Wild Horses and the Inmates Who ‘Gentle’ Them

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Wild Horses and the Inmates Who ‘Gentle’ Them

About a dozen inmates incarcerated at Northern Nevada Correctional Center train horses in a program that benefits both the men and animals.

There’s a term in the horse world known as “gentling.” It refers to working with a wild horse until it becomes responsive to a trainer’s commands, meaning that it no longer wants to kick you in the face. If handled properly, it even bonds with its trainer.

Gentling happens every day at the Silver State Industries ranch in Carson City, Nev, a 1,100-acre property east of the Carson Range in the vast, harsh high desert south of Reno. Up to 2,000 wild horses are corralled there at any time; a good number are trained for adoption.

The ranch is part of the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, a medium-security prison that also houses minimum-security inmates. Twelve to 15 inmates, most of whom have little or no experience with horses, work under the instruction of a cowboy named Hank Curry. It is the inmates who do the gentling.

John Harris, an inmate who is taking part in the program, grew up on a family farm in Northern Iowa, so he wasn’t a stranger to livestock. A mustang is not a barn horse, however. Often they are terrified, skittish and incredibly strong willed from having survived in the wild.

“One time I fought with a horse for two hours to get him to walk three feet to a post,” Mr. Harris, 38, said, “I was worked up. The horse was worked up.”

When he started in the Wild Horse Program at the prison two years ago, “I was a lot more aggressive with my training,” Mr. Harris said. “I wanted something done now. That don’t work. You have to take your time.” He credited Mr. Curry for his softer approach: “Hank had to kind of gentle me.”

Mr. Curry, who is 67, no longer sees his job as strictly horse trainer, as he once did. Instead, he said, “I’m a counselor, a teacher, a horse trainer. You establish pride in the guy and pride in his job, he’s going to be a lot more successful when he gets out of here.”

Most of the inmates he works with are nonviolent offenders, with sentences of two years or less, and they signed up for the job.

“I’m fortunate,” Mr. Curry said. “I don’t have to deal with big-time punks.”

Everyone involved in the program recognizes the symbolism: the way the horses and the inmates are both penned up and how through the training process they rehabilitate one another. It was this aspect that appealed to Ryan Shorosky, a photographer who spent a week this spring documenting what he called “the beautiful parallel between the inmates and the horses, using each other to get to that next point.”

Wearing dusty Levi’s, work boots and hand-me-down chaps, the inmates clean stalls and repair gear. They water and feed the horses and undertake the slow process of earning a wild animal’s trust. It’s dirty, bruising work in blazing heat.

The men enjoy the sense of freedom, the fresh air and the camaraderie that develops among them and with the mustangs. “To take this horse that don’t want nothing to do with you and you get to a point where you can walk up, touch it, pet it, put a halter on it — it’s a pretty good feeling,” Mr. Harris said.

The Wild Horse Program at the prison isn’t unique. There are programs like it in Arizona, Colorado, California, Kansas and Wyoming. It’s one of the ways the Bureau of Land Management is dealing with a population of mustangs and wild burros in the Western states that, after the 2017 foal crop, could be as high as 86,000.

That is more than three times what the bureau deems a sustainable level, said Jenny Lesieutre, who, as the Wild Horse and Burro Public Affairs Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, oversees the program at the ranch.

The inmates’ work culminates every four months with an adoption day for the public. The inmates put on a big rodeo intro, waving flags and riding around a roofed arena, showing off to the bidders in the bleachers their horses and, by extension, their equestrian skills. They have a competition as to whose horse will fetch the most money ($15,000 is the record).

“There’s a lot of guys, they wish they could adopt out a horse themselves, because they’ve got that bond with them,” said Mr. Harris, who, when we spoke by phone, had 17 days to go before being released.

He takes a different view. “Me, personally, I just like seeing them getting adopted out,” he said. “I look at them like us: I helped the horse become a better person so he can make parole.”