Finding a purpose
Prisoners learn life skills through taming wild horses
Long before the desert sun has had a chance to heat the dusty prison yard, some 20 inmates at an Arizona state prison begin quietly tending horses.
The men — many with violent histories — gently maneuver bits into the mouths of mustangs still unaccustomed to human touch; they remove caked mud from hooves and tighten girths against bulging bellies. And the horses, which just weeks ago roamed free, mostly comply with what is asked of them.
Both the men and the horses are still learning how to live behind fences.
Prisoners participating in the Wild Horse Inmate Program train mustangs that will eventually be adopted by the US Border Patrol, providing the agency with inexpensive but agile horses, and inmates with skills and insights they hope to one day carry with them from prison.
For Brian Tierce, 49, who has served about five years of his seven-year sentence for domestic violence and assault, the horses have taught him “a lot of things I didn’t know I had in me — patience, perseverance, kindness and understanding.”
“I’ve got to be a compromising person, otherwise I’ ll never get this job done.”
At least 80 percent of the US Border Patrol’s current stable of 400 horses come from inmate training programs in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Nevada. The horses are critical for patrolling the rugged and remote stretches of the Mexican border to detect illegal crossings by migrants and drug trafficking.
And, at $500 to $800 for a saddle-ready horse, the price is right.
Some 55,000 mustangs roam the Western United States, more than double the number public land can support, said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jason Lutterman. Those that do not end up in adoption programs face an uncertain future.
‘Gentle’ the horses
At the prison in Florence, a cactus-dotted town about 220 kilometers of the Mexican border, participating prisoners round up their horses before dawn and work all day under the watchful eyes of Randy Helm, the third-generation rancher, former narcotics officer and self-proclaimed “cowboy preacher” who supervises the program.
Over the course of four to six months, the men train their horses — with names like Billy, Rocky and Patches — to tolerate bridles and saddles, respond to commands to trot and canter and perform footwork that will come in handy on the uneven desert terrain along the border.
Helm, 62, teaches the men not to “break” the horses, but to “gentle” them. The method relies on incremental steps and rewarding the horses for good behavior. Any inmate that raises a hand to a horse gets booted from the program.
“It’s more working on us than on them,” said Rick Kline, 32, who has served five years of a seven and a half year sentence for stealing cars. “It’s a new understanding of calming down.”
He hopes to apply that skill of staying calm to parenting his two kids when he gets out of prison.
Bret Karakey, 35, who is in prison for identity theft, recently broke his hip when he was thrown from a horse. But he came back without hesitation.
“I kind of need this,” he said.
Most prisoners who apply for the program don’t have experience with horses, and Helm prefers it that way. They tend to be gentler with the animals.
Florence began its horse training program in 2012, and while it is too early to assess the long-term effects on participating inmates, of the 50 or so who have gone through it and been released, none has returned to prison, Helm said. The national recidivism rate is about 68 percent within three years of release.
An inmate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, last month.