Courtesy / J AXTELL
Wednesday, March 27, 2019 | 2 a.m.
It’s a match made in heaven — or, more accurately, in prison.
Since 2000, hundreds of Nevada inmates have been taming excess wild horses gathered from public lands across the western United States.
It’s difficult, dangerous work, and the payoff is seemingly small; inmates receive $1 per hour for their efforts, and after 120 days of training and bonding with a horse, they give the animal up for adoption.
Nonetheless, the program, which is a partnership between the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Department of Corrections, is popular among inmates at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. And prison staff say it teaches prisoners valuable life skills, such as work ethic and patience.
“Being responsible for the care of an animal is a lot more than some of these guys have ever taken on,” said Justin Pope, prison supervisor and ranch manager at the correctional center. “So there’s definitely a physical value as well as a philosophical value to the work these guys are doing with the horses.”
That “philosophical” aspect of the program attracted the attention of French film director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who wrote and directed “The Mustang” (2019), a new film about the horse training program in Nevada. Shot at the shuttered Nevada State Prison in Carson City, the fictional movie follows a convict, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, as he trains a wild horse in prison.
In the real-life program, approximately 18 men at a time will go through the 120-day process of “breaking” and gentling a wild horse under the guidance of horse trainer Hank Curry. Only minimum-security inmates without a history of prison violations or write-ups are eligible to participate — something prison staff say was left out of the film.
Typically, the horses have never interacted with humans when the inmates meet them. It can take up to two weeks for a horse to permit a first touch, Curry said.
“They have no reason to trust a man, so we have to build the trust,” Curry explained.
James Hotta is one of the nearly 300 current and former inmates who have gone through the program. The California native is a particularly prolific trainer, having gentled six wild mustangs.
“It’s a total learning process,” Hotta said. “That’s [something] I like about the program: It doesn’t get boring.”
Although Hotta had previous experience riding horses, the majority of participants come in having never been on a horse, Curry said. Some of them have never even had a pet.
Once an inmate makes physical contact with a horse, the next step is to learn to ride the animal. Teaching an inmate to be confident in their own abilities is often half the battle, Curry said. Sometimes, inmates don’t make it through the program.
“A lot of them have trouble with authority or responsibility, and both of those are really requirements,” Curry said. “If they don’t advance and accept what we’re teaching them, we generally move on.”
Those who do go through the training process form meaningful bonds with their horse and with each other. Part of Curry’s strategy is to encourage the inmates to assist one another in the training process.
“The inmates share skills. Especially a new guy that’s just never rode or anything like that, we’ll get him on a horse and teach him to saddle up,” Hotta said.
Three times a year, the gentled horses are auctioned off to the highest bidders, which can be an emotional experience for the inmates.
“It’s hard to get rid of the horse. It’s like giving away your dog when you’re a kid,” Hotta said. “But it all pays off because you know he’s going to a better place, to somebody who’s going to own him for the rest of his life.”
The next auction is 9 a.m. Saturday at 1721 Snyder Ave. in Carson City. Up to 16 “saddle-started” horses, meaning they will need some additional training from their new owners, will be up for adoption.
The wild horse training program was born out of a practical, ongoing issue facing the BLM and the American West: an unsustainable level of wild horses, the feral descendants of escaped horses from explorers, ranchers, miners and others. The BLM estimated that at the end of 2017, the number of wild horses on public lands across 10 western states, including Nevada, had reached 83,000 – over three times the appropriate management level.
Over the years, the animals have reduced grass and sagebrush cover in their grazing areas and displaced native mammals, as is often the case when invasive species enter an ecosystem. At their current population levels, wild horses are vulnerable to starvation and dehydration, as they have depleted some food and water sources.
Prisoners at the correctional center train approximately 60-75 horses per year, which is not nearly enough to address overpopulation concerns. But it does have a small impact.
“Up to 1,500 horses are on our land at the ranch, so it’s not really making a huge dent in the horse population, but it’s the best we can do,” said Brooke Santina, public information officer with the Nevada Department of Corrections.
The impact the program has on participating inmates, Pope added, is immeasurable.
“A lot of these guys who have been in the program a while, you can see the change in their attitude,” Pope said. “They might’ve been selfish before, and it kind of opens them up a little bit. It makes them realize there’s a world around them that doesn’t necessarily [revolve] around them.”
At the end of the training program, each prisoner is offered the opportunity to describe their horse for potential bidders. The loving descriptions of the animals for the upcoming auction seem to reflect the deep bonds formed between inmates and horses.
“Shamrock, a handsome buckskin with all black legs, looks great,” one inmate and horse trainer wrote about his horse, which will be adopted on March 30. “He learns very fast and is not easily spooked. He has a soft step and is an absolute joy to ride. I can honestly say he is a great companion that will be missed.”