RIVERTON, Wyo. — Men in boots and cowboy hats draped themselves over the white piping of the round pen and watched two of their peers throw a saddle over the mustang’s back. The horse kicked up dust as it skittered slightly under the load.

“Whenever you’re good,” Eric Farrar said, holding the wild horse by its halter.

“I’m ready,” Scott West replied, shoving a scuffed boot in the saddle’s stirrup.

His voice remained steady, though the 53-year-old inmate was well aware of the risks of mounting a formerly feral horse for its first ride. He knew that without warning or provocation the stocky gelding could pitch his slight frame into the dust or into the metal fencing bordering the enclosure. If he fell in the wrong spot, the 1,000-pound animal could trample his chest or head. An unexpected lurch or buck could mean broken bones or a concussion.

“OK,” Farrar said. “Don’t forget to breathe.”

The crowd of about a dozen spectators tittered at the half-joke as West swung his leg over the mustang’s saddle. The crowd hushed.

Then, nothing.

The horse didn’t buck or rear. It didn’t even flinch. Instead, the formerly wild animal stood quietly and accepted its first rider — an accomplishment for even an animal that had been raised by people. It walked forward easily as Farrar led it around the pen and described to a crowd of potential buyers the thorough training process used by the inmates that led to the anti-climactic first ride.

Farrar and the other men gathered around the pen may look the part, but they’re not traditional cowboys. They’re inmates serving time at the Wyoming Honor Farm, a minimum-security corrections facility just outside Riverton.

The men are part of the Honor Farm’s mustang program, which offers a chance at a better life for both man and horse. Instead of the confines of concrete cells and orange jumpsuits, the men spend their days in the fresh air working on the farm and learning job skills. The mustangs, rounded up from wild Wyoming herds, are trained for riding and adopted out to homes where they will be cared for and safe.

More than that, though, the program helps smooth out rough edges. Mustangs and inmates learn to work together. After rough-and-tumble lives, they learn to trust again.

“We really use the horse as a tool to help the men change,” said Joe Crofts, who manages the agriculture program at the low-security prison.

“The men think, ‘Oh, man, you’re locked up, I’m locked up, let’s get through this,'” he said.

REDIRECTING HORSE AND MAN

After passing through a minimal security checkpoint — think flimsy gate at an airport parking lot manned by one security guard — visitors to the facility drive through a series of white buildings with red roofs and manicured lawns, still green in early September. There’s no razor wire encircling the premises, no heavy clanging doors, no metal detectors.

Inmates in red shirts and jeans exercise in the yard and move bales of hay in the back. They walk about without handcuffs and, sometimes, without supervision.

A transfer to the 640-acre farm from another corrections facility is a privilege earned by good behavior. Most of the inmates are nearing their parole date. The men work at a variety of agriculture jobs and manage about 700 cattle, 170 wild horses and over 500 acres of alfalfa, corn, oats and other crops.

In 1988, the Department of Corrections partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and created the mustang program — the second mustang program for inmates established in the country and one of six total in the nation.

The program helps the BLM find homes for the mustangs they regularly round up to manage the wild herds. The inmates’ training helps the horses become more adoptable.

In turn, working with the horses helps the men learn important skills like arriving for work on time and taking directions from a manager. The work also strengthens more abstract skills, like respect, patience and confidence.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said Scott Fluer, the BLM program officer with the farm.

In the program’s 29 years, nearly 1,500 men and 4,000 mustangs and burros have completed the program. The men and animals form a strong bond during their time, Crofts said.

Near the facility’s entrance, a plaque beneath the statue of a horse sums up the mission: ‘”There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”

GENTLED

While the idea of taming a mustang may seem romantic, the reality is long, grimy and full of bruises. Inmates in the training program spend hours every day with the animals, slowly accustoming them to human touch.

“These horses are scared to death when we first get them,” inmate Levi Wardell explained as a dark brown mustang trotted complacently around him. “They think we’re going to hurt them, eat them. They’re just used to running.”

Just months ago, the same horse would have bolted around the pen and refused to allow anybody near him. His eyes would have rolled in fear. Now, he is happy to let Wardell pet his face and swing a rope near his head. Wardell rewards the horse with a quiet “Good job, buddy.”

It’s a slow process. The men spend weeks showing the mustangs that humans aren’t inherently dangerous. They teach the horse simple commands and the men learn to read the horse’s body language: a clamped tail means the animal is anxious, chewing motions means the horse is thinking. Each pair spends hours feeling each other out and learning the other’s quirks. The men learn that a horse is only as good as its trainer, and reacting in anger or frustration in response to a horse’s inability to understand what’s being asked of it only makes the animal more nervous. Successful training requires a cool demeanor and restraint.

First, the inmates teach the horse to simply accept their touch. The horse then learns to accept a halter on its face and how to walk on a lead rope. Both inmate and mustang learn to give to pressure, perfecting an intimate dance of subtle motions as the horse practices trotting calmly in circles around its trainer. It takes months of work before the mustang is introduced to a saddle, and even longer before a person sits on its back.

“We’re not breaking them. That implies we’re taking everything out of them,” Farrar said. “We teach the horses to accept us.”

Farrar, 34, is not new to training horses. He’s been starting colts since he was 13 and later competed in rodeos. But the mustang program introduced him to a gentler way to train a horse and work with others. He hopes to stick with the program while he serves the rest of his time for felony charges related to arson and his part in a murder-for-hire plot.

In the 15 months he’s been with the program, Farrar has learned to be more patient, with both horse and man, he said. He’s learned to listen to others around him and to obey a supervisor. He feels more peaceful.

The hard work pays off when the mustang is no longer afraid and its personality begins to show, Farrar said. That’s when he names his steeds.

“There’s nothing better for me than a horse,” he said. “Been that way since I was a kid.”

LETTING GO

After the demonstration, Jason Getchman leaned his lanky frame against the pasture fence and pointed through the bars to a gray mare he’s been working with since February.

“She’s been my pride and joy,” he said, flashing a broad and gappy smile.

The gray mare, named Snookie, tested Getchman at first. She was hard-headed, he said, and didn’t always want to comply with what he asked. It’s a mindset he understands.

Building trust requires time, however. Getchman worked with the small mare every day, teaching her to accept his touch and then to respond to subtle cues from his body.

It’s an incredible feeling to know you are the very first person the wild horse will learn to trust, he said. To be the first to halter her and swing a leg over her saddle.

“She knows who I am,” the 48-year-old said. “She’s a lover.”

Getchman, like all the other inmates, started work with the horses as a member of the feed crew. The men have to work their way up to the training program — it’s a reward.

Along with a task to occupy their time in prison, the horses are companions for the men at a time when they are far from home and family. The horses don’t judge, Getchman said, and they don’t lie. Their potential depends almost entirely on their trainer. It is good to be needed.

“It’ll be a part of me the rest of my life,” he said.

When he finishes his five- to seven-year sentence for delivering meth, Getchman hopes to buy himself a mustang, one he can keep. One he won’t have to load into a trailer and watch pull away past the perimeters of his prison.

There is no contact between inmate trainer and horse once the animal is auctioned. They’re simply gone.

“You really have to think about the lives they’ll have,” he said, smiling shyly under a sweat-stained hat. “That’s what matters to me.”


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com