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Mustang Redemption

Dangerous felons are being trained to tame wild horses. But can the horses tame the men?

George Reynolds is a 53-year-old felon. Sentenced in July 2008 for third-degree sexual assault against a minor, he'll spend up to twelve years in prison, with a chance for parole in four. Standing just shy of six feet tall, Reynolds has blunt shoulders, powerful arms, a shock of brown hair, icy blue eyes, and a bushy Hulk Hogan mustache that frames his chin and creates a permanent frown. He's an imposing figure, a guy you'd never want to cross. But at the moment, Reynolds looks terrified and minuscule next to his adversary, a 900-pound mustang that is very pissed off. This is the Wyoming State Honor Farm, where convicts train, or "gentle," wild horses that have been rounded up from the high plains as part of a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) program to control mustang populations on federal lands. The Honor Farm admits good-behavior inmates from higher security penitentiaries. Reynolds transferred here in October 2008 to join a group of 25 prisoners who domesticate the horses so they can be offered for adoption.

He repeatedly tries to touch the mustang, captured three days ago, but it recoils violently, slamming its rear hooves into a wooden backstop with thunderous force. It grunts and snorts, and like a medieval dragon expels foggy plumes from its nostrils, its hot breath condensing in the crisp morning air. Other times it surges forward and bluff-charges, or gallops in furious circles. Reynolds doesn't flinch. His spine is rigid, and with his arms raised and elbows bent, he holds his palms open and tilted to 90 degrees. I recognize the pose. It's Buddhist and called "calming the ocean." Reynolds isn't a student of Eastern religion; the gesture is merely his instinctive attempt to disarm the horse. It works. After a minute Reynolds slinks closer, extends his right hand, and gingerly strokes the mustang along its neck, which is quivering. Its ears pivot forward—an expression of attentiveness—and its panting ebbs. This is its first physical contact with a human being. I want to ask Reynolds how he feels, but I'm afraid to startle the horse. John Dowell, a 37-year-old felon serving seven to ten years, also for a sexual offense against a minor, quietly approaches the pen. "Most of us are in prison because we've taken our wills and inflicted them on other people," he tells me. "You don't get to do that with these horses. They teach you how to be honest with yourself and they calm your spirit. If you push them around, they're going to make you pay for it."

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THE TERM "MUSTANG" is derived from the Spanish word mestengo, or "stray animal," and is used to describe any type of feral horse. In North America, mustangs have no real natural predators, and left to their own devices, they'll breed like rabbits fed Viagra. Herds can double in size every five years. Spaniards brought horses to the continent in the 1500s, and by the end of the 19th century there were 2 million mustangs scattered throughout North America.

Then people started killing them. The horses were easy prey for anyone with a rifle and a flatbed truck; slaughterhouses paid cash for carcasses and sold the meat to pet-food manufacturers. In 1959, thanks to a grassroots campaign by Velma B. Johnston, a.k.a. "Wild Horse Annie," Congress enacted a law that banned using motorized vehicles to hunt mustangs. It was only laxly enforced, so in 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which mandated that the US Department of Interior protect the mustangs "from capture, branding, harassment, or death" and designated them as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."

Extremely skittish, recently captured mustangs show the challenge the inmates face.To manage the wild mustang population, BLM helicopters drive herds into netted chutes. Some stallions are gelded and released, but most horses are put into long-term holding facilities.

Under the act, the BLM created 303 Herd Management Areas on 65,780 square miles of range throughout 10 Western states, an area about the size of Florida. A subsequent law also mandated that the BLM maintain herd sizes at 1971 levels, rounding up—the contemporary lingo is "gathering"—excess horses to ensure a static population. But first the BLM had to figure out how many mustangs lived on the open range. Rough estimates made in 1971 put the population at 17,000; two years later a more rigorous census (using spotters in small planes) counted 42,000. Despite the gaping discrepancy, the BLM favored the lower figure, which meant that when the first gatherings commenced in 1973, tens of thousands of horses had to be relocated to federal holding facilities and government-funded private sanctuaries.

Today, the BLM is caring for 32,000 captive mustangs at a cost of $29 million annually—a whopping 68 percent of the BLM's $40.6 million wild horse and burro program budget. While stallions sent to long-term holding are gelded, their wild brethren continue to reproduce. Meanwhile, sell-offs to private developers, oil and gas exploration, and, more recently, areas targeted for renewable energy projects have swallowed up about 20,000 square miles of viable mustang habitat. Of the original 303 HMAs, only 180 remain, on a patchwork of rangelands totaling 45,150 square miles—69 percent of the 1971 range. With so many horses on so little land, the BLM must gather and board an increasing number of mustangs each year.

By 2012, the soaring cost of stabling captive mustangs could top $75 million. BLM officials want to winnow wild mustangs to a fixed population of 26,600. "We're way over that number," says Alan Shepherd, who manages the wild horse program for the BLM in Nevada, home to 20,000 mustangs. In fact, the BLM estimates the total number of wild mustangs is roughly equal to the number in captivity. Shepherd claims that the HMAs simply aren't big enough to support the voracious herds—a single horse consumes about four and a half tons of plant matter each year. "Their foraging methods can be severely impacting. They will pull grasses completely out of the ground, so they can't grow back." Mustangs share habitat with livestock (ranchers pay the BLM for grazing rights) and wildlife, including antelope, deer, elk, and bison. But too many horses will raze an ecosystem. "There wouldn't be any other animals around if mustang populations exploded," says Shepherd.

Well-behaved inmates like Leland Yung can transfer from the state penitentiary to the Honor Farm.Well-behaved inmates like Leland Yung can transfer from the state penitentiary to the Honor Farm.

Plenty of mustang advocates disagree with Shepherd, insisting the horses' threat to habitats is overstated and unproven, a product of zealous ranchers defending their turf. And they complain that the BLM decides how many horses should roam a particular HMA based on census-taking methods that are woefully imprecise. What infuriates those who want to protect the mustangs even more is the possibility that a cash-strapped BLM will sell off horses from long-term holding as a way to save money. Euthanizing mustangs is banned under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. But an amendment authored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and passed in 2004 permits the BLM to sell mustangs at livestock auctions. Purchased mustangs are sometimes trucked to slaughterhouses in Mexico, one of the world's leading horsemeat suppliers.

The alternative is adoption. But few will take home a feral animal that will kick, bite, or trample anyone who gets near it. Thankfully, intrepid inmates at labor farms in Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, Kansas, and Utah are tackling the problem. In 1986, a BLM wild horse specialist named Walter Jakubowski helped start the first gentling farm at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City. He partnered with Jim Like, a corrections officer who wanted to create an innovative new job program for inmates. At the Wyoming facility, if gentling goes smoothly for George Reynolds, his mustang will be tame enough to saddle, mount, and ride in three months. "Once in a while an inmate gets bucked off, rammed into a fence, bit, or kicked in the leg—that's educational for the guy," Jeff Martin, 41, who supervises the horse program in Riverton, tells me. Often the process is a duel of wills between two intractably stubborn and impatient personalities. But for the inmates, it's also transformative. A plaque mounted at the entrance to the farm explains, "There's nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse."


THE 1,080-ACRE Wyoming State Honor Farm, founded in 1987, sits on the outskirts of Riverton, a bustling frontier town perched a mile high on an arid plateau, and the fictional home to Heath Ledger's character, Ennis del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain. When I visit, in April, the sky is cloudless and celestial blue, and the sun is unexpectedly warm for early spring. Inmates partake in a variety of labor projects (forestry cleanup, road repair, general construction) for local, state, and federal agencies. Only inmates considered a low risk are sent to the Honor Farm, where security is almost nonexistent except for an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence that looks better suited for a Little League ballpark than a prison. There are no watchtowers or perimeter guards armed with high-powered rifles; no razor wire or attack dogs. "We've had a few escapes," says Cindy Ferguson, the public information officer who arranges my visit. "Some guys can't handle the freedom." Indeed, a week after I was there an inmate fled through the front gate at dawn; police nabbed him two hours later in a stolen car on a nearby Indian reservation. We tour the facility without a security escort. But just to be safe, Ferguson gives me a "man down" sensor, which attaches to my belt. If it's jolted or motionless for more than a few minutes, it assumes I've been attacked and activates a blaring alarm that summons a posse of (unarmed) officers to my location. (Later in the day, our photographer accidentally drops his sensor, and within seconds a security team appears.)

Extremely skittish, recently captured mustangs show the challenge the inmates face.Extremely skittish, recently captured mustangs show the challenge the inmates face.

Ferguson leads me across manicured grounds, where golden willow and cottonwood trees are sprouting new buds. We climb up a gentle slope to the mustang area, known as Horse Hill, where there can be as many as 245 horses undergoing training. The 360-degree view encompasses the snow-clad Wind River and Big Horn mountains, with peaks topping 13,000 feet. "Not a bad place to be in prison," says Joe Crofts, 44, who manages the farm and, along with Martin, is my guide for the day. Crofts is mustached and potbellied. He sports a broad-rimmed straw hat, aviator sunglasses, weathered cowboy boots, and blue jeans fastened at the waist with an oversize sterling-silver belt buckle he's had since he was a kid. Sipping black coffee out of a dented tin cup, he recounts his two and a half decades at the farm and his memories of launching the Riverton gentling program, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. "When I first came here we had a dairy, some hogs, and I was looking for another job for the inmates. We didn't want horses here to just take up room; we wanted horses that could go to potential adopters."

Crofts is a fourth-generation rancher who walks bowlegged and admits to napping in chaps. He says that a few decades ago, taming a wild horse meant breaking its spirit. You chased it into a pen, forced a halter on it, and snubbed it to a fence, then mounted up and rode until the horse either submitted or bucked you off, at which point you'd repeat the process. "If I had known then what I know now, life would have been good," laughs Crofts. Gentling, today's preferred method, involves a sequence of desensitization maneuvers that lets the horse establish trust with the trainer on its own terms. "It creates an excellent bond between inmates and horses."

Crofts lives east of Riverton, on a sprawling ranch where he keeps 17 adopted mustangs that partake in traditional ranching chores: hunting, cattle drives, and just getting around. "We use them every day. They're really tough—good feet, good bones—because they grew up in rough country." Mustangs are tenacious warriors because for generations they've had to survive famine, drought, wildfire, and the ruthless high-plains climate. DNA studies have shown that some herds are still almost entirely descended from the original Iberian breeds brought by the conquistadors, while the bloodlines of others are a more generic mix of horses used by explorers and Indians, and those freed during World War I and II, when ranchers went off to fight and wives had to downsize

Whatever their precise pedigree may be, rounding up mustangs is no easy operation. A census is conducted for each HMA individually to determine where and when a gathering will occur. After a herd is targeted, wranglers construct a trap designed to funnel the horses through a series of corrals and into a holding pen. Next, a helicopter flies behind the herd, driving it toward the trap. At about the same time, wranglers release a so-called Judas horse. "This is sometimes a wild horse that has been domesticated," explains Scott Fluer, a BLM rangeland specialist who has been involved with the horse program since 1986 and owns seven adopted mustangs. I join Fluer for fist-thick steaks at Bull Supper Club, a Riverton institution and homage to locally raised beef. "The Judas horse is trained to run into the trap. Horses, being herd animals, see the Judas horse and follow it—he brings all his buddies into the catch pen; then we come up behind them and shut the gates." Over a few days, a gathering might net as many as 250 horses, which are loaded onto trailers and taken to a sorting facility. In general, mustangs younger than four years go to adoption programs because they're easier to train. For each horse gentled, the BLM pays farms like Riverton $3 per day. The farm, in turn, gets a minimum $125 adoption fee when it finds a horse a new home, though auctions can drive up the price. "The horses that are unadoptable—those that are older and set in their ways—we send to sanctuaries or long-term holding," says Fluer. (UPDATE: Equine activists speak out against the brutality of the Bureau of Land Management mustang roundups, alleging that nine horses in Nevada were recently run to death.)

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