Animals: They were here first
Takes One to Know One
Wild horses. Wild men. Put the two together in a pen, and what do you get? Some may conjure a picture of mayhem at the thought, but others who know the powerful connection between horses and people, especially on an emotional level, will know that the final outcome will be positive, in fact, transformational for these feral horses and feral men, deemed unfit to reside among the civilized.
The U.S. prison system groans under the problem of overcrowding - and - wild horses, suffer the same environmental crisis. The states of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas, have seen the connection between the two issues and have come up with a successful solution.
The Guardian ran a story about the program on February 25, 2015. Here’s an excerpt:
After spending months training temperamental mustangs, inmates participating in Nevada’s wild horse training program tend to experience a taming process of their own. It can be a remarkable transformation.
Andrew Stitt, an inmate finishing a nine-year sentence, confides: “You can’t do time in a better place, and it all boils down to patience. On the outside when you get into trouble, you always think it’s someone else’s fault. In here, you make a mistake with these guys, they’ll pull the covers on you: they will let you know. You come to think, maybe I’m the one really at fault.”
“We’re prison inmates,” he adds, “quick to jump the gun, very defensive. But out here you can’t be defensive with these guys. [They’re 1,200 lbs.] It gives you a different aspect on how you want to live your life.”
The Nevada department of corrections launched the wild horse training program 15 years ago. Confronted with overcrowding in its prisons, it partnered with a federal agency facing the same dilemma – only in the wild.
As Nevadans sometimes joke, wild horses breed “like rabbits on Viagra”. According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 49,000 mustangs and burros roam free in the American west, more than twice the number the drought-stricken land can adequately sustain (slaughtering them has been illegal since 1971).
The BLM rounds up thousands of emaciated horses each year, shipping them to taxpayer-funded “superpens” for castration – including a corral with 1,700 equines on the property of the Northern Nevada correctional center.
As far as prison work goes, it does look fun. But breaking horses isn’t for everyone – the men must submit applications, and out of a pool of 1,700 inmates, the director, Hank Curry, can struggle to find 10 to 20 who are both willing and able. Six days a week, the men must wake up at 5.30am. As the sun rises they shovel manure, carry in bales of hay, muck pens so the ground is soft, groom coats and feet. Each horse must then do “groundwork”, a warm-up exercise where the trainer leads it around on foot so that it doesn’t jolt into a gallop the moment he climbs on. With this litany of chores, the reluctance to apply to the program makes sense.
Climbing on a 1,000lb beast that keeps bucking you to the dirt also requires true grit.
They’ll need that tenacity upon release. The public is largely skeptical of inmate rehabilitation – and perhaps rightfully so. At the correctional center there was much talk about the “prison mentality”, an attitude of self-interest and aggressive distrust that is apparently endemic within the US prison system. Each trainer boasted of overcoming this problem, experiencing a renewed capacity to focus on work and control his emotions as if he’d shaken a bad fever.
It may be tempting to assume they were posturing, but the numbers suggest that the effect is real. A five-year study by the NNCC administration found that inmates who participated in the program were less likely to be reincarcerated. They had a 15% recidivism rate, almost half the broader average of 28%.
“A lot of these guys come from backgrounds of abuse, and that experience can result in them lacking self-confidence, lacking an ability to trust, and those dynamics are often manifesting in a kind of hyper-masculinity,” said Kathleen O’Meara, a corrections psychologist. She was visiting to explore the possibility of launching a similar program in California. “What happens when they work with a horse is they have to challenge some of their automatic behaviors. Horses don’t respond well to intimidation; you have to gentle them, you have to earn their trust. If they are going to be successful at this, these men transform.”
“This is a real good example of animals helping people,” program director Hank Curry told me. “The thing about training a horse is, if you don’t fix a problem today it’s there tomorrow to greet you. So you have to finish step by step what you’re going to do. These guys are learning to complete a job, finish something, and really learning to take pride in themselves.”
Here is a link to Equine Psychotherapy where you can learn more and find out how horses can help reduce stress in our everyday lives.