Wild Mustangs Help Military Veterans And Prison Inmates | WAMC

Wild Mustangs Help Military Veterans And Prison Inmates

Sep 2, 2019

The overpopulation of wild horses in the western United States has led the federal government to remove some of them. How best to protect the animals is up for debate. Some activists feel the horses should be free, while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management seeks to re-distribute them across the country, including in the Northeast.

With no natural predator, the size of wild mustang herds, mostly in the West, has more than tripled since 1971. The Bureau of Land Management says there’s not enough land, food, or water for the horses to survive if they continue to reproduce at current rates.

Emma Minteer with her new mustang at the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Event in Ithaca, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

According to advocacy groups like The Pine Nut Horse Activists in Nevada, there would be enough resources for the horses if the BLM changed its approach.

“Systematically they have reduced the habitat that Congress designated for Wild Horses and Burros and now they only confined to 26 million acres of the 40 something million acres that they were originally designated,” said Deniz Bolbol of the Pine Nut Horse Advocates in Nevada.

“They come up with a bunch of excuses,” Bolbol said. “Most of the excuse is that private landowners in the area didn’t want the horses there or the burros there.”

In the days of westward expansion, people claimed pieces of land and the water on it. Now, a mile or so is private land, then public, then private again, creating a sort of patchwork of claims. The BLM says this doesn’t work well for wild horses and burros.

“So there was 22 million acres that are no longer managed for wild horses and burros,” said Jason Lutterman, a BLM Wild Horse and Burro Public Affairs Specialist. “6.7 million acres were never under BLM management. So I think that would be: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Defense, Department of Energy lands, as well as state lands. We just try and let folks know that this wasn’t some kind of conspiracy. There were reasons why these lands were withdrawn for horse management.”

How many horses is too many?

According to the BLM, there are approximately 88,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros out west. The BLM is seeking to get that number to about 27,000. They call this the “appropriate management level” or AML.

Bolbol said she has never seen the science that supports this number.

Wild horses near Gardnerville, Nevada near the Pine Nut Mountains
Credit https://www.facebook.com/Wildhorseadvocates/ / Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

“The horses are just simply not overpopulated,” Bolbol said. “What it is is - AML is ridiculous and it’s not based on science and it needs to be revised.”

The BLM says the AML is created by analyzing resource management plans.

“How fast is the vegetation growing,” Lutterman said. “What has been the trend over the last five or six years? What is the trend in the climate? What are the total users out there? Are there livestock authorized? Is there wildlife that needs to make sure that we have enough forage and water available for the wildlife? What areas are dedicated to recreation? And so we’ll base the appropriate management level both on the scientific data that’s being collected over 5-10 years just basically on the habitat that’s available out there.”

The BLM has ecologists, wild horse and burro specialists, and range land management specialists who create the AMLs.

“And we also need to start doing humane birth control on all these horses rather than these removals,” Bolbol said.

Lutterman said, “The BLM has been investing in research for fertility control for wild horses for decades now. Since the 1990s at least. There is one vaccine that we have been using for several years. It is a one-year effective annual vaccine, it’s called PZP.” Which stands for Porcine Zona Pellucida. “And that vaccine is able to render a mare infertile for about a year before she has to then be re-treated,” Lutterman said.

But most of the herds are located in hard to reach areas, making it difficult to administer the treatment yearly, if ever.

“Most of our herds you cannot get within a mile of the animal before it sees you and takes off,” Lutterman said.

Only about 700 (out of 88,000) wild horses have received fertility treatment in the past year.

Coexisting With Cattle

“So you’ll have areas where they’ll put out thousands of livestock, right, and then you have a few hundred

Wild horses near Gardnerville, Nevada near the Pine Nut Mountains
Credit https://www.facebook.com/Wildhorseadvocates/ / Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

horses and they’ll say well there’s not enough water for the horses because the ranchers turn the water on and off for the cows,” Bolbol said. “And then there’s no water when the cows aren’t out there, and then they say there’s not enough water for the horses. They allocate 80% of the resource, the forage, to private livestock. And they only give the horses about 20% and that’s inside of the herd management areas.”

Lutterman says this is because livestock and the wild horses are managed differently. Cattle are put out to graze on a rotating basis depending on the season.

“Where horses there’s going to need to be resources to support that horse herd all throughout the year,” Lutterman said. “So even during the summer months when you’re not getting any rain or growth or forage. And in the winter months when the ground is covered with a couple feet of snow so it’s kind of hard to compare how much forage is allocated to horses versus livestock because they’re just managed in a completely different way.”

The BLM has agreements with private landowners to use their water for the horses, too. The landowners cooperate, but only for the amount of horses that are supposed to be there. The Appropriate Management Level. Not for the amount that are actually there. Which is about triple that amount.

Bolbol thinks this is because cattle make money. Horses don’t. Ecologists often blame horses for the degradation of grasslands.

“I say take the cows off. If that’s the truth. Take the cows off,” Bolbol said. “The horses have a legal right to this land. The cows have no legal right. But don’t talk to me about range degradation or rangeland health assessments while you’re continuing to put cows out there in greater numbers than the horses.”

But the BLM says the cows do have a legal right to the land. And the BLM has to manage all the animals, not just the horses.

“They’re both authorized by law,” Lutterman said. “There’s been livestock grazing that’s been part of our Western heritage out here for centuries. Legally speaking, the BLM believes they both have a right to be out there. The challenge is to manage each of them to make sure that there’s resources for both uses and there can be if populations are managed at their appropriate level. I think it’s important to realize that even if there weren’t livestock out there, horse herds they’re increasing regardless at 15-20% per year. At some point, whether or not there’s other animals out there, they’re going to hit a ceiling for what the land can support and so the challenge really is stabilizing that growth and making sure that herds don’t grow beyond the size of what the resources can support out there.”

Wild horses near Gardnerville, Nevada near the Pine Nut Mountains
Credit https://www.facebook.com/Wildhorseadvocates/ / Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

“The only horses that are starving on the range is because the BLM hasn’t done their job to ensure there’s water out there,” Bolbol said. “Or –the BLM hasn’t done its job to ensure humane birth control has been administered. It’s a fallacy that the horses are starving on the range. In fact, when they went to Congress and made those claims, they were showing old pictures and we don’t even know that they were wild horses or domestic horses.”

Lutterman says this is not accurate.

“The BLM, we would never submit something that’s untruthful to Congress,” Lutterman said. “Any horses that we depict as wild horses they are in fact wild horses on public land.”

While the debate over the wild horses and the land out west continues, the BLM is seeking people to train the wild horses and put them up for adoption – even thousands of miles away.

Wild Horse Adopters

At Rose Hill Ranch in Naples, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, Emma Minteer and her husband have around 30 horses.

 

Emma, Riley, and Levi Minteer with their adopted mustang, Jinx, at Rose Hill Ranch in Naples, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“So these are our stalls and these are just some of the client horses we have,” Emma said. “This is our ‘Honkey the donkey.’ And one of our mustangs.”

Emma trains wild mustangs from the West, competing in an event called Extreme Mustang Makeover.

“It’s a 100-day training program to train the horses and then compete and then adopt them out to the public,” Emma said.

Emma has competed nine times, winning three times. The program was founded by the Mustang Heritage Foundation, which works closely with the Bureau of Land Management to acquire the mustangs.

 

Levi Minteer, 7, riding mustang, Jinx at Rose Hill Ranch in Naples, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

Jack Minteer, Emma’s husband, introduced their mustang, Jinx. On a recent summer day, Jinx was bridled and standing between Jack and their 9-year-old daughter, Riley. Jinx seemed docile, and nudged Riley here and there with his nose.

“Jinx was the very first mustang that Emma trained for Extreme Mustang Makeover,” Jack said. “He was in the wild for nine years, we figure. And he was in holding for six months before we got him for the competition. And when we got him, we could tell he’d been in the wild and fighting quite a bit because he’s missing part of his right ear. He’s missing part of his left nostril. And he’s all scarred up. We figure he was protecting his herd and all his mares. For nine years.”

 

Adopted mustang Jinx's BLM freeze-brand.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

Emma turned Jinx’s head.

“He’s got this scar tissue right here on his neck,” Emma said. “You can see it here. That’s never gone away. And if you were to take this saddle off you could just see his whole body is raked with scars.”

The Minteers say these injuries are common among rescued mustangs, because as the herds grow, survival is increasingly competitive. Horses will fight over water.

The BLM started an incentive program for adopters this year, offering $1,000 per mustang. Kristen Fontain is the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Supervisor for the Northeastern States.

“From the time that animal comes off the range and stays in one of our holding facilities we estimate approximately $53,000 for that one horse that the taxpayers would have to pay for the 30 years that that animal was in that facility,” Fontain said. "So when you look at it that way, just giving out $1,000 for that horse saves $52,000 [every year] for the taxpayers for that horse.”

I spoke with Fontain at a July Wild Horse and Burro adoption event in Ithaca, New York, where all 56 wild horses were adopted within the first several hours.

Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Event in Ithaca, NY. July, 19, 2019. Horse corrals mostly empty after 56 wild horses were adopted in one day.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

But, some – including Bolbol of the Pine Nut Horse Advocates – are concerned about who is adopting the horses, mentioning the sale of hundreds of horses to a kill-buyer. The BLM says that was a case where the buyer was untruthful, and new safeguards are in place.

Adoption Controversy

“We actually know the BLM sold 1,700 BLM wild horses to Tom Davis who was a known kill-buyer,” Bolbol said.

“Well he wasn’t known at the time that the BLM was selling horses,” Lutterman said. “But that was, I believe, about 10 years ago or longer when that happened. It had to do with the BLM not receiving truthful information from the purchaser of the horses but we have since then put in safeguards in our sale policy.”

Lutterman says any sale of more than 4 horses within 6 months gets sent up the management chain for approval. But before the mustangs make it to an adoption event, they are kept in a government holding facility. There are approximately 60,000 horses in the BLM’s holding facilities at any given time.

The BLM uses helicopters to chase the horses into one area called a “trap.” The horses are then loaded into trailers and transported to a holding facility to await adoption and treatment. This process is called a “roundup.” Videos have shown horses being whipped in the face or injured during these roundups.

“You know I have seen those videos as well on social media and what-not and folks have sent them to me,” Lutterman said. “And that is not something that the BLM supports or condones. The vast majority of the animals that we gather are gathered without incident. You may see videos or photos of stand-out moments but those are rare. They can run over a fence or something and most of the time they get up and they’re fine but they make for good pictures and good videos to show online.”

A complaint from advocates is that they can’t get close enough to observe the gathers anymore. They say the BLM doesn’t want them to see how the horses are treated.

“We can’t just have folks out wherever they want to be while we are having helicopters gathering horses,” Lutterman said. “That area has to be chosen in a spot where it’s not going to interfere with gather operations with the horses – once they see you they’ll take off. We are not intentionally blocking them.”

With the increasing wild horse population, there are concerns the issue will lead to a mass slaughter.

“Yea I don’t think so,” Lutterman said. “That’s not somewhere where the BLM wants to go and I don’t think that’s somewhere where Congress wants to go but ultimately it is a decision for Congress [to make.]”

Lutterman says when the BLM submits reports and recommendations to Congress, the agency is asked to include an analysis of euthanizing the horses as an option.

“They’re clearly concerned about the program and concerned about the situation,” Lutterman said. “And I think that’s why they’re requesting to see all the options that could be on the table for putting this program back on a sustainable track.”

Bolbol says that everyone involved with the wild mustangs need to work as a team.

“There are so many opportunities for us to work together,” Bolbol said. “And we really want to work with

Wild horses near Gardnerville, Nevada near the Pine Nut Mountains
Credit https://www.facebook.com/Wildhorseadvocates/ / Pine Nut Wild Horse Advocates

the BLM and the ranchers to make it a more fair program and to also start humanely managing these horses on the range and stopping this endless cycle of roundup, removal, and stock-piling.”

Bolbol says except for two annual BLM advisory board meetings, there is not a clear forum for everyone to work together on a solution. The BLM says groups can, and do, submit ideas.

“The BLM is actually in the middle of reviewing a proposed plan that was actually put together by a number of advocate groups,” Lutterman said. “Including the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and others as well as the American Cowmen’s Association, and a lot of organizations that represent ranchers and other public lands users. That was sort of an unprecedented coalition that came together and produced a proposed plan for the BLM and for Congress to review.”

After all the debate, what is the BLM’s way forward?

“I don’t think I’d be truthful if I said that we had everything figured out at this point,” Lutterman said. “The BLM is largely working with the tools that we currently have and the budget that has been allocated by Congress. I think what the BLM is really looking at long term is to build a larger tool box of management tools that we can use to control population growth.”

 

Emma Minteer standing next to wild mustangs at the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Event in Ithaca, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

Until a clear path emerges, families like the Minteers in New York will continue to train, and adopt, the wild mustangs.

“We just brought a mustang home from Kentucky for a 10-year-old girl here and that horse is going to have a fantastic life,” Jack said. “That girl loves that horse and that’s what this is all about. It’s turning a number into a name. From that freeze brand on their neck and not having a name to a horse that’s with a family and loved.”

Nine-year-old Riley Minteer, Jack and Emma’s daughter, is just happy their rescued wild mustang, Jinx, is safe now.

 

Riley Minteer, 9, with miniature horse, Lux.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“Because now he’s got a good home and he doesn’t have to fight anymore,” Riley said. “And his herd probably went to happy homes, too. Makes me feel pretty good. Because all the horses out in the wild there’s not things for them to eat or drink and then the horses just keep growing with baby horses so that they’re up for adoption and getting to good homes makes me feel good about that. I love all the mustangs.”

The EquiCenter

At the same time, mustangs are being used as therapy for military veterans.

At a picturesque former thoroughbred breeding ranch in neighboring Monroe County, New York, you’ll find the EquiCenter. The fencing is bright white and there is green grass as far as you can see. The CEO and co-founder, Jonathan Friedlander, walks the grounds with me.

The EquiCenter, Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“There’s 200 acres here. Over there is our 3-acre organic farm,” Friedlander said. “Out the back of the barn here is fencing and pastures where all the horses live. They live outside 365 days a year. As you can see here come the mustangs walking toward us: Trooper, Ranger, Hero, and Sarge and over to the right here are Liberty and Freedom.”

These grazing horses were adopted from the BLM for the Mission Mustang program at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

If the names sound patriotic, it’s because these are the horses military veterans work with.

The EquiCenter has a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Together they started “Mission Mustang.”

“The concept behind Mission Mustang is if you have a veteran that is suffering from post-traumatic stress, and trying to fit back into the ‘herd’ or community, they immediately understand or feel that they can relate to these horses,” Friedlander said. “And then they’re given a sense of purpose to try to help these horses find a better place. So their purpose is to save the horse but in the end, they’ll tell you that the horses really saved them.”

Friedlander says mental health professionals also work at the EquiCenter, but mostly, the roughly 15 veterans rely on each other for support. 

 

Veterans cook together in the "Farm to Table" program at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“Not only are they helping the horses or working in the field but they’re helping each other,” Friedlander said. “And so they form a network – friendships and support because they can relate to what each other has gone through in a way that they can’t with us or that we can’t with them.”

Emma and Jack Minteer also train at the EquiCenter. Their job is to facilitate a training relationship between the veteran and the wild mustang.

“We’re working to get that horse ready to be adopted out to somebody else,” Emma said. “The veteran is doing all the work. We’re there to guide that veteran in how to train that horse.”

Jack Minteer says the veterans and the mustangs form a bond like no other.

 

Jack Minteer exercises Grace at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“I was working with a former Marine and we were all done,” Jack said. “And I thought it was a normal session I didn’t think it really meant that much and she flipped over a bucket and sat down and started to talk. Because I’m not a trained counselor I wasn’t sure what my reaction should be. But I just flipped a bucket over and sat down and listened, basically. And she told me that even with all her therapy and everything, she hadn’t been that calm in eight months as she was at the end of that session.”

The Veterans Involved

“Well my name is Steve and I’m a veteran.”

Steve, a veteran in Mission Mustang at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

Steve, who asked to be identified only by his first name, has been working with mustangs for a few months. We met at the EquiCenter’s South Barn, where several of the horses were being groomed and fed.

“I retired from the Army in 2008 after 28 years of total service, a couple deployments,” Steve said.

By a couple, he means more like 17 —  in Southwest Asia, Northern Iraq, Botswana, Africa, 10 missions in Vietnam for POW/MIA recovery, Laos, North Korea, South Korea and, finally, Jalalabad, Afghanistan.  Steve started as an E-1, a private in the Navy, and retired as an O-5, Lieutenant Colonel, in the Army.

“It was a wild ride,” Steve said. “I’ll tell you what.”

He started in Signals Intelligence as a cryptologic technician, a job that requires perfection.

“We didn’t have computers,” Steve said. “It was all done, still, with humans. That pressure was really intense. It’s hard to describe to people.”

He was 17 at the time. As he moved up in the ranks and eventually became an officer, the pressure increased.

“You know there are instances that wake you up at night. Sure,” Steve said. “Whether or not you made the right call.”

Steve was an infantry officer. And an Airborne ranger. There are some images he still reflects on:

“Kids,” Steve said. “The children… And the animals.”

 

Steve, a Veteran in Mission Mustang at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

The kids, in refugee camps throughout the Middle East, would chase down Steve’s patrols and reach out for candy. He remembers driving slowly so as to not accidentally hit them. But the other image that stays with him is how the animals were treated.

“One time – this picture is as vivid today as it was then – this mule was trying to go up a hill and it had a broken pelvis,” Steve said. “And it would just make a few steps at a time. Rules of engagement were we couldn’t do anything to put it out of its misery. But we passed it for three of four days and it would just make a few steps of progress and then one day it was gone. It would really trouble the men. And there was nothing we could do. They would ask if I would l let them shoot it and I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed.”

Steve says he also came from an abusive home.

“I had a very troubled childhood,” Steve said. “Lots of abuse. Eleven different schools. Severe child abuse.”

For Steve, horses were part of that abuse.

“They were used as a way of shaming me,” Steve said. “Told to go and bridle up a stud that was in a stall, and of course I could never get a bridle on him and then that was used to publicly shame me out of the barn.”

Steve says he suffered physical abuse, too; things in the barn, like the horse whips, were often used on him.

“There would be times that I’d be whipped so bad that the tooling on my father’s belt, you could see it on my skin,” Steve said. “I’d have to sleep sitting up because I’d be dizzy at night. I couldn’t go to school sometimes for a week at a time because I had bruises all over my face.”

“I really kind of got out of the horse thing until I came back here,” Steve said. “I didn’t know how I’d feel about it all. But it’s been remarkable going in there with the animal. We were both kind of on edge a little bit at first but then we made a connection and the horse came right up to me. It followed me around the pen and… I just felt peace.”

Steve says no matter the type of trauma, horses can heal just the same.

“It doesn’t matter where you were in life,” Steve said. “What your rank was – what your trauma history is. When you experience ‘the join up’ as they call it, and you’re on an equal footing with the horse and they come to you and you realize you’ve communicated – there’s nothing like it.”

Steve says during his military career, there was no room for error because somebody could die. But the EquiCenter is helping him cope with that.

“Well it’s allowed me to understand that we must let go,” Steve said. “Even me. You’ve got to let go of perfection. Life is not perfect. And letting go of the desire to control. And that is hard to do. That is hard to do.”

In the Air Force, Barbara Stickney worked on the electronic warning system for the F-one-eleven fighter jet. She and I sit on a picnic table in the sun, on the grounds of the EquiCenter.

“Well when I first came here I was a homeless female veteran, living in a homeless shelter. And I was referred here for their riding lessons. They offer free riding lessons to veterans.”

 

Barbara Stickney, a veteran in Mission Mustang at the EquiCenter.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

Stickney was a sergeant when she transitioned out, and fell on hard times. She’s a registered nurse, but due to osteoarthritis, can’t work anymore.

“I had operations on my knees. I lost my apartment. I lost my income. And I was homeless,” Stickney said. “I was addicted on narcotic pain medication for a long time. I’m going to say 15 years maybe... And I actually ended up almost dead twice from it.”

A veteran outreach center set her up with a shelter and sent her to counseling.

“The lady that I was counseling with knew about the EquiCenter and we were trying to find ways to make me not want to kill myself,” Stickney said.

After starting with weekly sessions at the EquiCenter five years ago, Stickney now works with the mustangs five days a week.

Lou and Barb, veterans in the Mission Mustang program at the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the EquiCenter. Absolutely tell you that 100%,” Stickney said. “I’ve found a family here, much like in the military, people that love me and that I love. People that are doing the same thing that I am which is trying to help other people through horses and through the farming and the other things that the EquiCenter does here. And it just became a home for me.”

Stickney says the EquiCenter hasn’t just helped her emotionally, it’s acted as physical therapy as well. She thinks back to her first riding lesson.

“I couldn’t relax,” Stickney said. “But we went for a walk and then I started to relax a little bit and my back like totally unclenched (because I have a bad back) and it just like, it shifted my back around. I thought I was going to get off and have a lot of trouble, it was going to hurt, but man I got off and it was like having the greatest massage.”

Stickney says she believes in the program not just because it worked for her, but because she has watched other people transform at the EquiCenter.

“People come here and they won’t lift their head up and they’re just kind of shuffling along and I’ll look at somebody else and I’ll say, ‘EquiCenter will fix them.’ I know it 100%,” Stickney said. “Because I’ve seen so many people come here that have been in a bad place in their life and I just start to see them open up one little flower at a time and then the next thing you know they’re like – all the way open.”

For those struggling, Stickney says it comes down to seeking counseling and facing your trauma.

“You’ve just got to try,” Stickney said. “Otherwise you’re just going to sit there and you’re never going to feel the sun on your shoulders, you’re never going to feel the horse under your hands, you’re never going to feel the dirt from our garden, you’re never going to do yoga, you’re never going to walk any of our beautiful horses here… And that’s a shame. That’s a waste.”

Above all else, looking back on her journey, Stickney says she is grateful.

Entrance to the EquiCenter in Menden, NY.
Credit Jackie Orchard / WAMC News

“I have no idea how I get to come here and I get to ride a horse here,” Stickney said. “It is absolutely amazing. I don’t understand how it can be there for me. I guess what I started to feel was safe.”

The EquiCenter is open to the public. For veterans and their family members, riding is free. For more information, you can visit https://www.equicenterny.org/

Carson City Prison

It may be a touch ironic considering the wild nature of mustangs, but they’re also being used to improve life in prisons.

Carson City Prison mustang corral
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

Carson City Prison in Nevada is one of six programs in the U.S. where prison inmates train and care for wild mustangs. The Carson City facility houses around 900 horses. They arrive as wild mustangs under a partnership with the BLM.

Hank Curry is a trainer who works with the horses and the inmates. He says what helps the inmates most is teaching them structure and dedication:

“They’re used to having a job for a week or so and then they’re out either stealing again or beating the streets looking for another job,” Curry said. “So they have to realize that they have a responsibility to maintain this job or we’re going to dismiss them. When I get that explained to them it usually turn their life around.”

Justin Pope, the ranch manager, agrees.

Horse shoes, Carson City Prison
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

“You know there’s a lot of buzz words out there right now,” Pope said. “‘Re-entry,’ and ‘programming,’ and so on and so forth… Really what it boils down to is I don’t think you could find better programming or re-entry skills than just getting out here and going to work. These guys are working at least five days a week, most of them somewhere around 10 hours a day. Not just keeping them busy and keeping them out of trouble while they’re here but actually teaching them skills that they probably didn’t have before. Getting up and going to work and being there at a specific time, being responsible for your animal that you’re taking care of, or animals, and being responsible for what you get done in a day.”

The Stewart Conservation Camp is a minimum security prison that houses 360 inmates. It’s part of the Carson City Prison Campus.

“They don’t have razor wire fences or anything like that,” Pope said. “For the most part, the guys that are working, are able to come and go as their job dictates. My guys out here on the farm, we run on 1,150 acres. So it’s basically the honor system.”

Carson City Prison mustang corrals
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

Twice a day there is an official count. But if the inmates run off, it could add six years to their sentence, and Pope says most of them are close to getting out, so it’s just not worth it.

“We’ve had two walk-aways,” Pope said. “That’s two in 20 years.”

So the need for the fences?

“Just to keep the cattle in,” Pope said. “Not the people. Not so much.”

The inmates working with the horses are mostly in for drug-related crimes or DUIs. The more violent criminals are not eligible. Curry says the prison has around 15 inmates acting as horse trainers, while other inmates are responsible for feeding and grooming around 900 wild mustangs, which is called the Horse Feeding Program.

“Well they spend most of their day with the horses,” Curry said. “First off, in the morning they feed, clean the stalls, make sure they have clean water, pens are maintained, things like that. They generally really develop a love for these animals and a lot of these guys didn’t have any respect for anything when it started.”

Inmates and trainers working with mustangs as Carson City Prison.
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

Working with the horses teaches the inmates structure and responsibility, and many of the trained horses go on to serve as police horses or therapy horses. For the training program, they move anywhere between 50 and 80 saddle-trained animals a year. Pope says the prison spent about $150,000 to start the program that houses 400 horses.

“Even in the years that we lost money,” Pope said, “I think it’s worth a loss to the department because it just has such an intangible, philosophical benefit in the work we’re doing with the inmates. Not to mention it’s one of the few good things that our department can talk about. You read the headlines for Department of Corrections and there’s usually not too much that’s positive. And this has always been positive.”

Jason King is a BLM public affairs representative for the Prison Inmate Mustang Training Program.

“It is a controversial program,” King said. “There are folks who believe that the horses might not need management on the range. And of course we’re trying to keep the herds healthy – make sure there’s enough food and water. These herds really do rely on us to come in and make sure that they don’t grow too large for the land.”

But Pope, the prison ranch manager, says the prison isn’t part of that controversy.      

“Both sides of that issue kind of like us,” Pope said. “Because we’re doing good things with the horses and we try to do a good job for BLM. We kind of have the best of both worlds, I guess.”

Horse ropes at Carson City Prison
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

The Pine Nut Ranch Horse Advocates in Nevada agree.

“They’re right,” Bolbol said. “Nobody ever gets mad at them, no. I think that the prisoner training program really gives those horses their best chance at being adopted into good forever homes.”

Curry, the horse trainer, has been working with the inmates for about 17 years and has seen their successes. One inmate, who struggled socially, stands out.

“You know, he overreacted to everything, was very emotional, very immature,” Curry said. “He wanted to fit in but he just didn’t… He became my leading trainer. Had the highest selling horse at about six auctions. Turned this guy’s life completely around. He got out – last I heard he was very successful. He became a tile setter which has nothing to do with horses other than the fact that it takes a lot of devotion and pride in your work.”

Mustang corrals at Carson City Prison
Credit Scott Kelley / Public Information Officer Nevada Department of Corrections

Jason King of the BLM says the program has the potential to grow.

“The BLM is interested in expanding,” King said. “Adding new programs to this and working with any willing partners and any prisons that would be willing to operate a program like this.”

The prison’s next group of trained mustangs are available for adoption on October 19, you can see them at: https://wildhorsesonline.blm.gov/

WAMC News intern Jackie Orchard is a senior at the University at Albany studying journalism. Prior to returning to school for journalism, she was on Active Duty as a Captain in the Army.