Yesterday, I went to the Western States Wild Horse and Burro Expo in Reno, Nevada.
The Expo is all things Mustang. It has exhibitors, clinicians, famous speakers, a 3-day all-mustang horse show plus… several “Inmate Gentled Mustang” competitions which then culminated in those mustangs being auctioned off to approved bidders via the BLM.
Now, I have my own issues with the BLM. For my dime, I’m not really sure they have the best interest of the Mustang in mind. So, I started out with trepidation regarding this adoption event. I also thought that a wild mustang and an inmate would not be a very good combination… kindof an accident waiting to happen. I also had a picture in my mind of this really tough and mean inmate just hammering a poor, wild mustang into submission.
After some time and education on the matter, I now think the inmate and the newly captured mustang have something in common and can make unlikely but succesful partners… ;)
SETTING THE STAGE
The person in charge of the Prison Mustang Gentling Program at Northern Nevada (Warm Springs) Correctional Facility is Hank Curry. I don’t know him personally but I did see him at the Adoption event. He was speaking and telling the crowd about each horse.
I’ve gotta tell you, if he ever gives up this gig, he could go into the hypnotism field. I swear, his voice was like butta! I practically felt lulled while I listened to him. Hmmm, perhaps a clue to his natural ability with the horses.
Anyway, the Cliff Notes of it is that the Correctional Facility is next door to the Stewart Conservation Camp which currently maintains a 600-horse holding pen for the wild horses rounded up by BLM throughout the mountainous ranges of northern Nevada. Approximately 10-15 of these horses are then selected and brought to the Warm Springs Correctional Center where inmates gentle the horses through the Comstock Gentling Program. These are the horses that are then placed for adoption.
My idea that a hardened, mean and evil criminal would be a bad match for a wild mustang is probably accurate. Those aren’t the kind of criminals selected for this mustang program. Their crimes cannot include murder, rape or violent crimes. Usually it is embezzlement or larceny/thievery. The inmates have to have a perfect record while in prison and if accepted into the exclusive program, they cannot do anything, ANYTHING, untoward while working there. As they say, there are too many people wanting those jobs to have anyone not respect it… For obvious reasons, these jobs are coveted by the inmates.
As I said above, this guy has a voice like smooth cream. I would gather that it might match his demeanor. The horses and inmates were completely calm around him. And, from his cowboy drawl to his gentle, cowboy manner, I think he is a fine match for the stress of both novice riders and wild horses.
Hank grew up in a rural Thousand Oaks (So CA) a while back. He has always been around horses and eventually became a horse trainer.
To me, it is interesting to consider what type of guy would want to train the wild mustangs? Does he want to help these horses fit into society in order to be adopted? Does he want the challenge? Does he love the image and symbolism of the mustang?
And, what would make this one particular mustang trainer also want to work with inmates?
Good questions. I don’t have the answers except to say that it must be incredibly rewarding to watch both become more rounded members of the society that they now need to belong.
HOW IT WORKS
I actually love this part… The inmates who are chosen are given a crash course in horsemanship from veteran mustang horses and Hank.
Most of the chosen inmates have never been on a horse. One said that he fell off 10 times in 30 minutes! But, once they get a basic seat, Hank teaches them how to gentle their mustang. Hank matches the horse with the inmate and each inmate chooses a name for their horse. Then, from 9 – 4 every week day, these inmate spend all of their time with their horse. They do every kind of ground work possible to fill up those hours. These guys are always tied to their horses. When it comes time to ride, the transitions are all watched by Hank. After that comes the finish work.
Now I know that seems like a lot of work to accomplish in 90 days. But imagine if you spent 7 hours a day, five days a week with your horse…! I mean most horse trainers spend 1 hour a day, maybe 5 days a week, with your horse for 90 days and he’s adequately trained! Just imagine 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 90 days!!
THE ADOPTION AUCTION
I watched the adoption auction before I had done any research. I didn’t know anything about Hank or the process. What I thought I was seeing were inmates who had average seats doing a pretty good job with their horses. I saw some somewhat rough hands and I also saw very gentle hands. Overall, I saw 15 quiet, well-mannered, not jittery, not fretting, not wound up, relaxed, at least green broke if not trained, gentled horses… all lined up calmly horses.
As the auction started, the horses were brought in one-by-one and the inmates showed their skills. They walked, trotted, cantered, side-passed, backed, stopped and some did tricks like bowing and raising a leg like Trigger. Hank told intimate stories about each horse to get the crowd feeling the love. After the skill presentation, there was an awards ceremony for the previous days of inmate “shows” where they did everything from agility to equitation with these newly trained mustangs. One horse clearly won most of the ribbons. It was particularly charming that the inmate who had trained that horse and was his rider, continued to place the accruing ribbons on his mount. Very sweet. And, of course, let it not go unnoticed that the horse wore all of his ribbons without freaking out or shying away…
Knowing what I know now, I have much more respect and smiles for the group…
I am now even more amazed and in awe of the mustang.
Not that I wasn’t before, but seeing them in all of their glory, newly gentled and so flipping SMART! They were solid and none were gimpy or lame, they all moved out, they all tried really, really hard. These horses were all heart. No attitude, no bucking or rearing, no mess, no fuss.
I HAVE TO SAY that in the other civilian arenas, there were regular shows happening all day long. You know, your regular horse show agendas with horse show music. They has showmanship, halter, pleasure classes… the whole magilla. And do you know what? I didn’t see more than a couple of civilian mustangs (granted, I didn’t see them all) that could hold a candle to the training level of these inmate horses. There has to be something said for 7 hours a day, five days a week…
I had tears in my eyes during the inmate trained mustang adoption auction because I didn’t think there were enough people to make sure they all went to a good home for a good price. Me, the scardycat, left after the first horse (the one who won all the ribbons) sold for $2800. I thought that if he was the best horse and he sold for only $2800, the rest would surely go for the minimum of $150. I was too afraid to watch.
So, I went outside and played with the burros and mustang babies that were on display. But, I did see something very interesting… Most of the inmates were very teary eyed and sad when their horses sold. They were very proud, yes… but it was bittersweet. I watched one inmate tell his horse that they had to take just one more ride around the ground together. His voice was cracking.
After all the horse were sold,
I found out that the new owners were able to ride their new horses in a special arena with obstacles while the trainer/inmate watched and coached. This was awesome. It was great to see these guys help the transition. And, it was great for me to see that these mustangs were just as solid with their new owners as their trainers.
INMATE POINT OF VIEW
I read several articles on how the inmates who participate feel about the program.
All of them feel more self worth. Many of them had never had a job for 90 days, let alone build a bond with an animal that had never known a human. Most of them say it is the best job they have ever had, inside or out. All of them have a reason to get out of bed in the morning and they all say that these mustangs were “behind bars just like us. They are prisoners and we are setting them free”. By making them gentle, they can be adopted out to a better life than living in the BLM holding pens.
Clearly all the inmates feel the horses also released something good in them as well… One said he learned patience. Other said he learned to blow out a candle instead of bringing in a torch… All felt the fate of the mustang was in their hands and it was an awesome responsibility. If they did a good job, they could help this animal get out of jail.
Several of the inmates have gone on to get jobs in the horse industry upon their release.
FRAIDYCAT LEARNS HER LESSON
So, I was just too curious to not find the sales value of each mustang. I didn’t sit through the auction to find out for myself, I hunted down someone with what looked like a marked-up sales sheet and asked her. What she had to say really surprised me. She said that the horse with all the ribbons sold for the third highest price. Two other were much higher. One at $3800 and another at $3200.
Most of the other horses sold for very reasonable money (between $850 – $1200) with only the two all brown horses going for $200 each. The Nevada Browns as they are called, just didn’t have the flash to command the big money.
However, the people that bought the Browns were thrilled! They had been to the auction in previous years and knew that the best ones, “the solid brown ones”, would be inexpensive. They love them and think these mustangs are the most solid horses they have ever owned.
First, I wanted to say that there is an ALL PRISON TRAINED MUSTANG DRILL TEAM called the The Cowgirl Way Equestrian Drill Team of Norco, California. Love that! These gals have adopted 13 of these mustangs and tout their glories at every performance. Yay!
Secondly, all of these mustangs were healthy, shiny, well behaved and well maintained. They all had their feet trimmed and everyone was utd on shots and wormers. I have nothing bad to say about their appearance. And, I certainly have only good things to say about their “basic training”…
My after thougths… Well, I went to the auction thinking one thing and came away thinking another. And, after researching it, I think something even more…
After walking back into the show arena and seeing all those mustangs who had not been prison gentled (or probably gentled in any way that gives such full attention as 7 hours a day for 90 days…), I couldn’t help but compare. Right outside, in an adjacent arena were 15 of the most gentle, the most brilliant with the most concentrated handling of all the horses in the entire venue.
it was very hard to believe that these horses HAD NEVER BEEN TOUCHED 90 days ago. As far as I’m concerned, my biggest take away from this is the “7 hours a day, 5 days a week” formula. Nothing beats time on the ground and time in the saddle.
And although I cannot be sure that these inmates didn’t mistreat these mustangs, I didn’t see any evidence of mistreatment.
So for me, I have no doubt in my mind that if I ever have an open stall and need a riding mount, I will wait and bid on my own Nevada Brown. Probably the very best money spent for a horse with hours and hours and hours and hours of hands on, single focused training.
Bravo Hank Curry. Bravo. You’ve made better citizens out of both humans and equines. I think that if you have the opportunity to adopt a prison gentled mustang, you are lucky.
For more information on adopting a prison-trained horse, please contact:
Hank Curry or Tim Bryant
Nevada State Prison Department P.O. Box 7000, Carson City, NV 89701
HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!
The August Bucket Fund will benefit the charity BHFER. To learn all about the Bucket Fund and to donate $5, please click on the photo (photo credit, Trish Lowe)
Also, don’t you have a Mustang now? I’m a relatively new reader but thought I’ve seen something about your Mustang, who must not have come from a prison because s/he is untouchable? Is there a blog about him/her and how you aquired the horse?
I am looking at some of your old blogs and found this. I have a friend who is HUGELY “into” Mustangs and has three. None of hers came out of the prison system, but through her I found out about the programs. I can hardly stand to read anything about them, though, because it makes me cry every time… you just know those guys have bonded and really love the horses, and I’m sure they are so sad when they’re gone. Yes – they do sell for some ridiculously low prices, especially if they are not a “purty color!” (I would have made myself scarce during the auctioning as well) Thanks for blogging about this. It makes me happy to know that horses (and dogs, in other places) are helping to heal human hearts while finding great homes, too.
I’m so glad you went into this with an open mind. The prison programs are extremely healing and beneficial for both the horses and the people.
I know the BLM programs are extremely controversial. And like all government programs, they can certainly use oversight and are probably ripe for revision.
But all the BLM employees that I’ve met are extremely committed to helping the critters that live on the land, including the equines. These guys work long hours in all kinds of weather for little pay. The volunteers are the same way. It’s not a “big reward” kind of job for those who don’t love animals.
Have you ever seen the documentery “Homestretch: Racehorse Rescue” ? They show inmates working with OTTB in retirement, rehab and retraining. I applaud programs like this. The prison system is filled with people who could benefit from programs like this.