FLORENCE — As the state’s oldest correctional facility, the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence appears ominous, with its high walls and very visible barbed wire looking like something out of a movie from decades past. But beyond those walls, past the barbed wire and the guard towers, select inmates have been able to discover a bit of peace and dignity, thanks in large part to some four-legged friends.
Because inside these walls are 5 acres where horses roam and burros sleep. In this section of the facility, inmates learn how to work with animals and train them so they can be transferred to a caring owner who will give the previously wild creatures a tame life.
This is all a part of the Arizona Wild Horse inmate program, a partnership between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Arizona Department of Corrections that allows BLM-owned horses and burros to be trained by the prisoners. The program, the sixth of its kind in the country and the one with the southern-most location, began in 2012.
Program Supervisor Randy Helm has been training horses for BLM for 20 years after being born and reared on a ranch. As a former law enforcement officer, he was asked to help create this training program at the prison, an opportunity he was thrilled to accept.
“I’ve had inmates who tell me when they’re doing it they feel like they’re not even in prison,” Helm said. “It’s a great program.”
There are currently 300 horses and 100 burros, most of which are taken from herds in Nevada and Wyoming, at the prison holding facility, with about 35 at a time selected to take part in the training. Animals selected are taken into the prison itself, where a ranch has been constructed so they can sleep and eat while bring trained.
Inmates are brought out to the ranch about a half an hour before the sun comes up. They make sure all the equipment is ready for the day and that all the feed and water has been placed out for the animals. They make sure to clean the stables and that the horses are in good condition. Then the real work begins.
Training the animals takes up about five hours per day. Inmates are involved in every step of the process, from when the animals first come in until they are ready to enter the world as fully trained horses and burros. Depending on where the horse or burro is in its development, this could mean something as simple as getting used to the human touch to being ridden around the ranch. Inmates spend about 30 to 45 minutes on each horse.
“It’s more like a lesson plan,” Helm said. “You work on one thing, get it down, and then you move on to the next.”
Helm estimated that about 80 percent of the inmates have never had any horse experience, and that it takes them about a month to get comfortable with the animals. But he added that these are inmates who are typically easy to work with.
“Some of the inmates who don’t have horse experience are the better ones,” Helm said. “The method I use is the least resistance method. It’s gentling, so I don’t want them bucking. We just work them until they settle down. If they buck, we did something wrong. Getting guys with horse experience thinking along those terms has been challenging.”
But once the inmates get used to what they’re doing and buy in to the program, operations have run smoothly. There haven’t been any major problems, just a fall here or a kick to the leg there, and the growth has been noticeable in both inmate and animal. In fact, the connections become so strong, inmates begin seeing a little bit of themselves in the horses they train.
“We’ll go one step at a time, from wild to gentle,” Helm said. “Some of the inmates really relate to that.”
By giving each inmate three horses that they can take from start to finish in the training process, Helm believes they are experiencing a feeling they never have before.
“I’ve had inmates tell me, ‘You know, on the outside I’ve never had accomplishments. I’ve never worked long enough to see something through to success,’” Helm said. “They’ve learned patience. With these horses, if you lose your temper, they’re going to win that battle. They’ll outweigh you.”
Combine this feeling with the ability to work outside in peace, with creatures that can give them a level of companionship most inmates never receive, and the experience of being in prison can become a lot more bearable, sometimes even extremely so.
“We teach by giving the horses rest and peace,” Helm said. “So the inmates tell me they’ve learned something about themselves. I had one inmate who was eligible for early release tell me he was trying not to get it because he wanted to stay with the horses.”
Helm also has no doubt that this nurturing of animals will help the men when they attempt to go back into the world as family men and just overall better citizens in the community.
“Hopefully when they get out, they’ll take some of these skills with them, even if it’s just that they’ve been successful at something,” Helm said. “You have to learn, but rehabilitation isn’t something intentional that we try to force. Rehabilitation happens naturally.”
But it’s not just the inmates this program is helping. Around the Western United States, herds of horses have been abused by people who are not properly trained in how to handle them. Indeed, there is a shortage of people who can treat them with the respect they need to live a peaceful life.
“One of the things that happens is people try to be overly aggressive,” Helm said. “You’re reinforcing their greatest fears. They see you as a predator, they’re already afraid of you. And then you rope them and bring them to the ground.”
By giving so many horses this opportunity — and Helm said he wants to expand the program to include as many as 2,000 animals — there is a real win-win atmosphere.
“As far as we know, this should be a long partnership with BLM,” Helm said. “We obviously have a real focus on safety, so the prison has been very happy.”
And when the inmates are done training the horses and burros, the animals become ready to be adopted by the public. The first adoption event in the history of the Florence program will take place on March 14 and 15. Viewing will take place all day on the 14th, and at 8 a.m. on the 15th, with the official adoptions beginning at 9 a.m. on the 15th. The event will be located at the prison holding facility, which is on Butte Avenue about a mile and a half east of Arizona 79.
There will be about 20 horses and burros at the event, with horses trained in the halter and saddle fields, and the burros trained to be pack animals, wagon pullers or just friendly pets. There will also be plenty of untrained horses for people who want to put their own mark on them.
Interested prospective buyers of all experience levels are welcome, including people looking to buy their first animal.
“If they’re willing to learn and willing to be patient, they can get these horses to come along,” Helm said. “These are great animals.”
Reach Coolidge Examiner Editor Joey Chenoweth at 723-5441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.