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Why prisoners in Arizona are learning to tame wild horses

The art of gentling

At a state penitentiary in Arizona, prisoners are learning how to tame wild horses. As Haley Cohen found, these are also lessons for life – and for corrections policy

At a state penitentiary in Arizona, prisoners are learning how to tame wild horses. As Haley Cohen found, these are also lessons for life – and for corrections policy

Haley Cohen | December 18th 2017

As the Arizonan sun begins to rise, Brian Tierce guides a bay gelding into a round pen and closes the steel gate behind them. Tierce, thick-necked with grey-blue eyes, leads his charge to the centre of the pen and picks up a Styrofoam saddle pad he had left in the dirt earlier. He holds the pad forward and the gelding, named Obi Wan after the Jedi Master in “Star Wars”, sniffs it suspiciously. Suddenly frightened, the horse snorts and strains his neck away. Tierce lowers the pad to his side and says soothingly: “It’s okay, boy. You’re okay.” He waits for a full minute, watching to see if Obi’s head sinks into a more relaxed position. When it does, Tierce tries again, gently sliding the pad down the horse’s muzzle and across his cheeks. He explains: “He’s never had this on him, ever. I could probably get this on him today – the saddle. But I’m not trying to put the saddle on the horse; I’m trying to get the horse to accept the saddle.”

Patience and tenderness are new traits for Tierce, who is 50 years old and serving the final months of a seven-year sentence at Arizona’s state prison complex in Florence for assaulting his ex-girlfriend while high on methamphetamine. “I’ve been in the system my whole life, you know. I was probably given up for incorrigible when I was about five.” At that age Tierce would sneak out of the window of his home in Phoenix to roam the streets with older friends, returning late at night. His father had walked out when he was young; his mom had polio and two other kids. “She was scared to death. She had to do something – she couldn’t control me,” he says flatly. He was placed in a group home for troubled youngsters, where he suffered physical and sexual abuse throughout his childhood. At 18, finally independent, he found meth, and spent 21 of the next 32 years in a jail cell, mostly on drug-related charges.

Tierce’s current sentence – his fifth – has been the most agreeable. In many states, including Arizona, all prisoners who are physically able to must work by law. While other inmates at the Florence complex toil in the prison slop hall, harvest tilapia on the prison fish farm or tinker with broken prison vehicles, Tierce is one of about 20 who spend their weekdays outside, training mustangs as part of the prison’s Wild Horse Inmate Programme (WHIP).

The first WHIP was launched in Cañon City, Colorado, in 1986 as a collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the arm of the federal government that manages America’s wild mustangs, and Colorado’s Department of Corrections. It was conceived as a way to reduce prisoner idleness and defray the cost of incarceration while making use of wild horses. The success of the Colorado initiative inspired prisons in Nevada, Wyoming, Kan­sas and Arizona to start similar programmes. Florence launched its WHIP in 2012.

Except for the tall concertina fence that encloses it, the complex looks much like any scruffy horse stable. There is a round pen large enough for a horse to circle in about 20 strides, a shed filled with saddles and bridles, stalls topped with corrugated metal to shield the horses from the desert sun, and a large grass-and-dirt riding ring sprinkled with drainage tubes and other bits and bobs that have been recycled as obstacles.

Dressed in bright-orange Arizona Department of Corrections scrubs, the inmates enrolled in the programme – who include a mechanic with a penchant for stealing classic-car parts, a native American with several DUI charges and a 23-year-old who was arrested for armed robbery aged 17 – are shuttled to the complex on a white school bus every morning at six. To mask the howling from the adjacent kennels, where corrections officers train dogs to chase down would-be fugitives, the men switch on an old radio, tuned to a country-music station, and crank up the volume. With the crooning of Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley as a soundtrack, the prisoners fetch their assigned horses and begin brushing the dirt from their coats and removing the manure from their hooves.

Potential weapons abound – ropes, iron hoof picks, welding materials that prisoners use to construct new stalls. Those convicted of more serious crimes must have constant supervision, but the low-level drug offenders, drunk drivers and petty thieves roam around the large complex at will. It is a welcome respite from the claustrophobia of their cells. At last count in June 2017, the north unit of Florence Prison, where most of the WHIP participants stay, was at full capacity. Such cramped quarters tend to invite violence and misery: Arizona’s Department of Corrections counted 2,074 inmate-on-inmate fights in their prisons during the fiscal year ending June 30th, as well as 763 attempts at self-harm, including cutting, hanging and blunt force.

“I come out here and get off the yard, and I get peace,” says Tierce, leading Obi out of the round pen to take a break. He gestures in the direction of his cellblock. “It’s chaos in there.”

America has the largest prison population in the world and the second-highest incarceration rate (only tiny Seychelles, with 735 prisoners in 2014, locks up a larger proportion of its population). Due in large part to changes in sentencing law and policy – being “tough on crime” is a proven vote-winner – the incarceration rate rose five-fold between 1970 and 2008. In the years that followed, in a rare bi-partisan initiative, state governments and the federal government sought to reduce their respective prison populations with modest success. Through measures that included drug-sentencing reforms and changes to how parole violations are dealt with, America’s imprisonment rate fell by 8% between 2010 and 2015. A directive issued by the Obama administration that discouraged prosecutors from pursuing maximum sentences for non-violent offenders led to a 10% decrease in the population of federal prisoners. By 2014, there were just over 2.2m prisoners, down from 2.3m in 2008.

But federal prison numbers may soon swell again. In May, Jeff Sessions, the American attorney general, overturned the Obama-era policy and ordered prosecutors to seek the harshest punishment allowed by the law for drug-related offences. The budget proposed by the Department of Justice for 2018 predicted a rise in the federal prison population which, advocates fear, will chill attempts at the state level to reduce incarceration. A tightening of funds has coincided with a shortage of corrections officers in many states and that, in turn, has pushed attempts at rehabilitation down the food chain. “Basically, in Oklahoma, we’re just warehousing people in prison,” Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative recently told the New York Times. “We’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints.” This led to the closure of a money-losing WHIP initiative in Utah in 2014. But the Arizona programme, which breaks even financially, seems safe for now. “Even if it were to start losing money we would probably keep it limping along longer than a normal business would,” says Clark DesSoye, the marketing director for Arizona Correctional Industries, which oversees the WHIP for the Arizona Department of Corrections. “Our main prerogative is to make sure inmates have jobs.”

Lessons at the OK Corral
ABOVE Watching and learning.
BELOW A prisoner teaches his horse about crowd control

When the prisoners first meet their horses, the animals have had minimal human contact. Before they were sent to prison for training, the mustangs ranged free across the American West. In 1971, Congress enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which required that mustangs be protected from “capture, branding, harassment or death” and deemed them “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” But the horses have few natural predators and breed at astounding rates; the BLM estimates that unchecked herds double in size every four years. In 2017 it counted 73,000 mustangs – almost three times what is considered a sustainable population.

To keep them from starving or damaging the ecology of America’s public lands, the BLM rounds up an average of 6,000 horses per year. After they are herded into trailers – usually by low-flying helicopters or cowboys on horseback – many mustangs are sent to long-term corral and pasture facilities where they eat and sleep all day, munching $49m of BLM money a year. Currently around 46,000 horses live in such holding complexes. The advent of WHIPs has allowed the BLM to adopt out thousands of mustangs that might otherwise have wasted away.

Most of the 75 or so horses trained annually in the Florence programme find homes with ranchers, trail-riders and families in need of cheap, hardy mounts. But around ten each year head to America’s frontiers with Canada and Mexico to work for the United States Border Patrol’s mounted units. The irony of this is not lost on Raúl Ruiz Lonngi, an affable Mexican immigrant who was arrested for using someone else’s citizenship documents to get a serving job at an Italian chain restaurant near Phoenix. As Lonngi tells it, the owner of the documents was a “friend” who offered to sell him the papers for $600 before promptly calling the police to claim Lonngi stole them. After he is released from prison, Lonngi fears he will be swiftly deported back to Mexico, never to see his two young American-born children again.

Courses for horses
ABOVE Watching a wild horse being gentled.
BELOW The horses have to be prepared for life on the outside

As the morning chill gives way to the desert heat, Lonngi, who grew up riding horses at his grandfather’s ranch in Morelos, is teaching his mount, Bruno, to push a rolling cart with large white plastic wheels. Dubbed the “Flintstone mobile”, the cart was designed to prepare the horses for law enforcement duty. While another inmate sits in the cart and waves his arms above his head, Lonngi urges Bruno to press his chest into the cart and move it forward. This desensitises the horse to the potential terrors of marching into chaotic crowd situations, such as those that might arise when Border Patrol agents encounter groups of undocumented immigrants trekking through the desert.

Lonngi recalls a recent encounter with an agent who had come to the Florence WHIP complex from El Paso, Texas, in search of a new mount. After trying out a gelding called Levi, the agent asked who had been the trainer. When Lonngi raised his hand, the agent congratulated him on a job well done. Lonngi smiles coyly as he recalls telling the agent: “Yes, but that horse is also trained so that he listens when I come back [across the border to America] and yell, ‘Ay, don’t follow me!’”

Although he is the most experienced horseman in the Florence programme, in some ways Lonngi had the most to learn. In Mexico he practised a traditional form of horse training often referred to as “breaking”. This is not a misnomer; such methods rely heavily on negative reinforcement and can be brutal. At the outset, a young horse might be tied to a fence post and left to thrash until it learns that fighting is futile. If a horse misbehaves under saddle – bucking when a rider attempts to mount, for example – it might be punished with the crack of a whip on its rump or strong yanks on its bit. The idea is, in essence, to erode the will of the horse until it submits to human control. The parallels with what happens to humans in the prison system are impossible to ignore.

Breaking might be the fastest way to train a horse, says Randy Helm, who directs the Florence WHIP but it is not the most powerful. Helm, who is 63 with hazel eyes, full cheeks and white hair that is almost always concealed under a cowboy hat, teaches the prisoners at the Florence programme how to “gentle” horses, relying on psychological rather than physical pressure to transform them from wild mustangs into docile mounts. He trains his men to see the world through equine eyes, and to translate what they want into signals a horse can understand.

“We don’t train the horse’s body to do anything – we train the horse’s mind to think a certain way,” Helm explains, quickly adding that gentle does not mean weak. Even in the wild, horses seek leadership; equine herds naturally organise themselves into hierarchies. In order to establish their dominance without physical force, successful gentlers must project authority through their tone of voice and body language. The combination of firmness and stoicism means gentled horses obey their trainers out of trust, not fear.

Before they attempt riding, prisoners work to earn their mounts’ confidence by brushing, massaging and talking to them on the ground. The process can be slow – it sometimes takes days before a horse will allow itself to be touched, let alone bridled. For the prisoners, many of whom were arrested for trying to find quick paths to easier lives – stealing car parts instead of buying them, robbing from banks instead of saving pay cheques – Helm sees this process as one of the most important lessons of the programme. There are no shortcuts in gentling: taming a mustang demands patience and repetition.

Some of the inmates are quicker to realise this than others, says Arthur Harris, a boyish 30-year-old who is in prison for stealing a car from a dealership while high on methamphetamine. When he first started working with his chestnut mare, Cleo, she was rowdy and skittish. Now, a few weeks into her training, Cleo nuzzles Harris as he cinches a saddle around her belly. “You’ve got to show horses love, and show them, you know, that you care about them. Like if the youngster over there was riding her,” he says, pointing to another inmate across the riding ring, “she’d rear up and buck on him because he don’t go up to her and talk to her and rub her and stuff. You got to do that to your horse or you’re strangers to them.” Harris hoists himself onto Cleo’s back. As the pair saunter around the riding arena, Harris occasionally drops his reins, wraps his arms around Cleo’s slender neck, and coos: “You’re so pretty, girl. You’re so pretty. You’re the prettiest horse in the yard.”

Nearby, Lonngi is practising a more advanced trust-building exercise with his fuzzy dark-chestnut gelding, Bruno. Standing on the ground by Bruno’s left shoulder, Lonngi holds the reins in one hand and the horse’s left hoof in the other. He then draws Bruno’s left foreleg backwards towards his haunches until the gelding has gently rocked onto his side in the dirt with his hooves hovering above the ground. Bruno gives a small snort and waits expectantly as Lonngi climbs into the saddle and prompts him to stand up again.

For horses, lying down on command is the ultimate display of faith. “If a predator gets a horse down, it’s pretty much history, right? So, if a horse will lay down on its own that’s come out of the wild…it just kind of changes the way a horse thinks,” Helm explains.

It is difficult to imagine someone better suited to run a WHIP than Helm, who has worked as a ranch hand, a police officer and a preacher. Removed from the care of his mother, an alcoholic, at the age of seven, Helm grew up mostly on his grandparents’ ranch in Safford, Arizona, where he trained retired racehorses how to herd cattle. After a stint in the air force during the Vietnam war, he worked briefly as an undercover narcotics detective in Arlington, Texas. On his first day he was given a sack of marijuana and told to get in his car, roll up his windows and let it burn until the aroma sank into the cloth seats. “You’re totally immersed in that world. I carried a .25 automatic in an ankle holster…my liaison officer – I would meet him in the back of a cemetery,” Helm recalls as he leans against the bars of the round pen, where a prisoner is struggling to load a nervous Palomino gelding onto a trailer. He believes that experience allows him to empathise with the prisoners he oversees, many of whom are in jail on drugs-related charges.

After almost a year of narcotics work he moved to the patrol unit and eventually into the police chaplaincy, where he counselled officers with post-traumatic stress, and conducted funerals for fallen colleagues. Before launching Florence’s WHIP, Helm spent 19 years as a pastor at a church in Glendale, Arizona, adopting and training wild mustangs on the side for fun.

The Florence WHIP participants seem genuinely to like Helm and to want to learn from him. After 20 minutes of failing to get his horse onto the trailer, the prisoner walks over to where Helm is leaning against the round pen. Politely, with a hint of frustration, he asks for Helm’s help. Most of the inmates had temporarily tethered their horses to prepare an early lunch, bologna sandwiches toasted over a flame. As the mid-morning sun blazes overhead, they gather in a circle around the pen to watch Helm at work.

On the hoof
ABOVE Richard Kline was imprisoned for auto theft.
BELOW Randy Helm teaches the prisoners about horses – and life

Helm is dressed in his signature uniform: a Stetson and a white button-down shirt tucked into black jeans cinched tight by a western-style leather belt. As he enters the pen, the frightened gelding’s eyes bulge and his nostrils flare. Helm strides towards him, calmly but confidently, stopping when there is about ten feet between them. He stands in the same spot, impassive, as the horse explodes into a gallop around the pen.

Staying collected – Zen, even – is an important tenet of gentling. As prey animals, wild mustangs are constantly evaluating whether they are at risk of being eaten. To avoid that fate they have evolved to be good at reading body language. If they sense fear from their handlers, they become scared a predator might be nearby. If they sense anger, they become nervous their handler might be a predator himself.

Once the gelding calms down slightly and slows to a walk, Helm swishes a rope a few feet behind the horse’s right haunch to bring him into clockwise trot. Instead, the horse bursts into a gallop again, periodically bucking as he circles the pen. Helm lunges forward, swinging the end of his rope in front of the steed’s chest to ask him to change direction. After about half an hour of this, Helm manages to guide the gelding onto the trailer, only for him to spring off. “What you don’t want to do is shut the gate and make him feel trapped,” Helm shouts to the prisoners gathered around the ring. “You want to make the trailer the safe place, rather than the scary place.”

Helm begins the exercise again. As he urges the horse around the pen, he tells the prisoners how he knows the ideal time to ask the gelding for something – to change direction, speed up or slow down – and when to let him breathe. He watches the horse’s expression carefully: are his ears perked forward as though ready to take direction, or pinned back as if judging whether to fight or flee? Does he hold his neck high, signalling nervousness, or is it relaxed in alignment with the rest of his body? When the Palomino gelding’s muscles start to unclench and his trot becomes smoother and slower, Helm swishes the rope in front of him and he switches course. He lets the rope fall to his side. It is through this intermittent application and release of pressure, Helm explains, that a horse learns that the fastest way to peace is by following its trainer’s directions.

After nearly an hour of trotting and galloping in circles, the Palomino gelding slows to a halt and turns his body towards Helm. The horse’s sweat-soaked head sinks towards the ground in submission as Helm approaches, running a callused hand down his flaxen forelock. Helm ties a halter onto the horse’s head and guides him towards the trailer. Stepping gingerly, as though the ramp were made of burning embers, the gelding enters the trailer, stops, and releases a loud sigh. The prisoners applaud.

Helm’s hope is that, like the gentled mustangs, his human charges will also come to trust that life is easier when they respect authority. In the five years the programme has run, Helm says only two graduates of the Florence WHIP have returned to prison, both on parole violations. Evidence for the success of such programmes is thin but encouraging: the only academic study assessing the impact of such programmes on recidivism, conducted in 1995 at a prison in New Mexico, found that 25% of programme participants reoffended – compared with the average state rate of 38%. More recently, Dr Keren Bachi wrote her doctoral thesis on an equine prison programme in Kentucky where inmates train former racehorses. Conditions were placed on participation – only those near the end of their sentences, no sex offenders and so on – so general conclusions can’t be drawn from its results. Still, they were impressive: 8% of programme participants reoffended, compared to 56% of non-participants.

Brian Tierce is determined to make his current prison term his last. “There’s hope for me this time,” he says as he prepares to return Obi Wan to his stall until the next day. Since starting that morning, he has managed to cinch a saddle onto the horse’s back without any resistance. As he removes Obi’s tack and brushes the sweat and dust out of his coat, he daydreams about the future. “I plan on getting out of here and hopefully working with horses. I’d like to go work at some rehabilitation centre for either kids, or veterans or the elderly. Anywhere that I can help somebody else to feel better about themselves, to help them get through their day – through the horses.”  

As he leads Obi towards his enclosure he reflects, “You know, when I got locked up I was mad. I believe in God and I asked God ‘Just give me the silver lining in why I’m locked up, why I got to do this.’ And this was my silver lining.” Tierce enters Obi’s stall, removes his halter and strokes a hand down his face before continuing: “I’ve got this horse, I’m in here training, but I feel like God has got me in this round pen training me…I take him out and between moving and resting and moving and resting, he gets peace, you know. And that’s what I get.” He lingers for a moment with his hand on Obi’s withers before backing away and shutting the metal-barred gate to the horse’s stall. Then he walks towards the white school bus that will return him to his cell.

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