was sandy and loose and, courtesy of the drought that we’ve been hit by for the past few years, there was no where near the usual amount of ground cover so the horses would occasionally kick a clod of dirt loose. The more experienced riders, both from Mystic and Lava Lake, were spread out in the line, and there were generally no more than three or four of the veterans between us, so we could keep pretty close tabs on all of them. I couldn’t help but noticing that the woman right behind me, despite being put in a situation that she’d never been in before, was sitting her horse exceedingly well and letting him take care of her. That was the moment, I think, that it hit me what the equine therapy part of the program actually meant: that these people had to put complete faith in their horses, and their horses completely rewarded that. In that half an hour, as we slowly meandered down the hill, zigzagging our way through the sagebrush until we hit a small grove of trees at the bottom where we tied our animals up and had lunch, the LIVE program had the most success of the entire week as the vets rose above their fears, worked with their mounts and proved to themselves that they could conquer that sort of a challenge.
I hope I never forget that lunch. I was leaning against a small aspen that stood in the shade that my horse, Oreo, provided. Together, he and I relaxed and watched the vets looking up at the hill and relishing both the pervading thrill from having conquered the slope and some excellent sandwiches. The horses surrounding us stood in silence and dozed while we laughed and teased each other and when we were ready we swung back up in our saddles and made our way into Cottonwood proper, where we camped next to the yurt for two nights. This was the sort of thing that happened every day over those two weeks: adventures into beautiful spots that left us feeling happy and peaceful and – for those of us who were healing – rejuvenated.