Inmates Are Saving America’s Wild Mustangs, One Horse at a Time

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


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 ever 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.

Two inmates ride in a prison corral.
Two inmates ride in a prison corral. Mark Peterman

 

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 the 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 flinched, 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.

A mustang is groomed.
A mustang is groomed. Mark Peterman

 

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.

A saddle-trained mustang makes a jump.
A saddle-trained mustang makes a jump. Mark Peterman

 

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,” inmate Josh Warren tells me.

Then, as if on cue, a horse bucks and throws its rider. 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.

Program director Randy Helm.
Program director Randy Helm. Mark Peterman

 

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 prisoner-recidivism 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.

Inmate Richard Kline leads a mare toward the saddle shed, near the corral.
Inmate Richard Kline leads a mare toward the saddle shed, near the corral. Mark Peterman

 

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.

This story appears in the November 2018 print issue, with the headline “Breaking Point.”