04/13/2015 05:22 EDT | Updated 06/13/2015 05:59 EDT

Canadian Veterans Set Off On Cross-Country Horseback Ride To Support Soldiers

Canadian Veteran Paul Nichols says he's saddling up to raise awareness around the challenges vets face when they return to civilian life.

VICTORIA - Canadian Forces veterans saddled up for an epic cross-country trail ride that aims to include Canadians in the fight against post-traumatic stress, suicide and family strife within the military.

Veteran Paul Nichols left British Columbia's legislature on horseback Monday in a bid to ride 11,000 kilometres across Canada by November.

The former soldier from Quesnel, B.C., who served during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, said he wants to make as many stops as he and fellow military riders can to help Canadians and military veterans learn to understand each other.

"The Canadian people love their troops," said Nichols at a ceremony marking the start of his Communities for Veterans cross-Canada ride. "There's just no question about that. It's just often-times we don't know who our veterans are."

Nichols said he struggled to return to civilian life, as have many other Canadian veterans, and he's convinced that the more the public and veterans get to know about each other, the easier that transition will become.

"I can tell you from personal experience that a heart-felt thank you and timely support from a community, during that time of transition, can be life changing," he said.

Nichols said he believes when he and his posse ride into towns their presence will create discussion and awareness about military service and the issues veterans face when they return home after serving their country in conflict zones.

The ride will make stops in every province, visiting dozen of communities and cities, taking trails and holding gatherings in areas where people can meet the veterans and their horses.

"This will create awareness and that awareness will create a change and with that change I believe we can lower the incidence of post-traumatic stress, family break ups and I think we can lower the incidence of veteran suicides," said Nichols.

Last year, National Defence started filling long-vacant positions within its mental health branch, while making public appeals for troops suffering with mental illness to come forward.

A veterans study released in 2013 found regular force veterans upon leaving the military rated their health more poorly than the general population.

It said almost a quarter of those leaving the military reported both physical and mental disorders.

Testifying before the all-party House of Commons defence committee almost two years ago, the military's surgeon-general, Brig.-Gen. Jean-Robert Bernier, said that depression, especially among male Forces members, is double that of the civilian population.

Nichols, who became emotional several times as he described the reasons behind his journey, said he has a unique bond with his mare, Zoe. The horse will be with him all the way.

"She's a good horse. Horses and people we've been together throughout history. There's a bond, almost similar to that of an infantry platoon and a herd of horses. There's this profound need for strong leadership."

Nichols said horses are the most honest animals on earth and they force their riders to seek the truth.

"Sometimes if you want to move forward with a horse and they are not going, you've got to look inside and ... you'll see things in yourself that maybe you have to change," he said.

B.C. Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon wished Nichols and his riders a safe journey.

"Today we are celebrating the beginning of a great endeavour by a younger generation of Canadian veterans," said Guichon, who welcomed the riders to drop by to her ranch in B.C.'s Nicola Valley near Merritt.

Nichols and his Communities for Veterans Foundation is raising money for programs that support veterans and their families.

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery Veterans Ride Across Canada See Gallery