Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Riding Home

The Power of Horses to Heal

Tim Hayes; read by David Stifel

Macmillan Audio




They call it supermax, "Alcatraz of the Rockies," a place for the hopeless, the worst of the worst, transfers from other prisons, killers of guards or fellow inmates, sitting among a complex of nine state penitentiaries and four federal prisons. It is a fortress of concrete and steel on six hundred acres of Colorado grasslands-a silent, lonely structure surrounded by mountains of grace and splendor rising too far away for anyone to notice.

I sat in the back of an old rusted-out yellow school bus as it moved down an empty gravel road, bouncing in and out of potholes. We were going deep into a world of guard towers, fences topped with razor wire, and tough-looking men in jeans and denim work shirts. The bus stopped in front of a gray stone building, its sides framed around windows of broken glass and caked with mud. A guard opened the bus door and told me and the seventeen other men to get off. He led us around the building to a large rectangular wooden corral, had us climb up the side, and told us to sit on top of the fence rails.

All was silent but for the wind blowing whirls of dust, which moved across the middle of the corral, then stopped and disappeared. As we sat on the fence, our legs hanging down, a sound like rumbling thunder moved toward us. A metal gate at the end of the corral swung open, and fourteen wild horses came barreling past our feet, snorting, kicking, running, trying to escape the terror that burned in their eyes.

I was sitting next to a tall, muscular black inmate named Morris. On the bus he'd told me he was "doing fifteen to twenty-five for manslaughter." He said he was a member of the West Side Crips of Los Angeles. His troubles began when he broke the arm of a rival gang member, snapping it over his knee like a stick. When the guy pulled a knife with his other hand, Morris put the man's head in the space between a car doorframe and its open door and kept slamming the door until the man's skull was crushed. Morris was twenty-three and had been in the gang since he was fourteen. He'd never been out of South Central Los Angeles. He'd never seen a live horse.

The Wild Horse Inmate Program was originally set up by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to assist in managing the country's thousands of free-roaming wild horses. Prior to any government regulation, America's wild horses were gradually being left to the mercy of slaughterhouses. This practice, if left unregulated, could have led to the permanent extinction of one of our country's most revered icons: the wild mustang.

In 1973, the government stepped in with legislation that would permit any U.S. citizen to obtain and own a wild mustang as long as they had enough land and the proper facilities to care for it. The BLM then created a program called Adopt a Horse; the agency would make the animals available in various regions, and for a fee of $125, anyone who qualified could permanently "adopt" a wild mustang. This, however, created an additional challenge. Most of the people bringing home the wild horses were not experienced enough to safely handle them. Without professional training prior to adoption, the mustangs were too dangerous.

To safely gentle thousands of horses would require many experienced horsemen and be enormously expensive. In 1986, BLM officials came up with what they believed was an ingenious solution. The concept was simple: if prison inmates could be used as cheap labor and taught to manufacture license plates, why not teach them how to gentle wild horses?

Having recently heard about WHIP, I had now come as an observer to see it firsthand. I had worked on cattle ranches, on dude ranches, in fancy equestrian centers, and at every type of local or backyard barn. For years I had taught people about horses-not only how to ride them but how to understand them, communicate with them, control them, and care for them. Countless times I had witnessed the self-awareness and emotional connections humans could experience by forming relationships with horses, but I was not prepared for what I was about to see in this prison.

Although the gentler methods of "starting horses," with communication-as opposed to "breaking horses," which uses force-had already begun in the mid-1990s, some of the old- fashioned traditional methods were still occasionally being used. Today, the Cañon City, Colorado, prisons, as well as other BLM WHIP programs in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Utah, start their wild mustangs using methods of kindness, communication, and understanding-otherwise referred to as natural horsemanship.

At the end of my first day, I'd learned that new members like Morris are assigned to small groups of experienced inmates who have, over time, become proficient at the skilled process of gentling and then training wild horses. Being in WHIP is a privilege. Inmates first have to volunteer, then qualify, satisfying requirements involving both a personal conduct history of good behavior and recommendations from superiors.

Once in the program, if they follow the rules, they acquire a small amount of additional freedom and a sense of purpose unique to prison life. If they mess up, they are returned to the general prison population. Therefore, all the inmates in WHIP, both old and new, are highly motivated to try hard to succeed and do their time working at their newfound vocation of "gentling" horses.

As I sat on the fence next to Morris, a cowboy wearing a white straw hat rode into the corral on a chestnut horse and moved slowly toward the fourteen mustangs. One by one he separated each horse from the herd and sent it into an adjoining pen, which prevented it from returning.

When there was but one horse left, the cowboy drove it into a metal chute, trapping the fear-drenched animal. Once locked in the chute, some horses freeze in terror; others go crazy, desperately trying to escape. This one stood on his hind legs, towering ten feet in the air, frantically striking at the metal panels with his front hooves.

It was the middle of July and about ninety degrees. Most of the prisoners had been told that they could take off their shirts, which they'd done, revealing iron-pumped arms with multiple tattoos. The cowboy yelled out to Morris and two other new inmates to watch the experienced old-timers go through the gentling process with this new horse. The horse in the chute had dropped his front legs and was now standing on all four feet, frozen with fear, nostrils flared, eyes wide as if waiting for death.

An old-timer named Swifty slowly put his hand between the metal bars of the chute and ever so gently began to stroke the horse's back. For a new inmate, this action most likely appeared insignificant. For a wild horse that has never seen a human, much less been touched by one, it was terrifying. Swifty gently stroked the horse's withers, stopped and took his hand away, then began stroking again. Slowly the horse began to relax.

The most pleasurable place one can stroke or pet a horse is the area between the neck and back known as the withers. It is the first place a mare will nuzzle her newborn foal to nurture, calm, and relax it. The gentle nuzzling of a horse's withers causes a release of endorphins and a lowering of the heart rate, both of which serve to produce feelings of safety and well-being.

After about twenty minutes the cowboy told Swifty to leave, pointed to Morris, and said, "You, jump down and stand over there by the fence." Then he told one of the old-timers to explain to Morris how to put a halter and rope on the horse's head without getting his arm broken or bitten off.

I watched, keenly aware of the two biggest differences between these horses and the domestic horses most people encounter: the mustangs' freedom in their natural environment to run anywhere, at any time, and their total lack of exposure to people. Not only had these horses never had any type of confinement experience, they had also never seen a human being.

The horse is a prey animal; the human is a predator. Predators eat prey. All horses are born knowing this. Domestic horses are raised around humans. They learn to get along and not to fear people; otherwise, they could never be ridden. People often think of the horse as a "flight animal," one that would rather run from danger than fight. That's true most of the time for domestic horses, but not for wild mustangs. These horses can kill a man in the blink of an eye. More than once they have.

Morris hung over the top panel, his hands wavering, and barely managed to put the halter over the horse's head. Next he cautiously attached a soft fifty-foot cotton rope to the halter, stepped back down to the ground holding the rope, and walked backward about twenty-five feet. The cowboy, still sitting on his horse, yelled for five other inmates to join Morris and take their places along different sections of the rope. Then he rode to the chute, unhooked the latch, and swung the gate open.

At once the mustang bolted out of the chute, running for his life. He smashed into the gate, cutting his front right pastern-I could see blood just above his hoof-and raced toward the other end of the pen. I watched as all six men held on tight and pulled at the rope as the horse desperately tried to escape-imprisoned humans fighting wild animals like ancient gladiators battling lions. The cowboy now wanted the inmates to begin what was called the gentling process.

As this began, I stayed focused on Morris. He not only needed to show the animal he was in control, he needed to do it in a way that would gain the horse's trust. I could hear an inmate they called Stucky, a skinny kid from somewhere in Ohio, muttering to himself: "He ain't never gonna get near that animal."

To understand how much it takes for a wild horse to trust a human, imagine you have gone to visit a remote village where one hundred years ago the natives practiced cannibalism. No one speaks English. One of the natives makes a motion indicating that he wants you to go with him into his hut. Even though he and his relatives haven't eaten human flesh in over a hundred years, would you go with him without a second thought?

Would you go if he began to look annoyed and frustrated when you hesitated and said, "No, thank you"? Even though you knew it was their custom to show friendship by sitting and eating with you, how would you react if he and five of his native friends began to physically move you into the hut? Would you feel trusting and easily go in or stand your ground and insist, "I said no!"? What was happening now in this prison corral was similar. It didn't matter that the visitor was a horse.

The horse stood frozen, his body shaking, staring wide-eyed with horror at six tattooed predators dripping with sweat. It was a tug-of-war, wild horse versus wild men. The cowboy yelled for the men to pull the horse's head to the left. This caused the animal to move his feet, turning his body to the left. Next, they were told to pull the head right, which moved the horse's feet to the right.

Head left, then right. This went on for about a half hour. As it continued, it took less and less effort to move the horse. With increasingly less resistance from the mustang, the cowboy told one of the inmates, then another to leave the rope and return to the fence.

Horses, whether they are born in the wild or on a million-dollar Kentucky breeding farm, live their entire lives motivated by three factors, which are valued in the following order: survival, comfort, and leadership. First, they will always run or fight until they feel no threat of being eaten by a predator. Second, when they feel a hundred percent safe, they will do whatever is necessary to be physically and emotionally comfortable-that is, rest, eat, drink, sleep, and remove themselves from anything stressful.

Finally, when they feel both safe and comfortable, they will seek their place in the leadership pecking order of the herd. Knowing one's place in the herd's pecking order eliminates disputes, which can cause fights. Eliminating fights prevents injuries, reduces stress, and makes daily life more comfortable.

Horses obtain their leadership positions by participating in contests of physical dominance. It starts when one horse challenges another with threats of kicks or bites. The horse that moves away from the confrontation first loses the contest. The horse that stands its ground is the winner and thus the leader of the two. The entire herd participates in these contests until there is an "alpha," or herd leader, and every horse knows its place in the herd.

Being the alpha brings with it the responsibility for the safety of the herd. It also brings privileges such as eating first. Although contests can get rough and threats of bites or kicks can rapidly escalate to physical contact, the object is never to seriously hurt or be hurt. While it can take two days or more for a herd to accept a new horse as an additional member, most pecking-order contests are resolved quite quickly. Eighty percent of the time this is accomplished with nothing more than threats expressed by ear pinning or head swinging. In fact, horses think of this method of deciding leadership roles as play.

However, because it can be extremely rough, if people engaged in similar behavior it could easily result in unintentional physical injury. For humans, most often children and teenagers, this type of behavior is not only considered dangerous, it has appropriately come to be referred to as "horseplay." (Swimming pools often have posted regulations that include "No horseplay.")

When all three of horses' primary needs-survival, comfort, and leadership-have been satisfied, their next most lasting and fervent desire is to just get along with one another and anyone or anything that enters their world. These natural qualities of acceptance and tolerance have allowed horses to endure for millions of years while thousands of other animal species have perished.

Of all the invaluable attributes of another species that could benefit the human race, I have often thought that none could so powerfully make a difference for the future of our planet than if humans would simply emulate these two humble character traits of our equine friends.

* * *

It was late afternoon in the prison corral and the sun was slowly moving west, bringing a warm breeze that helped dry the sweat of both man and horse. The mustang, having initially squared off against six inmates, thinking they were going to eat him, had not only realized that he was still alive but had repeatedly been made to move his feet in a contest much like one he would have had with another horse.

It had become more comfortable for him to move than to resist. Because he'd been moved with less and less physical effort, he was in fact losing the contest and was now facing only one man: Morris. The cowboy told the inmate to move up the rope, approach the horse with his hand outstretched, and allow the mustang to smell him.

The former South Central L.A. street-gang member moved closer, extending the fingers of his right hand, and stopped about three inches from the horse's mouth. Morris was powerful and dangerous-looking, and though he'd never seen a live horse, he, like the rest of the inmates, had arrived here believing that all horses were like the ones on TV or in the movies: easygoing, submissive, and respectful of men, especially tough men. He was wrong.

With lightning speed the mustang reared up, and Morris fell backward, hitting the dirt hard. He immediately jumped up and backed away as the horse came down, pounding his two front hoofs into the ground. The cowboy yelled at Morris to try again.

The mustang's first strike had hit the ground short of its mark. I could hear Morris yell out that he was lucky the horse missed, but I knew he was mistaken. The horse was sending Morris a warning, as if to say, "If you don't move away, the next time I strike I'll make contact and I'll hurt you." If a horse strikes or kicks and wants to make contact, he never misses. This was another example of the many noble qualities of horses: they're just, they almost always start with a warning, they mean what they say, and they never lie.

If they want you to move, they'll start by asking you to move using their body language. They'll pin their ears back and kick the air in your personal space. They do not begin by making physical contact. Just as they would with another horse, they give you a warning, which lets you decide how you want to respond and allows you the dignity of choosing your answer.

If you still don't move, they will tell you that you should have listened and respected their request. They'll tell you this by kicking again, but this time they'll make contact, sometimes with deadly accuracy.

Morris began to repeat what he had done, but I could see that something about him was different. It was the look on his face. Something in Morris, I was soon to discover, had shifted. The cowboy yelled out, "That's enough for today." He rode over to Morris, took the rope, and led the mustang to his herd mates.

The next time I saw Morris, he had been working with that same horse for three days while being mentored by some of the old-timers. I could see from his physical manner and gestures that he had begun to acquire a slower, gentler approach as he moved around the horse.

Now when he took the mustang into the pen he could touch the animal all over its body. He could put a blanket and saddle on the horse's back. He could pick up all four hooves and clean them as the horse stood quietly. The only thing he hadn't done was ride him.

Getting on a horse's back for the first time is the most challenging moment in creating a relationship between horse and human. No matter how much prior trust has been established, having a meat-eating predator climb on top of a plant-eating prey animal is enough to instantly cause an explosive equine meltdown. In a flash, a horse will take off and run for his life. He'll buck and rear, sometimes so violently that he'll tip over backward and fatally crush his rider.

At the same time that new inmates like Morris were learning the process of gentling wild mustangs, they were also being taught to ride older, experienced, "saddle-broke" horses. By the time an inmate sat on a wild horse, he knew how to ride.

As Morris gently put his leg over and sat down on the mustang, I saw the same look in his eyes I had seen at the end of his first session. He settled his weight, leaned forward, and gently stroked the mustang along his neck. Morris made a kissing sound, squeezed his legs, and the horse slowly began walking. They walked together around the pen for about ten minutes, then stopped in the center, and Morris quietly got off.

I walked over to Morris as he stood stroking the side of the horse's head. I asked him what he had learned in the past few days about horses-creatures he had never seen and might never see outside of prison for years to come. Morris spit in the dirt, looked at me, and slowly began to speak:

"They say they're dumb ... they ain't dumb. They could damage you with all that power, but you could put an eight-year-old kid on 'em and know it's okay. I know 'cause I seen it in movies and TV. The horse thinks you're goin' t'hurt 'im. They get angry and try to hurt you ... and they could. They don't understand what you're tryin' to do. They act tough, but I think they just scared. Yeah, they ain't mean ... just scared. I think maybe once you get to trust 'em, they trust you."

It was amazing; Morris had had an epiphany.

He went on to tell me that he saw in these horses something that he knew was also inside him, something he could never admit to himself or anyone else. Morris had been living his whole life in fear. If these powerful, tough wild animals could be afraid, maybe, he said, maybe he could say he had been afraid, too.

The inmates who participate in WHIP have committed every crime imaginable, some frightening or violent. They arrive at prison with a lot of swagger. Most are from gangs. In their world they see themselves as tough guys, dangerous, bad. The first time a wild mustang comes at them, their rock-hard attitudes crumble. The only way they know how to relate to almost anyone is with anger, mistrust, and deadly force, but now it's instantly apparent that their way won't work with these horses.

And just as with Morris, something happens to all of them. The inmates start to see that the mustang's violent behavior is caused by fear. The horses are just trying to survive. They act mean and aggressive, but in reality they are scared to death, just like the men. For the first time in the lives of these men, they are shown the undeniable truth about who they are.

They have learned and believed that being tough and vicious is their only hope of survival. But now-just like these beautiful, wild, violent, and unpredictable animals-the men can see that their motive had been fear. And maybe, just like the horses, they, too, can change.

Behind their violence, the mustangs are deeply afraid. The inmates identify with that. They see themselves. They begin to feel compassion, an emotion they have probably never known or felt before. They feel it for the horses, they feel it for each other, and they feel it for themselves.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails. A recent study by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons reported that within three years of their release, 67 percent of former prisoners are rearrested and 52 percent are reincarcerated, a recidivism rate that calls into question the effectiveness of America's correctional system, which costs taxpayers $60 billion a year.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, the recidivism rate for inmates from the Wild Horse Inmate Program is half the national rate of 67 percent. The horses of WHIP have helped prevent more than 780,000 former inmates from returning to prison. Not only does the public get to adopt safer horses, the rate of prisoner recidivism is drastically reduced.

Many inmates from the WHIP program leave prison and become productive members of society. Remarkably, the relationships created between inmates and horses achieve a level of human rehabilitation that billions of dollars and hundreds of years of traditional systems of incarceration have never been able to attain.

I had come to this prison to study the wild mustang and learn what effect, if any, working with horses might have in the practical rehabilitation of hardened inner-city criminals. What I saw was a miraculous transformation I don't think anyone could have imagined. I certainly hadn't.

The inmates were trying to gentle the horses, but in truth the horses were gentling the inmates. The process of gentling wild horses to fit into human society was simultaneously gentling "wild" humans to fit back into the same society. I had not only watched the use of cheap prison labor save a great American icon, the wild mustang; I had witnessed the unintended healing of lost souls.

Copyright © 2015 by Tim Hayes

Foreword copyright © 2015 by Robert Redford