Each morning, as the sun rose over the Wasatch Plateau in central Utah, Adam Wilson and 14 other men would pile into a rusted gray van that took them past a razor-wire fence and up a hill to corrals brimming with wild mustangs, steam rising from the steeds' proud heads.
Until the van returned at 4 p.m. each day, Wilson and the others would take care of the 1,400 mustangs at the Hard Time Corral. They'd shovel manure and mend fences. They'd file hooves and give vaccinations. They'd rope and ride a few of the horses and try—sometimes unsuccessfully—not to get hurt in the process.
They were cowboys.
And when they were cowboys, they could forget—for a spell, at least—that they were also prisoners.
Wilson's arms and face appear just a few shades lighter than his prison-issued maroon T-shirt as he stands near the corrals outside the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, Utah. As the ranch's head inmate, Wilson had learned a thing or two about working with the horses when they first came off the range. Working with the slender 3-year-old bay mare he called Cinnamon, for example, he'd have to remind himself that, "even as calm as she seems, she's still wild."
His preferred method was to rub a long bamboo pole over a horse's body and legs to acclimate it to being touched. "If the pole gets broken, that's OK," Wilson said last summer, as he worked with Cinnamon. "If my arm gets broken, it's not."
But Wilson's focus on "gentling" wild horses came to an abrupt end shortly before the prison shut down the program in fall 2014.
Two weeks before the facility was closed, a guard came to Wilson's cell and told him, "Roll up your stuff. You're leaving." Now, he's finishing his one- to 15-year stretch for drug-related convictions in the Daggett County Jail where—instead of caring for Cinnamon—he works as a plumber. While he is happy to have one of the few jobs available at the jail, he misses the animals. "This new job teaches me patience with myself, but the horses taught me to be patient with others," he said.
Wilson feels badly that he never said goodbye to Cinnamon and worries about where the mustang may have ended up. Similar concerns likely are shared by the other 175 Gunnison inmates who worked at Hard Time and grew close to their equine charges. Since 2007, the Hard Time Corral gave inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility a unique and often life-changing experience. The Wild Horse Inmate Program—WHIP, if you prefer a snappy acronym—was originally set up under a cooperative agreement between the Bureau of Land Management and Utah Correctional Industries, a stand-alone division of the Department of Corrections, which currently manages more than 20 work programs under the UCI umbrella.
The programs, ostensibly, are intended to reduce inmate recidivism and train inmates in work skills that can increase their chances of employment post-incarceration. Since UCI doesn't get funding from the Legislature, the programs it runs must be self-supporting, generating enough revenue to cover all operating expenses. When the contract for the program was being renegotiated in 2012 following the first five years of operation, the BLM disagreed with more than $1 million of the expenses and costs for which the prison sought reimbursement. Not only that, a federal audit found more than $900,000 of unsupported expenses charged by the prison. The funding disagreement reached an impasse in September 2014, after which the state gave the BLM 30 days to relocate 1,400 mustangs.
The loss of the program was a blow to the BLM, the wild horses and the inmates who worked them. "The horses teach the men patience. They've never had to work for something to be happy. Most of them just turn to drugs or alcohol and get an instant pleasure," said Donna Bastian, who managed the facility. "With the horses, they have to work to develop a personal relationship with an animal, but the happiness they feel with the horses lasts much longer than the drugs do."
Wilson still has hope that he will get back to working with horses once he is released in August. That's no small ambition for a man who didn't even know he liked horses until he worked at the Hard Time Corral.
CAGING AN ICON
The iconic horses the prisoners worked with were from herds of mustangs and wild burros that ran wild across open plains and deserts and have long been a symbol for the American West. Some are the descendants of the horses of Spanish conquistadors. Others are the progeny of draft horses and thoroughbreds—escapees who left the service of cattle ranchers, miners and even the U.S. military. For generations, their names and likenesses have been used by marketers seeking to tap into the spirit of freedom and power they've come to represent.
Even for an icon, though, freedom has its limits. Since 1971, the BLM has been charged with maintaining an ecological balance among wild horses, which number near 50,000 across the United States, including 4,300 in Utah.
When the herds get too large, or drought or fire conditions put strain on the ecosystem, thousands of horses are pulled from the range and sent to holding corrals such as the 34-acre facility just north of the prison in Gunnison, about 125 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Ranchers in Southern Utah have filed lawsuits demanding the BLM remove even more horses from the land in order to preserve scarce resources for their cattle. The ranchers worry about the health of the range and their own cattle when wild-horse populations are left to grow out of control.
The BLM's job is to do just that. However, due to overcrowded holding facilities and the agency's deflated budget, many of the herd populations are allowed to rise to double or triple recommended animal-management levels before the BLM deploys helicopters to round up the horses. Nearly as many are now in holding corrals as are roaming free in the West, and managing the overcrowding remains a challenge. Many of the horses have been passed around between states, loaded into trucks and herded into corrals hundreds of miles from their home ranges and family herds. They wander the enclosures—lost in a sea of strangers—their survival instincts no longer serving any purpose.
Untamed, they are offered up for adoption to the public for only $125, but even the most experienced horse trainers are often skeptical of the trainability of wild mustangs. Potential adopters who do go to the corrals can be overwhelmed by the presence of hundreds of animals in the vast paddocks—many cowering in corners at the sight of humans or fighting with each other to establish dominance around the feeding troughs.
Some of these animals will spend the rest of their lives in corrals or various long-term holding facilities, never to roam the range again, nor to be gentled for adoption into a human family.
They'll be prisoners.
HARD KNOCKS, GOOD WORK
A hitching area allowed the men to groom the animals, care for any wounds and trim their hooves. The prisoners had three round corrals where they could practice natural horsemanship techniques, lunging the horses in circles while controlling their speed and direction with precise movements of their bodies.
They also had an arena that was large enough to teach the horses to walk over obstacles and gallop over jumps. It was here that the inmates at the ranch would work each day with the goal of ensuring at least some of their charges were transformed from wild horses to adoptable partners.
That's a tough job for anyone—let alone for men with little, if any, experience with horses. At the corral, though, the prisoners were expected to handle proud, snorting, wild-eyed mustangs that had never been touched by human hands.
Learning from one another, a small library of training videos and from the horses themselves, the inmates developed their own training techniques. Working with animals weighing up to 1,200 pounds—almost all of it muscle—they did their best never to make the same mistake twice. One horse became infamously known as Nose Breaker after bashing in an inmate's face with her strong, powerful neck. Since then, the inmate has healed, and the horse has successfully been broken of her head-thrashing habit and adopted out to a family.
For their efforts, the inmates made $1.25 an hour.
It was good pay, as prison work goes. The job was among the most sought-after in the prison; between 11 and 17 inmates were selected through a system that takes into consideration the nature of their crimes, the amount of time left on their sentences and their behavior inside the prison.
And it brought out the best in men imprisoned for things they did at their worst.
A GIFT AND A CHALLENGE
Jody Brown, a real-life cowboy, had secured his dream job as one of the heads of the corral. He had previously worked inside the prison as a guard. Brown said the program was "like riding with children."
"But some of our best hands started out with no clue," he said.
Brown would always ensure that the men and horses were on their best behavior with two simple rules. The first was for the horses: no kicking or biting. Rule No. 2 was for the inmates: no swearing. The rules helped the horses and men control their tempers even when a situation got out of control.
Wilson's mare, Cinnamon, was far from the greatest challenge the inmates faced that summer. Rather, that distinction might belong to Jameson, who stood 16 hands high with round and mighty dappled-gray hindquarters that powered his graceful trot and thundering canter. His feet were the size of dinner plates and, when the men first started working with him, he threw about his enormous, muscular body with fearful rage.
The trainers couldn't get near Jameson for a week and a half. Even then, he could only be approached by a trainer on horseback. Six months later, though, Jameson was obeying every command given by his trainer, Ryan Evans, who called the horse "a gift and a challenge."
"They don't listen; you got to earn it," said Evans, who is nearing a decade behind bars following a conviction of homicide by assault.
"It was an accident," he said softly. He got into a fight with a friend, and things got out of hand. He tried to call for help, but it was too late.
Ranch rules permitted the inmates to train at a pace at which each man felt comfortable. Some of the prisoners, too intimidated by the stubborn, older wild horses, were put in charge of gentling the younger mustangs that couldn't be ridden yet. Brown said it was OK for the men to be afraid. Fear kept them from doing anything stupid. Outnumbered and completely outmuscled, the experience also helped them recognize the importance of working together.
As they gentled the wild horses, the Hard Time inmates formed bonds and became partners with the powerful animals. They even shared lunch with their new friends; the horses always looked for the little plastic bag that contained a few carrots or sticks of celery after the lunch break. The men used the veggies as rewards for good behavior, or bribes to get the horses to lead better around a corral.
Sometimes, though, the snacks were simply tokens of respect freely given from one imprisoned friend to another.
LESSONS IN POWER AND PATIENCE
When he first went to prison for burglary, firearms and theft convictions, James Duncombe was the kind of guy who wouldn't let anyone push him around. As he began working at the corral, though, he had to adjust to the fact that he couldn't always be in control.
The sassy chestnut mare he'd been training, named Randi, was feisty and intemperate at first. She even threw Duncombe to the ground a few times. "She used to want to test you," he said.
But anger, irritation and intolerance had no place in the corral. They only got in the way. It was patience that won Randi over. And in the last weeks in which he got to work with her, Duncombe said, she just wanted "to look pretty."
"You definitely get attached to them," he said. "I really didn't expect to become best friends with an animal when I came to prison."
Michael Patterson, who has two years left on a sentence for drugs and vehicle theft, had been working with a horse named Storm.
Storm and the other horses there, he said, taught him to be more adaptable. "You gotta have understanding," Patterson said. "They get just as nervous as you are."
Outside of prison, Patterson has a family—a son, daughter and grandchild. As he worked in the corral, he'd sometimes fantasize that his daughter might adopt one of the horses he was working with. His grandchild could ride it. In that moment, he would dream, they would be connected.
Now those dreams are over. There are other prisons with inmate-trained horses for adoption, but they won't be his horses.
Under the cooperative agreement with the BLM—editable or retractable at any time—UCI wasn't making enough money to consider the program sustainable in the long term. That's despite the fact that the funding source for the program—the bureau's Wild Horse & Burro Program—is guaranteed under federal law.
The BLM—which spent $77.4 million managing its Wild Horse & Burro Program in 2014—has long praised prison programs like the Hard Time Corral for the value they provide to taxpayers. But when UCI asked for an amendment that would guarantee a long-term relationship and more favorable compensation for the program, the BLM declined.
These programs appear to work just fine in other places. The Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program and the Nevada Silver State Industries Comstock Wild Horse Gentling Program are just two programs like the one at Gunnison that are still successfully adopting out horses that have been transformed by incarcerated men.
What makes those programs succeed where Gunnison failed is hard to identify, according to Gus Warr, who directs the wild-horse program in Utah for the BLM. The program seemed to be functioning perfectly, Warr said. But the disagreement over how it should continue financially prompted the BLM and UCI to take fighting stances.
UCI felt it would benefit from being reimbursed for expenses instead of being paid per animal, as was the case when the program started. This would mean UCI could run the program as a small business and not operate in the red.
Warr said he understands why UCI would want to run the program as a business, but he worried that it might give an outside organization too much power over the horses that are protected under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse & Burro Act. If those concerns could have been addressed, though, Warr acknowledged that such a contract may have benefited the BLM, too. The problem, he said, was timing.
The audit found that out of $5.34 million in costs from the horse-gentling program submitted by the prison for reimbursement, the feds either questioned or found "unsupported" more than $2 million. Among those unsupported costs was close to $140,000 in hay "that was paid for but not used," according to the audit. The prison also did not report to the feds revenue it earned from the inmates' work breaking some of the horses. The auditors "determined that UCI received $18,691 from horse adoptions that exceeded the base fees that were paid to BLM," according to the audit report. Both the BLM and UCI will be conducting additional audits into the financial issues that arose from the audit.
The BLM is looking at resolving the questioned and unsupported costs revealed by the audit. Warr estimates that the financial dispute will take more than a year to resolve.
It was UCI that ultimately pulled back the reins. "As a state agency that depends on tax dollars, we cannot operate programs at a loss," said Rollin Cook, department executive director in a press release.
BLM officials say they were caught off guard when the UCI abruptly halted the program in September 2014. "It was a challenge to redistribute the 1,400 animals in only 30 days," said Lisa Reid, the public-affairs specialist for the BLM. Some of the inmates who worked on the program—and still had their privileges intact—helped load the horses into trailers, giving them "an opportunity to say goodbye to horses they had trained," said prison spokeswoman Brooke Adams. The horses were hauled to different holding facilities around the western United States. Reid said the horses were strategically placed in facilities that could hopefully spotlight them and use them in their programs. Many young geldings were sent to new WHIP initiatives like the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in California. The hope was that prisoners there could give the mustangs another opportunity for successful adoption.
And as for Utah? "We would love to set up another training program here," Warr said. But at this point, he said, he is unsure if working with the Utah Department of Corrections would be possible again—and the program won't be reinstated at Gunnison.
For their part, prison officials say they are already planning to establish new programs on the 40 acres of property in hopes of finding more financially stable means to provide work for the inmates and goods for the public. But it's doubtful it will ever find a niche quite like the Hard Time Corral. The ranch is being torn down, and the BLM is gathering its equipment. Fencing, chutes, water troughs and feeders have been loaded onto trucks and relocated to facilities that could use them.
THE LESSONS LEARNED
Adoption day was always an emotional and exciting time for the inmates. After all the sweat, frustration and love that the trainers had experienced along the way, giving away a beloved horse could be a heartbreaking experience.
But Brown said it is was a crucial part of the process.
"When the horses get adopted out," Brown said, "we tell them, 'You'd better be good out there—you're paroling.'"
But giving up the horses to loving owners was one thing; giving them up over a contract dispute was another.
Even as he looks ahead at his own upcoming parole in summer 2015, Wilson can't help but look back with sadness and frustration over the chain of events that brought an end to one of the most profound experiences of his life.
He has no idea where his horses ended up, but he hopes that they weren't turned back out into the corrals with the wild horses.
If so, it would most certainly be a lesson in futility—the very sort of negative notion about work the program was designed to disprove.
"Those horses were hand-picked," Wilson said. "We thought they were good horses. It would be a waste of our time and energy to turn them out."
But at least, for a time, he was a cowboy. When he gets out, he thinks, he might like to be one again.
Robyn Van Valkenburg is a mustang trainer from Salt Lake City who has aided in the adoption of more than two-dozen wild mustangs since 2012. She studied journalism at Utah State University.