Mule rides provide therapy for veterans

Roughly an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of downtown Phoenix is Bumble Bee Ranch, a remote site adjacent to the Arizona Trail. It’s a perfect place to soak in the sun, clean air and camaraderie.

It’s one of several outposts where Trish Carlisle-Thompson leads veterans on mule and horse rides as a form of therapy.

“There’s a calming effect of the ride whether it’s on a horse or a mule,” said Carlisle-Thompson, 81, an Army veteran who served during the Vietnam era. “Getting out there and riding an animal is slow and it is easy. There’s no hurry or pressure. Often veterans get a lot of pressure from work, trying to get them to do this, do that. When they get out riding, there is no pressure. To me, that is the best therapy in the world.”

She began conducting the rides in 2006. Since then she has led hundreds of veterans, family members and others on the treks, usually between five and 15 at a time.

The therapy rides often include lunch breaks. That’s when veterans often feel free to open up and talk about things they wouldn’t normally share with others. “It helps them a lot,” she said.

A member of American Legion Post 94 in Sun City West, Carlisle-Thompson served as the department chaplain from 2019 to 2021 and is currently Area B chaplain.

“Service to me means giving back to the veterans since I wasn’t in the military that long,” she said after leading a ride atop Bella. “I did learn things through the years that have helped me continue to serve. I want them to see some of the things that I have seen, being able to get out and enjoy things. I want them to be able to trust people. It took me years to learn that.”

In addition to helping veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues, the rides provide relief to spouses too. Often, during women-only rides, Carlisle-Thompson will counsel a veteran’s wife who doesn’t understand his actions or anger.

“You will never understand what happened,” she would tell them. “It’s something that happened when he was in combat or a trauma that he went through.”

Born to ride

Generations of veterans find peace during the rides.

Army veteran Laurel Layton, who served during Operation Desert Storm, was born in Prescott and has been riding horses since she was little.

“It’s like being on top of the world,” she said about riding a mule. “It’s just me. It’s just my mule. I’m out there. Seeing beautiful things. It’s very cleansing.”

Layton sees the rides as a way that veterans can deal with stress related to their service.

“A lot of these veterans are horribly depressed and some even take their lives. It’s a tragic situation,” she said. “But if we can get them invested and involved, things will change. It’s the warmth of the animal and the ability to get them out into the world.”

Like Layton, Darwin Watt has been around horses all his life.

Watt is an Army veteran who served during Vietnam. He treats his three horses like members of the family.

“When I get troubled I enjoy riding my horse,” he said. “It’s relaxing. It lets me shut everything off and I can just go out there, ride and think. It’s therapeutic.”

He can’t say for sure how such rides will affect any veteran, but he understands how exploring nature on a horse or mule is calming.

“They are so gentle,” said Watt, who lives in Surprise, but has maintained his Legion membership in Iowa. “It’s so relaxing to have them put their nose on your shoulder.”

‘The outdoors helps relax people’

Ray Mounts, who retired from the Air Force, worked on nuclear missiles during his service. He moved to Arizona from Montana a few years ago.

“I’m used to the mountains and trees, but there is beauty in the trails here,” he said after his first mule ride with Carlisle and others along the Arizona Trail.

Various types of cacti line the rock-strewn trails. Mules, which typically weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds, are often raised in the mountains so they are quite apt at handling the challenging terrain.

Mounts, who is experienced at training mules, compared their temperaments to dogs. “Once they earn your trust, they are very loving animals.”

Mules have excellent hearing, strength and footing. It’s a good combination for taking veterans and others away from their issues and into nature.

“The outdoors helps relax people,” he said. “It makes them enjoy what’s out there more. It gives you a different feeling, you appreciate stuff more. It helps you enjoy life more.”

And that’s the mission for Carlisle-Thompson: Helping her comrades find the joy she has, one methodical mule step at a time.

“What it means to me is that I am helping the veteran,” she said. “And hopefully they, in turn, will turn around and help somebody else.”