Skip to main content

Wild horses help tame wild men

By Kim Segal and John Zarrella, CNN
  • The Bureau of Land Management thins herds of wild horses out West
  • Some wild horses go to a Nevada prison, where inmates train them
  • It takes four months to train horses that sell for average of $1,500
  • Both convicts and warden say prisoners gain work ethic, control of themselves

Editor's note: Don't miss "American Morning" Monday at 6 a.m. ET for the special series "Mustang Round-Up: Taking the wild out of the west."

Carson City, Nevada (CNN) -- Just like the men training them, these horses used to be free. The animals were free to roam the land in the West, and the men were free to come and go as they please. Now they are both captive at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.

If it weren't for the matching prison blue that the inmates wear, you could mistake this for any working ranch. The prison has a program that uses inmates such as James Redmon to break wild mustangs that have been rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management.

"This is the last thing I thought I would be doing when I came to prison," says Redmon. But a program like this here in Nevada is no surprise since the state is home to more wild horses than any other in the United States.

In the American West, the BLM is charged with caring for and managing nearly 40,000 wild horses and burros that roam on 26 million acres. The BLM insists it must reduce herd sizes because the land can't support the huge number of horses.

This year, the goal is to remove 12,000 wild mustangs from the range, and most of the animals will be put in BLM holding facilities. The BLM will try to adopt out as many horses as possible. The remainder will go to long-term holding facilities.

Inmates bond with horses

About 80 horses removed from federal land will be trained by inmates at the prison. While the BLM round-up program is controversial, most wild horse activists support the prison program.

"I think it's a great thing, I'm really happy that they're doing it," says country singer and Let 'em Run Foundation President Lacy J. Dalton, "I hope that they will continue to do it."

Talking to Warden Jack Palmer leaves no doubt that inmates will continue the job of taming these wild mustangs because it is not only the horses that are reined in by this popular program.

"This is in my opinion one of the best programs the Department of Prisons has," Palmer says. "This program ... it teaches these guys work ethic. A lot of them come into prison, and they don't have a work ethic."

Inmate Thomas Smittle agrees and not just because the warden is within earshot.

"This program has forced me to look at myself and I really had to grow up to able to be successful at it," says Smittle, who is doing time for embezzlement.

Breaking a wild horse is not easy. It takes the inmates about four months of daily training to get a horse ready to not only ride but to respond to commands.

"The hardest part is getting that first touch ... getting that horse to come to you and actually stand there and allow you to pet him," says program manager Hank Curry.

After that initial contact, the horse must be haltered. Haltering isn't very difficult, but just putting a saddle on a wild mustang can take weeks. By the time the prison holds a public auction, where the horses are sold, they are comfortable carrying a cowboy swinging a lasso.

There are three public auctions a year that take place on the prison grounds.

The next scheduled "saddle-trained horse adoption event" will be in February. The average price for a horse broken by an inmate is about $1,500.

View the 12 saddle horses up for adoption

If you were to buy an unbroken mustang sold by the BLM, the cost is $125. Curry points out that one prison horse, a 2-year old strawberry roan gelding named Quick, was sold for $8,500.

"I am proud of both, the men and the horses," Curry says.

Redmon isn't too proud to admit that the program has changed him.

"I had no patience whatsoever when I first came here. I had a short temper, which had put me in prison in the first place," says Redmon, who has a year left on his sentence for assault with a deadly weapon.

"When an inmate comes in here we like to give him something, we'd like him to be released back in society a better person than what he was when he came in and I think this program does this for these inmates," says Palmer, the warden.

It seems to be working.

Redmon says the horses are doing him "a lot of good." As he continues to train his second wild mustang, he continues to work on his patience.

Perhaps a line from Dalton can help explain why this program is so successful when she says: "Out here, you hear it all the time, a cowboy will say, 'The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.' "

Watch American Morning weekdays 6am to 9am ET. For the latest from American Morning click here.