Anyone who’s worked with horses understands their transformative power. To bring out the best in a horse, you have to be your best self: quiet, calm, gentle, patient, deliberate, and kind. These aren’t exactly character traits commonly used to describe a prison population, and yet, for 30 years, offenders at Colorado’s Cañon City Four Mile Correctional Center have been training wild horses in a program that enables both parties to learn, grow, and succeed.
In 1985, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) got together and determined that a mutually beneficial partnership could be created between the two organizations. The BLM had wild horses that needed training before they could be adopted out, and the CCI had men who could train them. The seeds for the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) were planted.
“The program just got better and better over time,” says WHIP supervisor Brian Hardin, who’s been overseeing the program for 25 years. “We grew from a small 400-head facility to one that holds 2,950 animals at capacity.”
The mustangs used in the program are gathered largely from Colorado and Wyoming. When they come in, WHIP participants—55 men each day—help the BLM vaccinate, brand, and deworm the horses. Then the training begins. The methods of renowned horsemen like Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt guide the training philosophy at WHIP, and when the mustangs have completed their training, they are sold at monthly adoption events with a solid foundation.
The horses aren’t the only ones learning skills that set them up for a new life and vocation. Offenders learn the ins and outs of horse care and training, from feeding and maintenance to farriery and riding.
“These guys learn a trade,” says Hardin. “And these are men who might never have had a job before. They learn marketable skills and develop a work ethic. We see a lot of good changes in the men. They start inexperienced, lacking motivation, and end up with the self-confidence and know-how to start and finish a job.”
Although offenders learn useful hard skills through WHIP, it’s the skills you can’t put on a resume that are truly valuable.
“There are no shortcuts in good horse training,” explains Hardin. “The men learn a lot about themselves during the process of training an animal. They learn patience, confidence, consistency, effort, and preparation.
“They learn good cowboy values: how to do a job, stick with it, and do it right. And they learn that what you do today is part of the blueprint of the future.”
Whether training a horse or preparing for a life outside the confines of prison, these are lessons well worth learning.