A cast iron sculpture of a cowboy contemplating a bucking horse greets visitors at the entrance of the Wyoming Honor Farm in Riverton, Wyoming. An inscription reads, “There is nothing better for inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” The farm is not only a farm, it’s also a low security prison where the inmates are rehabilitated though the labor of agricultural work as well as the powerful power of animal therapy, training or “gentling” wild mustangs.
Inmate Travis Bogard said that trainers with experience can train a horse, from “wild to saddle” in about two months but for those new to the craft, it takes longer. He explained that the yearlings were still too small to ride and that many of them had arrived to the farm without their mothers. In some cases the inmates have to bottle feed the foals.
The training starts with the horse and the inmate building trust through physical proximity and touch. For many inmates it will be the first time they have ever touched a horse.
Next, the horses are slowly introduced to halters, saddle blankets, saddles, a snaffle bit is placed in its mouth. The goal is to teach the horse to be gentle, accept the saddle, so one can step on and ride off.
Wild horses and burros are descendants of animals released by or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, miners, the U.S. Cavalry and native Americans. Horses and burros were crucial to survival for settlers and pioneers, who depended on them for transportation and agricultural chores. American wild horses were once at the brink of being eradicated. In recent years, however, they have flourished under the protection afforded by federal laws passed in 1971, the “The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 .” The act covered the management, protection and study of "unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States."
Since then, The wild horse and burro population has expanded to over 81,000. The BLM now battles balancing, managing, protecting, and controlling the herds. Given that wild horses and burros have no natural predators in the American West, herd populations double about every four years.
One inmate, Jesse Fretter, said “When I first came up here, I had no intention to join this horse program, and then they heard I could ride and they said ‘hey come on.’ As soon as I hit leather, everything melted away, it was just me and the horse and that’s how I spend my days. I’m blessed, how could I not be? There are 100 horses out here, I and I get to ride anyone I want.”
In each auction about 50 horses and a few dozen burros and yearlings are adopted. Earlier in 2019 a gelding fetched a record price of $5700. All the money goes to the BLM, who pay the prison a daily fee to board the horses.
With the expanding population of feral horses the Bureau of Land Management adopts out about 4600 horses and burros every year in to private care. The American Wild Horse Group has been critical of the Bureau of Land Management's other proposed methods, including a variety of “inhumane, unscientific and publicly unacceptable methods” ranging from removing 50,000 wild horses and burros on the range, culling or sale for slaughter of 100,000 mustangs and burros.
Nicole Fader reacts with joy at her successful bid to adopt a silvery mustang named Cloud. Fader said she felt an instant bond with the horse when she saw him at an auction earlier in the year, but due to a clerical mix up she was not able to adopt him at that time. She and her husband Nick, traveled three short hours from Lyman, Wyoming to try again, and adopted Cloud for $1500. The Faders have six other horses that they take on pack hikes in the mountains and said that all of their horses were adopted through BLM wild mustang programs. Some of their horses were wild when they got them, and they worked to train and "gentle" them. The Faders said they sometimes have hired professional trainers to help but they do the "groundwork" themselves. Nick said groundwork constituted teaching the horse things like, "Don't be rude," and "Don't bite me."
Once they got to Fader’s ranch, Cloud met his new horse brothers and sisters and became very attached to Nicole, who changed her facebook profile photo to an image of her new charge. “ He’s doing wonderfully,” she said “ He’s a total sweetheart and follows me constantly, even leaving his food to come to the fence and wait for me whenever he sees me.”
Adopter James Huckaby, owner of the Stacked Heart ranch which specializes in rescuing wild mustangs took home two geldings. He said of the horses, that this was either the best day, or worst day of their lives.
The federal government says Arizona public lands can support a maximum of 1,676 wild burros. However in 2017, there were an estimated 6,241 burros roaming the state. While all the horses at auction came from the Wyoming, the burros were imported, some from Arizona.
They are often kept as pets, admired for their adorableness. This burro, known as Bam Bam, was on her way to becoming a pet and a companion to horses on Gary Adles ranch. Aldes explained his love of, “Donks” saying “ They’re fun! Fun little buggers to be around – we had one years ago, a little brown jack donk, and I’d holler his name and he’d come running like a dog.” Other adopters plan to use the burros for hunting, packing killed animals and supplies on long hikes.
Former inmate, Billy Terhune, was once a construction worker, but while incarcerated at the Honor Farm he learned to train horses.
“Oh it’s fantastic” Terhune said of the program, “There’s probably only a half dozen guys in the state that get to ride those horses. I felt pretty fortunate to be able to do it. It was a really good program for me, in fact, I’ve decided to become a horse trainer over the deal. I’ve been riding horses my whole life, but never really got to know the inner workings of it, and I learned that there. It’s intriguing, very fulfilling and very rewarding.”
Terhune traveled to Riverton with his family, where his parents bid on and successfully bought Pard, the horse he trained for him. “The mission was to get Pard. I really connected with him. Some other guys had him and were having problems, in fact, they called him “knuckle.” I got in the round pen with him and started working with him, introducing him to saddles and so on. I was talking to him as I put a saddle blanket on him, he sniffed it and looked me in the eye for about 10 seconds, and from them on he trusted me. So I’m like, I’m coming back to get you buddy.”
Terhune joked he was in town to break his horse out of jail.