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The Wild Horse Redemption

They are as different as the worlds they come from. The man who lived by armed robbery and assault on the dismal downtown streets of Denver, Colorado… and the wild horse from the government range lands of the high central desert, the brutish bay with the bone-rack lean body and the fire in his eyes.

The horse was born to run free through the scrub brush and canyons that are home to the tens of thousands of wild horses that still roam the American West. The man was destined to squander his life, first in Denver’s punk-ridden alleys, then behind bars in a series of lockups from small-town jails to the state pen.

But what set them apart would bring them together – man and mustang – in a most dramatic way and a most unlikely place. They would both be captured and shipped to Colorado’s Canon City Correctional Facility, the man to be incarcerated for 4 years, the horse for 90 days – three months that could save both of their lives.

The story of 42-year old inmate Jon Peterson and the 3-year old mustang he called “Buddy” is just one of dozens that unfold each year in Colorado. The program is one of a number of ‘correctional industries’ that give inmates the chance to earn money and learn skills while incarcerated. It’s a “gentling program,” designed to save at least some of the estimated 32,000 horses that run wild on public land in the southwest. That’s about four thousand more than the range lands can sustain, and the population is growing at 20% per year. So the herd must be culled by five or six thousand per year, and the object is to get as many as possible into the hands of people who will ride and care for them.

So, three times a year, mustangs are rounded up by the US Bureau of Land Management. Horses that can outrun anything on land are herded by helicopter, corralled by cowboys, then hauled by truck to a number of holding facilities. Some are sent to the Canon City prison and put in the care of a man named Brian Hardin. Hardin runs the Wild Horse Inmate Program, which employs 35 - 40 prisoners at a time.

“There are similarities between the wild horses and the inmates,” Hardin says. “They are both gathered up so to speak and they both have numbers and they are without a home and a family. The offenders that come into our program generally don’t have any experience at all with horses. The guys that want to train horses volunteer to train.”

Working under Hardin are professional horse trainers like Guy McEnulty, who teach the inmates to ride and train the wild mustangs, using the methods of ‘horse whisperers.’

“The old method was just basically tie them up, throw a saddle on and ride the bronc out of them,” says McEnulty. “With this resistance-free, you get a lot more willing horse than you do if you are forcing him to do things. People to me are a lot the same way as the horse. If you get them excited they can’t think very good and a lot of the times make the wrong decisions.”

Teaching the prisoners to make the right decisions is Guy’s job. A few of the prisoners will become team trainers, who will teach the skills they’ve acquired to other inmates.

A former rodeo cowboy and racetrack worker, McEnulty carefully selects the horses and matches them with the inmate trainers. For the next 90 days, the convicts will devote their lives to teaching those headstrong four-legged creatures what they’ll need to find a good home.

It will be difficult, dangerous work. Jon Peterson, now a senior team trainer, is in the program for the third time. At 42, he has spent 19 years in prison. “You have to be fast around these animals because in a split second they can turn. They can rear up and strike you real quick. They can bite you. Believe me, all of that hurts because it has all been done to me. It’s all been done to me.”

Inmates like Jon take a beating at Canon City. But for 90 days, they’ll keep coming back. Most of them.

“Almost all of them are scared starting out but as they work with the horse and develop a communication that helps get rid of some of that fear,” says McEnulty. “There are a few guys that never get over that fear. They are just not cut out to be a horse trainer.”

In three short months, they must help mustangs that have never felt a human touch – and that will do anything to escape confinement – learn such things as tolerating a saddle, stopping and backing up on command, and willingly entering a trailer. But from day one, it’s clear to all that that it won’t be easy.

Within the prison training compound, the desert air echoes with the clangs and crashes of hooves and huge bodies colliding with metal fencing as the mustangs desperately try to escape. And the prisoners know all about fear, too. They’ve dished it out and lived with it. It’s why they’re at Canon City in the first place; it’s their bond with the horses. But for the next three months, the inmates will have to leave their past behind. They will be two headstrong creatures, the mustang and the man, trying to find a common ground.

The trainers at Canon City receive no special praise, and no lessening of their sentences. But if they can survive for 90 days, they will have achieved something far more precious for their horses and themselves – hope, trust, confidence, even a kind of love. Ordinary enough emotions for most of us, but almost unknown for this collection of armed robbers, drug dealers, and thieves.

Inmate team trainer Anthony Edwards: “I see a lot of me in the horses. Taken out of the chaos, brought here, taken to a great place. Yes sir. At the start they don’t want to conform and all we are trying to do is help them. I see that the same as society is doing. At the start, all we want to do is rebel and not conform to the ways of the world and all they are trying to do is help us; and that is definitely what I see with the horses.”

From the dead-end streets and deserts where they ran wild, through the capture that brought them together in prison, and then for those fearful 90 days, The Wild Horse Redemption will be a fascinating ride. Success on their strange journey together will mean a loving home for the horse, and self-respect for the inmate. It all ends with adoption day, where the successful inmates and horses can prove to the outside world that they are no longer wild creatures.


He is in prison for drug possession and assault. He claims he’d “never met anything wilder than me” until he was paired with the wild mustang stallion. He says that in his old life, things would be different; “I’d out-muscle him. I’d keep him hurting until he did what I wanted. I’d go catch him and force him. But forcing doesn’t work. I’ve learned that. I wished I’d learned it before now.’


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