The Wild Horse Redemption
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
like Jon take a beating at Canon City. But for 90 days, they’ll
keep coming back. Most of them.
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.”
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.
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.
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,
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.”
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.