For two dozen in­mates, train­ing mus­tangs is more than a chance to tame, and save, a western icon—it’s an op­por­tu­nity to con­front the wild­ness in them­selves.


A sec­ond chance for pris­on­ers: train­ing wild mus­tangs.

A FEW HOURS af­ter the 6 a.m. head count at the Ari­zona State Prison Com­plex, in­mate An­thony Gar­ri­son stands out­side a cor­ral, eye­ing the dozen or so mus­tangs that pace in­side. A two-year-old horse erupts past, its black coat slick with sweat, and slams its frame against the fence; Gar­ri­son jumps back. Months, or even weeks, ago, nearly all the horses here were liv­ing wild on the range­lands of the West, un­til the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) cap­tured them, as part of a herd roundup, and trucked them here, to Florence, Ari­zona, an hour out­side Phoenix.

Gar­ri­son, a burly 38-year-old guy with a shaved head, stud­ies the black horse care­fully. Eight years into an 11-year drug sen­tence, he’s one of two dozen in­mates who, over the next few months, will work to train the horse and oth­ers like it, as part of the Wild Horse In­mate Pro­gram (WHIP), an ef­fort by the BLM and state agen­cies to help curb the West’s over­abun­dance of wild mus­tangs. Each year, the pris­on­ers in Florence train and adopt out about a hun­dred once-wild mus­tangs to ranch­ers and recre­ational rid­ers, as well as to po­lice de­part­ments and the Bor­der Pa­trol. The pro­gram is per­haps the only con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tive in his­tory that seeks to cull a wild species not by slaugh­ter but by do­mes­ti­ca­tion. And since the horses are truly wild,

when in­mates like Gar­ri­son en­ter the cor­ral, they’re of­ten among the first hu­mans that the thou­sand-pound an­i­mals have en­coun­tered.

As the black horse again breaks into a gal­lop, Gar­ri­son gnaws his lip and buck­les his hel­met. Be­fore he joined WHIP 11 months ago, he’d never touched a horse, much less trained a wild one. Back home in Phoenix, where he’s the fa­ther of 13 chil­dren, he didn’t even have a pet. Now he’s about to take the most sig­nif­i­cant, and dan­ger­ous, step in train­ing: the first touch. To ac­cli­mate the horse to his pres­ence, he needs to work slowly to the cen­ter of the cor­ral while keep­ing his body re­laxed. If the an­i­mal feels trapped or senses his fear, it’s li­able to kick, bite, or stam­pede to get free. No sur­prise, Gar­ri­son says he was scared the first time he climbed into a cor­ral.

From across the sta­bles, Randy Helm, the pro­gram man­ager of WHIP Florence and one of its five full-time staff mem­bers, watches as

Gar­ri­son en­ters the cor­ral. Since start­ing the WHIP chap­ter six years ago, Helm, a for­mer un­der­cover nar­cotics cop and po­lice chap­lain—who, at 64, still wears rodeo belt buck­les he won as a young man—has worked with more than 100 in­mates, like Gar­ri­son, to ready some 500 mus­tangs for adop­tion. By all ac­counts, he has guided more green­horn han­dlers to mas­tery, and logged more hours work­ing with wild horses, than any other trainer in the South­west.

Later to­day, he’ll drive 10 sad­dle-trained mus­tangs to Wick­en­burg, 70 miles north­west of the prison, where to­mor­row he’ll auc­tion them off in front of a crowd of about a hun­dred. But right now his at­ten­tion is on Gar­ri­son, who’s set­tling in for a long train­ing ses­sion.

When­ever the horse skit­ters side­ways or smashes into the fence, Gar­ri­son tenses, but he doesn’t leap out of the way. A few weeks ago, in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, an in­mate f linched, and the horse spooked and kicked him, shat­ter­ing the guy’s tibia and fibula. This wasn’t an anom­aly. Mus­tangs are no­to­ri­ously ag­gres­sive and head­strong, and, con­se­quently, ma­ligned as un­ruly lon­ers. Helm, who grew up train­ing horses on his grand­par­ents’ ranch, takes is­sue with the stereo­type. “You have to un­der­stand the horse comes with a past. The horse comes with scars,” he says. “They’re a lot like we are— they just want peace.”

But peace has been hard to come by lately. In 1971, Congress made killing a wild mus­tang or burro a fed­eral crime, and, in the years since, their num­bers have ex­ploded, with some 82,000 an­i­mals now roam­ing across 10 western states. Mus­tangs, free of nat­u­ral preda­tors and squeezed off graz­ing lands, have started to run afoul of de­vel­op­ers, res­i­dents, and ranch­ers. As a re­sult, grue­some horse killings have spiked. In Oc­to­ber 2016, au­thor­i­ties in Ari­zona dis­cov­ered a foal rid­dled with buck­shot, and sim­i­lar cases have cropped up in Ne­vada and Wy­oming.

The BLM, in­sist­ing it has lit­tle choice, has re­sorted to gather­ing herds and hous­ing them in a net­work of back­coun­try cor­rals. Over the past 45 years, it has boarded some 300,000 an­i­mals, at a cost of about $2 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to New York Times re­porter David Philipps. Horses that are not im­me­di­ately adopted of­ten lan­guish in long-term hold­ing fa­cil­i­ties, where they con­tract dis­ease. In 2016, a BLM ad­vi­sory board rec­om­mended eu­th­a­niz­ing 45,000 horses in gov­ern­ment pos­ses­sion, to al­le­vi­ate the bur­den of care. The plan drew in­tense scru­tiny and was re­jected by the BLM, but of­fi­cials have con­tin­ued to push for mass eu­thana­sia. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 2018 fis­cal bud­get pro­posal al­lowed for the mus­tangs to be sold to any buyer, in­clud­ing slaugh­ter­houses, and the BLM is re­view­ing plans to ship tens of thou­sands of an­i­mals to ranches in Guyana and Rus­sia, where no laws bar killing horses. (The BLM con­tends that cur­rent ap­pro­pri­a­tions for­bid sales to par­ties that de­stroy healthy an­i­mals.)

WHIP pro­vides an al­ter­na­tive. Launched in Colorado in 1986, the pro­gram has ex­panded to prisons in five other states, in­clud­ing here in Ari­zona, and has adopted out some 10,000 an­i­mals. Though the thought of in­mates train­ing wild horses might seem odd at first, Helm points out that few in­sti­tu­tions have the acreage, man­power, or will­ing­ness to spend months gen­tling the half-ton an­i­mals. To be sure, the wild-horse prob­lem is be­yond what WHIP alone can han­dle. But Helm be­lieves that he can help al­le­vi­ate the prob­lem by prov­ing that mus­tangs can be suc­cess­fully trained and rid­den.

AF­TER HELM LOADS the horses for to­mor­row’s auc­tion and dou­ble-checks lo­gis­tics with the BLM, he makes his rounds, go­ing stall by stall to ob­serve each horse’s progress. The mus­tangs are kept in sta­bles in the empty cen­ter of the six-unit corrections fa­cil­ity, on seven acres

of pas­ture, sep­a­rated from the rest of the prison by ra­zor-wire fenc­ing. There’s a small barn, a cov­ered pavil­ion, and about 40 stalls and pens, where, at any given time, 30 wild horses and 10 bur­ros might be in train­ing. “As long as you don’t get kicked or bucked off, it’s a good day,” pris­oner Josh Warren tells me.

Then, as if on cue, a horse bucks and throws an in­mate. Helm and sev­eral oth­ers rush over to help him up, but he waves them off. His hand is gashed and will likely need stitches, but he takes the in­jury gamely and teases the other in­mates for dot­ing on him. It’s clear that he and the other guys get along. Since the in­mates in WHIP are housed to­gether near the sta­bles, they spend nearly ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment with one an­other, form­ing bonds over horses and shar­ing sto­ries about their fam­i­lies. Some at­tend Al­co­holics and Nar­cotics Anony­mous meet­ings to­gether and credit WHIP with their first true stretches of so­bri­ety.

To earn a spot in the pro­gram, in­mates must be des­ig­nated low or medium clear­ance, have no tick­eted in­frac­tions in the past six months, and be within five years of re­lease. Some of the in­mates, like Gar­ri­son, are serv­ing out drug con­vic­tions; oth­ers are in for kid­nap­ping, bur­glary, or mur­der. Helm hasn’t no­ticed any cor­re­la­tion be­tween a man’s crim­i­nal record and his abil­ity to train a horse. He looks for ap­pli­cants who show pa­tience dur­ing the in­ter­view and have his­to­ries of do­ing man­ual la­bor, since horses are noth­ing if not shit to shovel and hay to cut. Per per­sonal pol­icy, Helm isn’t ter­ri­bly close with any of the pris­on­ers, but as he walks from stall to stall, he cracks jokes and, at one point, lays a hand on a guy’s shoul­der as he talks through train­ing. He tries to teach the men to see the world through a horse’s eyes. “They’re com­ing from the wild, and they don’t know what you want them to do,” he says. “You have to find a lan­guage they can un­der­stand.”

The metaphor, how­ever heavy-handed, res­onates with the guys, a few of whom freely liken them­selves to an­i­mals com­ing out of the wild. Though WHIP wasn’t de­signed as equine ther­apy, it boasts a 15 per­cent pris­on­errecidi­vism rate, com­pared with the 70 per­cent na­tional av­er­age. This likely owes to the fact that, un­like other prison gigs, train­ing horses of­fers dis­ci­pline and free­dom in equal mea­sure. The in­mates are re­spon­si­ble for an an­i­mal and free to ride it alone for hours. A study in the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­ogy sug­gests that work­ing with an­i­mals in this man­ner en­cour­ages em­pa­thy and helps to re­duce the ef­fects of trauma. WHIP stands as proof.

SHORTLY BE­FORE LUNCH, Helm, bound for Wick­en­burg, starts up an F-250 and pulls a horse trailer out of the prison. To­mor­row, six mus­tangs will sell, fetch­ing $800 to $1,525 each, the pro­ceeds of which WHIP will use for new sad­dles and other tack. One of the auc­tioned horses, a mare that Gar­ri­son trained, will go to a mid­dle-aged man named Buster, who grew up in Zim­babwe and al­ways dreamed of own­ing a mus­tang. “It’s a piece of the West, of Amer­ica,” he’ll tell me. “One we have to pro­tect.”

In the mean­time, in Florence, Gar­ri­son climbs back into the cor­ral. He hopes to touch the black horse, but it spooks, whin­ny­ing as it cuts tight cir­cles. Af­ter 10 min­utes, though, it clops to an ex­hausted halt. Gar­ri­son inches to­ward it and waits. The horse blows and stamps but doesn’t re­treat. Gar­ri­son ap­proaches and flicks a dres­sage whip on its haunches. Again, no re­treat. How­ever slight, they’ve made a break­through. Gar­ri­son steps back, and J.J. An­der­son, his su­per­vi­sor, nods in ap­proval.

Af­ter work­ing with the horse for an hour or so, Gar­ri­son climbs out of the cor­ral. It’s al­most time for the pris­on­ers to walk to the sally port, where they’ll line up and file back in­side. As he wipes sweat off his face, he says that com­pared with hav­ing to reen­ter civil­ian life one day, train­ing a horse is easy. “The whole world is dif­fer­ent when you get out,” he says. “It’s scary just think­ing about how dif­fer­ent.” For now, though, he’s happy to have a job that af­fords him some sta­bil­ity and peace. It’s go­ing to take a long time to ride that horse, he con­tin­ues, “with about 14 o’s be­tween the l and the ng.” Af­ter all, it’s not easy to come out of the wild; that’s one of the lessons that he takes from the horses and ap­plies to him­self. But that’s OK, he says. They both have time.

An in­mate in Florence, Ari­zona, works to ready a mus­tang for adop­tion.

Clock­wise from top: WHIP trainer J.J. An­der­son (cen­ter) and two in­mates ride in a prison cor­ral; a mus­tang is groomed; pro­gram di­rec­tor Randy Helm.


From top: A sad­dle-trained mus­tang makes a jump; in­mate Richard Kline leads a mare to­ward the sad­dle shed, near the cor­ral.

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