Llama Therapy

The summer sun beats down on us on this early July morning in the parking lot. The trail sign reads “Daily Creek.” Four- and two-legged companions mill around the stock trailer, getting ready for the hike. Those with two legs shoulder their daypacks and pair up with their woolly hiking companions, ready to hit the trail. This seems to be an unusual endeavor, yet it has all the components for a fun day hiking Daily Creek: a trail that leads away from the road, the warmth of the summer sun, camaraderie, and hiking companions with banana-shaped ears.

 Today’s event is sponsored by Operation Never Forgotten (ONF), an organization that organizes adventure programs for wounded US soldiers. Linda Kelly, founder and president of ONF, inspired Susi and Ken Sinay of Yellowstone Safari Co. and Yellowstone Llamas to donate a llama day-trek. “As a Montanan who has spent many years in the backcountry, I researched unique outfitters that could give our warrior guests what I knew would be a healing experience,” says Kelly. “The Sinays were open to brainstorming on how their company could join our commitment to support injured veterans. I wanted to offer our veteran guests and their caretakers the opportunity to experience Yellowstone’s off-road areas.”

 The group begins to march. For these veterans, who have most certainly been on many dangerous trails with horrific and painful memories, today’s hike affords the opportunity to relax, enjoy, and let go. The handicapped hikers are remarkably agile as well as open regarding their state of-the-art prosthetics. Some are wearing shorts and snazzy boots. Others suffer from wounds of a different kind and are hesitant to smile. The llamas are eager, checking out their human companions and craning their long necks to look over their shoulders. Susi leads with the 18-year-old veteran llama named “Amadeus.” After a few bends in the trail, the road has disappeared from view and the mood heightens. Arms wrap affectionately around llamas’ necks when we stop to look around, take a drink from water bottles, and listen to Ken’s interpretations. It has long been proven that animals have a therapeutic effect on abused or traumatized people. The llamas, sensing their role, cooperate with the warriors. “This is my buddy Domingo,” beams BJ, who lost a leg in Iraq.

We hike in earnest, the sun beating down on us. After a few miles of winding our way into the backcountry, we enter the woods and welcome the shade. To our relief, it’s time for a picnic. Everybody relaxes on the porch of a backcountry ranger cabin. The llamas nibble on grass while we dig into the scrumptious pack lunches donated by the Gourmet Gals in Big Sky. After sharing stories and learning about each other’s lives over lunch, we get ready to hit the trail again, which proves to be blocked by enormous fallen trees. Now we see the warriors in action: they forge ahead, spread out and scout for the best and safest way for people and animals through the maze. With their help and direction, we all make it safely over logs and through a vicious jumble of branches sticking up every which way. We emerge grateful for the group’s concerted, efficient effort. “Teddy did really well. He knew exactly what to do,” reports Bill proudly of his llama, hugging him. By now, the group has loosened up—the sound of laughter rises to the summer sky, the babble of eager conversation resonating through the woods.

Linda greets us in the parking lot. Many hands are there to help Susi unsaddle and load the llamas back into the trailer. Final photos show smiling people hugging llamas. Linda tries to listen to all the exited comments at once. “Many of our warrior guests have never been to Montana before, and for them to experience some of our most beautiful backcountry was a thrill they’ll never forget,” she says. “There’s something about nature and wild places that truly is the best therapy for those with invisible wounds. The soldiers with new physical adaptations were proud of completing the Yellowstone hike and happy to have made new llama friends. They all said they’d love to do it again! From a war theater to nature’s best is a contrast only our veterans can experience.”

It certainly was a remarkable day for all. People and llamas alike look forward to their next trek. And Yellowstone Park will be there, ready to dazzle, impress, soothe, and heal.

For more information, visit operationneverforgotten.org and yellowstonesafari.com