Find­ing a pur­pose

Pris­on­ers learn life skills through tam­ing wild horses

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By REUTERS in Florence, Ari­zona

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.

MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS

An in­mate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse In­mate Pro­gram at Florence State Pri­son in Florence, Ari­zona, last month.

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