What's Our 500?
For the mustangs in our film, the arduous 500-mile journey through New Mexico and Arizona was their purpose-defining challenge, but we all have our own version of a "500 mile journey". It's the moments in life where we choose to buck up instead of give up. Where we choose to take the unbeaten path instead of the easy road. It's the moments that force us to take a hard look at ourselves, and the decisions we have been making, and decide if we have been letting life happen to us, or for us.
These stories are our 500's.
BRIAN – HEROES AND HORSES EQUINE MANAGER
In April of 2008, almost 10 years ago now, I was enjoying my senior year of high school. I was Running Track and Bull Riding, and doing very well in both sports. I was in the Ohio High School Rodeo Association, as well as competing in Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association. Not only that, but I had qualified to go compete in the High School National Finals Rodeo in Farmington, NM. The finals were in June, which was only about 5 weeks away at the time. One Saturday night I went to a local bull riding to compete - looking back now, I wish that I would have listened to my parents who told me not to go and just train for the upcoming finals. I was arrogant and decided that I was going anyway.
When I arrived, I entered into the Jackpot class which was the highest level at this event. My bull that I drew I knew very well and had ridden him in the past. The first round I scored 83 points, which put me in the highest scoring position going into the short round. After we drew our short round bull is when I realized I had got a new bull. I was never once, in my entire bull riding career, nervous or scared about a bull, but the unknown of this particular bull had me on edge. The other 3 contestants rode their bulls, all getting bucked off. This meant that I only had to make an attempt to ride him and no matter what the outcome I would be the winner. I put my rope around the bull, had my riding partner give me good tight pull, took my split finger wrap and nodded. That is about the last thing that I can actually remember before the bull’s hind feet landing on my face and neck. When I came off the bull I had made a bad dismount and fell to my back. As soon as I fell I instantly felt the bull’s hind legs directly on my face – it felt as though I had been electrocuted. I got myself to my knees and two of my good friends rushed into the arena and were holding me by each of my arms. They helped me walk out of the arena and sat me down at the back of the ambulance. The arena doctor looked at me and said, “I think you just took a bad hit, but you will be fine". So, I collected my check and headed back home.
The next morning is when I realized that things definitely weren’t okay. I went to the hospital, they took X-rays, and after 8 hours of waiting I was told that nothing was broken and I had severe whip lash, but that I should get a MRI just to be safe. After the MRI, I was sent home. On that car ride home, I remember feeling hopeful that I would still be able to compete in the finals rodeo coming up. Shortly after returning home the hospital called and said that I need to return to the hospital right away, as I had a Jefferson Fracture to my C1 vertebra. When I got to the hospital I was met by a compete team, and wheeled back into a room where the doctors were deciding whether to perform surgery or not. I remember one of the doctors saying to me, “I don’t’ know how you were able to walk in here today”. He explained that most C1 injuries either result in paralysis - or worse.
After being outfitted with some impressive gear, I was sent home to heal. Swelling started to put pressure on my spinal cord, as well as my throat, rendering me immobile. I was on a liquid diet, and had no idea how long this would go on for – I think it’s safe to say that that is when I hit my lowest point. Just days before that I had been looking at an incredibly promising future in either bull riding or running, and now I was here. I was on bed rest for weeks, and it was an incredibly long healing process. The biggest blow? I was told I should never bull ride again, as another injury could easily result in permanent paralysis or death. That the risk of another injury would not end as well as this one did. But, one year almost to the date of my injury I went back to the same place and entered into the rodeo again. I had not ridden a bull in over a year, but this was something that I had to do for myself. I could not let my career end as a failure or injury. I had to get back on one more time, win or lose. I ended up taking second place that night, and immediately after that I hung up my rope and swore to never ride again, as I knew that I never wanted to go through what I had just experienced again.
Looking back now, I am, in a strange way, thankful that it did happen. This was my 500, and challenges like this tend to give you a different outlook on life, and I can genuinely say that now I am at my all-time high in life. Every moment, including falling off of that bull, led me right to where I am today. I may never have moved to Montana, or met my wonderful wife and started a family, had that whole situation not happened. I would not be working for Heroes and Horses, helping change the lives of veterans. Struggles sometimes change our paths in life, but that’s okay, and I thank God often for allowing me to go through this experience and opening my eyes to life.
MACKENZIE – HEROES AND HORSES COO
A few years ago, we had just finished eating a family dinner at my sister’s house in Georgia. Smiles and laughter filled the air. Distracted by the festivities, I had missed more than 15 calls from my husband who was, at the time, in Afghanistan. Minutes later the phone rang and this time I was sure to answer. My heart sank and body started to shake, as I knew it was only by the grace of God that my husband was alive to call me. This was a catastrophic day and many lives were lost. The insurmountable amount of helplessness that started to sink in was sickening. This was not the first time I had felt this. You see, this was our 13th deployment together. I can still remember, clear as day, Micah’s very first deployment to Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago. I was turning 24 and he called to say ‘Happy Birthday’. The call was broken by explosions in the background, and I would wait two days to know he was okay. I give all of you wives out there a huge shout out, because it takes one brave woman to stand by her man through war.
It was one month later, on Christmas Eve, when Micah returned home, but this time it was different because it would be the last deployment. I thought the “hard part” was over. He was hanging up his hat and had decided to shift his focus to starting a non-profit—Heroes and Horses. Little did I know, this was the beginning of one of the hardest seasons of life we would endure together, and as individuals.
In the past three years, Micah and I have worked to build two businesses: Heroes and Horses and MommiesRfit. We had our fourth child, Nora (which made for 3 children in 3.5 years), our home flooded on two separate occasions, we experienced financial pressures, loss of friendships, a miscarriage, criticism, attacks, false accusations and more….and all the while we have been trying to transition from “life in the military/contracting world” to “civilian life”, and trying to encourage and help people through the Heroes and Horses program. There we stood with two worlds colliding. Micah’s world was filled with testosterone, foreign culture, environments, and war; while my world was managing a home, raising small babies alone, and teaching fitness classes to mothers in my community. In between changing poopy diapers, managing a home, molding the hearts and minds of 4 small children, and running businesses, we now embarked on this new journey of having to figure out how to do life together, for the first time EVER in our relationship. How to parent together. How to run businesses. How to understand one another. How to balance. How to be healthy. How to let things go. How to love one another, and be there for one another. How to respect one another. How to do life….together…all the time. To say it has been hard would be putting it lightly. On top of it all I can’t neglect the truth of how many obstacles we have faced in running Heroes and Horses. My husband, and the founder of this organization, has a heart to help people. Genuinely. He inspires, he creates, he gives, and he does it without expecting anything in return. His spirit is contagious and the fire that rips through his soul touches the hearts and minds of the people he meets. Heroes and Horses ---it is life giving….and anything that gives life takes life. During each season of the Heroes and Horses program, Micah goes weeks without seeing his family, and it takes an incredible emotional toll serving these men wholeheartedly for 40 days straight. The 500 Miles Project involved 14-hour work days followed by another 30 days gone. The hard part isn’t the time apart for us, but instead it’s the constant transition. The two worlds colliding and separating over and over, and the rediscovering and accepting of one another’s worlds. That alone can pose its own challenges on a family.
In the midst of all of these things, these circumstances and pressures, I found myself playing a large role in the struggles we were facing. I kept trying to fix them. I would try to control situations and people. I was trying to “control” or “correct” uncontrollable circumstances. Until one day very recently, my soul woke up. I had a self-revelation. “Stop trying to control everything…let go and live free…..and LOVE strong because you were loved first.” Sometimes it takes life breaking you down into a million broken pieces, so you can experience a rebirth, and develop self-understanding. So you can be put back together again in a purpose-filled way.
So, this is my 500. While we are still climbing to the top of this mountain, I am starting to see the vistas beyond. I thank God for all of these hardships, as they have shaped my heart and the fibers of my being. Through every bend, uncomfortable turn, and steep climb, I have grown because I have turned to my faith. I have no doubt there will be another season that will pose as a “500” in this lifetime, but I am certain I will walk through it a little lighter. Until then, I will work every day to embrace the daily struggles that life throws at us, and use them as important teachers and tools for growth, rather than seeming them as the barriers they once were. I trust in the future with freedom and courage because of my 500.
CIERA – HEROES AND HORSES ADMINISTRATIVE DIRECTOR
I distinctly remember the day that my 4th grade teacher scolded me in front of the whole class for biting my nails. She exclaimed that it was a “horrible habit” and that I needed to stop. I sometimes look back and wonder, what could my 9-year-old self have been so nervous about, that I felt the need to chew on my own fingernails to relieve some type of anxiety. But, I know the answer to that – inside me lived a deep-rooted sense of constant anxiety. It was a type of anxiety that was hard to explain – if someone asked, “what are you so nervous about?” it was never a simple answer. As I grew older, I found out that there were “quick and easy” ways to “manage” my anxiety. My favorite? Not eating. On the surface, my eating disorder was all about doing whatever it took to be as skinny as possible. A common misconception is that this need comes from a place of vanity, when in fact it comes from something much more complex. It’s this idea that, “If I can just control how much I eat/weigh, everything will be okay”. I know it probably sounds crazy, but it genuinely felt as though the amount of my anxiety was directly related to the amount of food that I consumed in a day – no food, no anxiety. I would battle this disease on and off for years – starting at 14 years old until, well….let’s just say it’s a never-ending battle.
My college years and early-mid 20’s were spent trying out all of the unhealthy options for managing the chronic anxiety. If it was quick, easy, and produced a momentary sense of relief, I was all over it. Periodically I would find myself without a crutch, and was quickly reminded of how painful that was. It’s probably worth explaining what this type of anxiety feels like – it’s not the “I’m feeling really anxious about this job interview”, or “my in-laws are making me feel really anxious” type of anxiety. It’s crippling. Like, I-can’t-get-out-of-bed-because-I-won’t-be-able-to-survive-life kind of crippling. Sounds awful, right? Who would want to feel that way? And the problem was that I had never been taught how to build a toolbox of healthy coping mechanisms to turn to. On top of all that, I felt as though I was extremely abnormal for feeling this way. There was no way that other people experienced what I was feeling, because you never heard anyone talking about it. So, with that feeling came an overwhelming sense of shame. This “shame voice” told me that I couldn’t tell anyone about this, because people would think I was weird, no one would want to be my friend, etc.
It took some time – and therapy – for me to realize that my unhealthy crutches were actually making my situation a lot worse. That’s the thing about the “easy way” and immediate gratification – it’s fleeting, and the inevitable crash only perpetuates the problem. It’s a vicious cycle – feel bad, do “x” to feel better, feel worse, do “y” to feel better, feel worse, etc – all while continuing to bury the actual problem at hand.
So, I was at a crossroads: continue to do what I have always done, and live the exact same cycle, or do something different. Could I be brave enough to not turn to my crutches, and instead feel everything? And not just feel everything, but feel everything AND know that it was okay. I wasn’t going to die. The world wasn’t going to end. I chose to take that route, to face my 500, knowing that so much of it would be painful, but that it would be worth it. I also figured out what “help” looked like for me – right now that looks like seeing a therapist and a nutritionist every week, and taking medication – but that form of “help” isn’t for everyone. For others it’s packing their bags, heading to Montana, and entering a 3-phase program where you find yourself, and your purpose, in the backcountry. At the end of the day, each of us has a 500, and the most important question we can ask ourselves is, “what am I going to do about it?”.
MICAH FINK – HEROES AND HORSES CEO
As people from across the country join together to share their 500 stories, I am finding myself truly touched by the great connection that is beginning. “What’s Your 500?” is starting to take shape, and I realized that if we were asking people to be brave in sharing their own stories, it would be contrary to our message and values if I didn’t’ share mine.
2.5 years ago I wrapped up my final deployment as a paramilitary defense contractor working across the globe. My last trip was intensely violent, long, and the final trip I would be taking overseas. Sadly, it would be the last days of life for some of my colleges. I struggled hard to get back to work developing Heroes and Horses, and working on putting my life back together at home. Building the program, and helping those in the same circumstances, was incredibly painful, and this was due to a war I was fighting deep inside myself, a war that was crippling at times. There were times when I felt that there was not much I had left to give after finishing up years of conflict, but I tried my best to be an example while I was fracturing and giving back at the same time. I talked to no one, and no one ever reached out to me. The isolation and loneliness felt devastating at times. My well felt so dry. These would evolve to be some of the worst moments in my life.
Earlier that year I found out people who were "helping" me were not who they said they were. I cut ties in shock, anger, and dismay as I peeled back the onion. People ripped me, attacked me, lied, and tried to use Heroes and Horses, and this program, for their gain. Then they tried to destroy it, and me, as I was fighting just to breathe. But I would not let this happen, despite the attacks that kept coming – it was clear that my next “war” had started. It brought me way beyond just my knees. I stood firm even when I felt that I was on my last thread. I felt the waters rising and gasped for air. It felt like my life was caving in. I was already buried and felt the victim mentality creeping in, but this time was made for me. In the end, it turned out to be the greatest lesson I have ever learned.
Today I am thankful for that period of time, and for the lessons I learned. I, nor Heroes and Horses, would be where we are today if I had fallen and let this challenge overpower me – this was my chance to make my 500-mile journey. I was being forged and prepared for a purpose much greater than the 500 I was facing. When I look back, it felt like coal was burning under my skin, but it was a refining process. You're never alone, and during this time an extraordinary man came into my life. He lifted me up when I could barely stand, when I was at my weakest. That was my “purpose” revealing opportunities to me, and letting the light in.
Today the lives of so many have been transformed, touched and impacted by this organization. It shocks me to this day looking back on how far we’ve come. I am blessed to invest all I have been given into the lives of so many, and it would not have been possible if I did not have to face and overcome my 500.
My hope is that those of you reading this will take a moment to reflect on your own lives, identify your 500, and then share it. Why? Because in vulnerability lies strength. The strength to move forward, to persevere, and to take back control of your life.