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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Prison Ponies

Air Date: Week of

Wild horses were part of the romance of the Old American Wild West, but today the mustangs are often considered to be nuisances. Each year, the federal Bureau of Land Management rounds up mustangs from the ten western states in efforts to keep their population down . Many of these horses are eventually sold to the public. But few people want a wild bronco in their back yards, so first they must be trained, or as they say in the West, "broken." And increasingly, the BLM is turning to inmates in minimum security prisons to do he job. Andrea Dukakis reports.


CURWOOD: Wild horses were once part of the romance of the old American Wild West, but today the mustangs, as the wild ponies are called, are often considered to be nuisances. Each year, the federal Bureau of Land Management rounds up mustangs from the 10 western states in efforts to keep their population down. Many of these horses are eventually sold to the public. But few people want a wild bronco in their back yards, so first the horses must be trained, or as they say in the West, "broken." And increasingly, the BLM is turning to inmates in minimum security prisons to do the job. Andrea Dukakis has our report.

DUKAKIS: When you enter the East Canyon Correctional Complex, near Pueblo, Colorado, it's hard to imagine that it's also home to several hundred wild mustangs. You first pass the guard gate, then several austere-looking prison buildings, all surrounded by barbed wire fences. But slowly, the barbed wire begins to fall away, opening up onto a large field, and you realize there's plenty of room for the horses. It may seem odd to outsiders, a horse training facility on prison grounds, but inside, it makes perfect sense. The inmates say they feel a certain kinship with the horses. Inmate Colby Blades:

BLADES: There's a comparison there, kind of a give and take. I mean, you've got to change, and teach yourself different ways to do things, just like you do the horses. So, I guess that's the biggest way that it's kind of affected me, made me realize that I was pretty wild.

DUKAKIS: The prisoners come from all over the country, but the mustangs here are born wild, mostly in Nevada and Colorado. In the early 1970's the Bureau of Land Management began rounding up hundreds of mustangs which were overpopulating the western states. At first, the Agency put them all up for adoption without any training. But there were few buyers, and thousands of horses remained in holding pens. Then in 1986, the Colorado Department of Correction and the BLM joined forces and began the Wild Horse/Inmate Program. The idea was that people would be more interested in adopting horses that were already trained, and that prisoners would benefit from the experience of training them. Now, anyone in the minimum-restricted prison is eligible to work with the mustangs; there's competition for the 24 spaces, but not everyone wants the job. Tony Bainbridge is a horse trainer who supervises the inmates in the program.

BAINBRIDGE: Well, we've got a saying around here, it's not if you get hurt, it's when.


BAINBRIDGE: So, you're going to get banged up, you're going to get the blisters, you're going to get the kicks, stepped on, bit, bucked off--

[Horse bucking against stall, man exclaiming]

DUKAKIS: The mustangs arrive at the prison frightened and unapproachable. The one in the ring today can't be saddled or ridden. The inmates' first job is helping the horses get used to being near people.

[Shouts of 'Walk, walk!']

DUKAKIS: Four men lead a horse by a rope. One holds a blanket and lightly swings it against the horse's body. The men struggle to keep control of the horse. At first, the sandy-colored mustang jumps and bays. After several days of repeated efforts,
the horse will become more accepting.

BAINBRIDGE: You know, I used to say that bronc riders are born and not made, and it really comes to show up out here.

DUKAKIS: Tony Bainbridge says Colby Blades is one of the star inmates in the program. Blades was driving drunk nearly 10 years ago when he killed a young woman. Working with the horses, he says, has given him a reason to get up every morning.

BLADES: As far as being locked up, and coming down here and working, it's just a--you get a sense of responsibility, which is real important. It's easy to just sit back in there and not do anything--and a big sense of accomplishment. Taking the wild horses and training them and getting them where people can trust that they won't hurt anybody.

DUKAKIS: Blades says he plans to continue training horses when he leaves prison.

MAN 1: Hey Richard, how'd he look?

MAN 2: He looks ok. You can bring him out and load him up.

MAN 1: Ok! He looks good, dunn't he?

MAN 2: Yeah.

DUKAKIS: Every few weeks, buyers come to pick up newly trained horses. Months earlier, they chose their horse from an unruly lot of new arrivals.

[Laughter, comments]

DUKAKIS: People pay about $740 dollars for a mustang, and that money pays for the program. Those who buy the mustangs swear by them.

ANDERSON: I've become a mustang snob.

DUKAKIS: Tina Anderson began adopting wild mustangs in 1993, and has made a hobby out of raising them. She says not only are they the most loyal horses, they're also the hardiest.

ANDERSON: Most of the nasty, inclement things that happen with the domesticated horse, and by that I mean the leg problems, heart problems, anything else that may occur, is bred out of them. I mean, if they've got that kind of a problem, they don't survive out in the wild.

DUKAKIS: Anderson says at first she was nervous about taking her family to the prison for the adoptions.

[Shouts about horses]

DUKAKIS: But slowly, she got to know the inmates. She says one older inmate, who broke several of her horses, taught her much of what she knows about wild mustangs.

ANDERSON: He was in trouble from the day he was born. But he found something in horses that, I guess, spoke to him. And he spoke to the horses! I mean, one of the horses that I had, is so calm, that I put babies on him. He'd fall asleep with them.

DUKAKIS: Since it first began in 1986, Colorado's Wild Horse/Inmate Program has trained more than 3500 mustangs, and it seems to have reined in some of the men, as well. Prison records show the recidivism rate for inmates in the program is 25%, compared to 43% for the general prison population. Several inmate trainers have gone on to jobs working with the horses. One former inmate assists the prison's veterinarian with horse shoeing and other work; another ex-convict works as a trouble- shooter, visiting adopters who need help with their horses. The idea, wild men training wild horses, has been catching on. Along with Colorado, 3 other states have similar programs: California, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea Dukakis.



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