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Mustang Redemption

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

Inmate Kelly Smith works with a horse that has recently accepted a halter.  Horses are no longer "broken" but trained via careful desensitization.Inmate Kelly Smith works with a horse that has recently accepted a halter. Horses are no longer "broken" but trained via careful desensitization.

Once brought to the farm, the gentling process begins—105 steps outlined in a five-page manual that Martin updates with tips and footnotes. He demonstrates step one, "accept human presence in pen," by walking swiftly toward a herd of about 30 mares brought to the farm two days ago. "The hardest part is getting your hands on the horses," he shouts over his shoulder. "They are prey animals; they think we're going to eat them." He gets within 10 paces when the mustangs bolt, clambering over each other and bounding in all directions. "The best way to get inside a horse's head is to get it to move its feet." Step one could take weeks, even months. "Sometimes we'll have a guy just stand in this pen all day to desensitize the horses."

In another pen, William Ricks, a 35-year-old inmate serving 20 to 99 years for the aggravated kidnapping of a teenage girl murdered by his accomplice, is circling a mustang on a mountain bike. "When I first came here I was terrified of the horses," Ricks tells me. "I was scared to get in the pens. I would be shaking. But you have to trust in your ability to be around the horses. It's all about building trust—not only with the horse but with yourself." Ricks is trying to get his mustang, in training for eight months now, comfortable with what it might encounter after it's adopted, since equestrians often share trails with mountain bikers. Inmates also coax horses across plastic tarps (mustangs hate the crackling sound), through sand, and over buckets. At another stage, called "flagging," inmates tie a plastic bag to a stick and waggle it on all sides of the horse. Every step is aimed at desensitizing the horse so it won't spook and potentially throw its rider.

Serving up to 20 years for crimes including attempted sexual assault, John Shuck is now a "lead man" at the Honor Farm's horse program.Serving up to 20 years for crimes including attempted sexual assault, John Shuck is now a "lead man" at the Honor Farm's horse program.

"All the stuff we do affects the horse for the rest of its life," continues Martin, who manages the Riverton program. "When a horse gets scared, I don't want it to think about fight or flight; I want it to think about relaxing." He enters a pen where Dowell is loosely draping a saddle over a horse, then promptly removing it. "Repetition is our friend," says Martin. "We use a lot of baby steps." Martin then climbs onto the unsaddled mustang and lies facedown and spread-eagled on its back. The horse is unblinkingly still, as if in a trance. With his nose buried in its wispy mane, Martin says, "You have to be balanced with a horse just like you have to be balanced in your life." Martin had no prior experience with horses when he married into a cattle-ranching family. He's self-taught, gleaning what he could from books, magazines, and instructional DVDs. "I turned into an addict." After a stint as a corrections officer he transferred to the farm in 1993, adopted four mustangs, and became a gentling guru to the inmates.

In an adjacent pen, Leland Yung, 33, who has been here since March 2008 and is serving a 30- to 35-year sentence for second-degree murder, is working with a noticeably more aggressive mustang that refuses to be haltered, objecting with bites and kicks. "I used to think I had a lot of patience," Yung tells me. "But all the different emotions you carry into the pen, the horse will pick up on those." And getting a mustang to obey once it senses hostility or fear is futile. "These horses know when you are mad or angry or frustrated before you do, so paying attention to them has helped me better understand when I'm getting frustrated. If you really want to learn about yourself, this is the way to go." Martin, who is listening, chimes in, "I tell these guys every day, this is not about horse training; this is about life. If you get frustrated because the horse doesn't do what you want, it holds you accountable."

The inmates I speak with are all but teary-eyed about their interactions with the horses. "It's just like anything in life," says inmate Dowell. "You gotta struggle through the hard times to get to the fruit." And if the program is a far more productive method of reforming criminals than just tossing them in lockup, the same is true for the horses: Competing demands for public lands have created unrealistic management policies that sideline the mustangs in favor of everyone else. Gentling, at the very least, gives both horses and inmates better odds at surviving life after incarceration. "Take a guy who has come from a bad family, been abused, sold drugs, had no respect for anyone," Martin says, "and now he has to get one of these horses to say, 'I'd love for you to get on my back.' Well, that's just a huge accomplishment."

As part of his duties as a go-between for prison managers and other inmates, John Shuck rises early to prepare mustangs for a day of gentling.As part of his duties as a go-between for prison managers and other inmates, John Shuck rises early to prepare mustangs for a day of gentling.

"The Honor Farm is not only teaching inmates a new way to behave, it's teaching them patience and job skills—how to show up to work every day. And we know that if you offer inmates a way to change their behavior, it's much less likely they'll come back to prison," says Melinda Brazzale, a spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections. "Victims are a big concern of ours. But it's a fact that 95 percent of all people sentenced to our department leave prison. It costs us $45,000 a year to house each inmate. So we need to make sure they are given all the tools to change their behavior so when they get out they'll be productive citizens. We don't have recidivism statistics, but it just makes sense that if they're having to deal with an animal that doesn't want to be dealt with, it's going to teach them a lot of patience and make them feel very confident. The process gives the inmates a success under their belt, something they've maybe never had in their lives. People have said that the inmates are gentling themselves."


Since 1988, when the Wyoming farm started taking its first horses, about 900 inmates have gentled 3,600 mustangs there. Each year, some 200-plus inmates at programs in five states help train more than 450 mustangs for adoption. Almost 95 percent of gentled horses get adopted. Even so, this simply can't keep pace with new births in the wild. "The prison programs are fairly cost-effective," says Shepherd. "But we just can't get enough horses through the training. When you're removing six or seven thousand a year from the range, you quickly outscale yourself." The BLM's goal: arrange adoptions for 8,000 mustangs a year. "We are nowhere near that," says Fluer. "The economy is such that with the price of hay and the spike in fuel prices, Americans can't afford to keep these as pets." He continues, "It's an emotional, political, and very costly issue. Budgets are shrinking, there are 36,000 wild horses on the range, they reproduce at 20 percent a year, and Congress wants us to do something."

The BLM is permitted to sell horses that haven't been adopted, but once they're privately owned it's impossible to track them. "There's evidence of horses being sent for slaughter in Mexico," says Virginie Parant, campaign director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "They are used for human consumption in Europe and Japan." Parant is a proponent of ROAM (Restore Our American Mustangs Act), a bill that passed in the House last July that would create additional sanctuaries, direct the BLM to expand roaming areas, and possibly boost funding for inmate gentling. Now Parant is trying to rally support for a Senate version. Sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), it's currently undergoing review in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

"This is a massive money pit," says Parant. "But the solution is to stop rounding them up indiscriminately and start managing them in the wild." Patti Colbert, who directs the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which promotes adoption events, says, "Long-term holding is a very expensive place for these horses to spend their lives."

Shepherd, at the BLM, believes it's possible to slow the wild mustangs' reproduction rate with a fertility control compound known as porcine zona pellucida, or PZP. "We've treated 2,500 horses, and it shows potential." But the fix is temporary, lasting just two years. A contraceptive vaccine called SpayVac is also under consideration. According to Sally Spencer, a BLM spokeswoman, the agency is also investigating surgically spaying mustang mares, "but the practicality and safety of these invasive procedures have not been evaluated for use on ungentled wild mares in field conditions."

Self-taught gentling guru Jeff Martin teaches inmates to be patient with the horses—and with people.Self-taught gentling guru Jeff Martin teaches inmates to be patient with the horses—and with people.

Complicating matters further is that nobody knows exactly how many wild mustangs roam public lands. "We count the horses one by one, just the pilot and myself looking out the window," notes Fluer. "It's completely inaccurate," says Parant. "The BLM decides what they want to do and then plugs in census numbers to back up their management policies." Mustang advocates maintain that there are fewer horses on the range than the BLM claims. Reproduction rates are also disputed; a 1982 National Academy of Sciences study puts the annual rate at "10 percent or less"—half what is claimed by the BLM. This would argue for fewer roundups, which Parant describes as "cruel and imperfect." The BLM contends gatherings are necessary to save horses that are dying because their habitats lack food and water, a problem caused by overpopulation and possibly aggravated by climate change. Then again, if less mustang habitat was being parceled off to developers and energy companies, the horses might do just fine.

ROAM would radically alter how the BLM manages wild horses. Shepherd thinks it will foment further conflict. "It increases the population of horses on the range, and the majority of management areas already share that range with livestock." When I tell this to Parant, she shoots back, "There are 33,000 horses and 4 million head of cattle. To me, that doesn't seem fair for sharing the land. The BLM is using gatherings as a management tool when it should be an extraordinary measure." In August, a US District Court agreed. Weighing in on a BLM plan to gather 147 mustangs in Colorado, the court found that the plan "exceeds the scope of authority that Congress delegated to it in the Wild Horse Act," and enjoined the gathering.

In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced his intention to overhaul the program by promoting "aggressive use of fertility control," relocating mustangs to new preserves all over the country, even out East, and making some herds "a focal point for publicity and increased ecotourism." The current program "is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the taxpayer," Salazar stated. "Water and forage are extremely limited in the West."

Parant thinks the Salazar initiative merely diverts attention from the more comprehensive ROAM bill. "It's very sly. They are just asking Congress for yet more money for what basically amounts to long-term holding and putting an ecotourism spin on it." At press time, neither ROAM nor Salazar's plan had progressed. So the gatherings continue—and adoption remains the best way to save those captured mustangs.

Toward the end of my stay at the Honor Farm, I watch an inmate ride a mustang around an indoor pen. A gentle tug on the reins and the horse canters in a precisely choreographed figure eight. Crofts looks on proudly. "This is the most rewarding part of my job," he says. "These guys have been taken out of society because they don't like following the law. But you bring them here and you can see how that person changes—and change comes through frustration. Every one of these guys we have at the farm has the potential to be your neighbor. And I just hope we make that critical change in his life so that he becomes a law-abiding citizen."

I'm about to leave when another inmate, John Shuck, trots toward me on a gorgeous pinto he trained. Serving 12 to 20 years for aggravated assault and battery, and attempted sexual assault, Shuck, who is 60, has been here since May 2006. He's the designated "lead man," the senior Horse Hill go-between for inmates and prison managers. "These wild horses have taught me trust and patience," he says. "And once you build trust with them, they'll do anything for you."

See a photoessay about the Honor Farm here.

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