In a wide field hedged in by high fences topped with razor wire, Johnny Stankovic, dressed entirely in orange, stands almost motionless in the climbing morning heat. From his hand, a synthetic rope sags to the sun-bleached grass and then up again to the head of a young roan colt. The colt dips its head to tear at the sod but keeps a wary eye on Stankovic.
“He’s not used to people yet,” Stankovic says evenly. “He’s a new one. Gotta take it slow. They’ve only run from people before coming here.”
Stankovic is one of 40 to 45 inmates chosen to work in the Wild Horse Inmate Program at the Arizona State Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona. Randy Helm, a former undercover narcotics agent and experienced rancher, runs the program within the prison walls. He helped to found the program in 2013, which couples new skills training with a for-profit venture.
Helm says the monetary profits are minuscule -- barely enough to keep the program afloat, in fact, but the sociological results are tremendous. While the program does not profess a “rehabilitative” aspect, prisoners involved in the program show a substantially lower recidivism rate, Helm says. Prisoners who are interested in the program can apply, just like all the other jobs in prison; they are chosen for various reasons including good behavior, prior animal experience, and general interest in the work.
“It really does change their people skills,” Helm says about the inmates in the program. “With a wild horse, you can’t take a shortcut because there’s no place to go. Life is that way: You have to go through this process, one step at a time.”
The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Reserve in southern Arizona is a treacherous, wild terrain filled with patches of tall whip-like Ocotillo cactus and bristling bunches of cotton-spired Jumping Chollas. The reserve’s southern edge flattens against the Mexican border and makes it a favored entry point for migrants and smugglers.
The horses are already slick with sweat and we’re only halfway through the patrol. We are looking for "bodies" -- agent slang for blips picked up from the multitude of electronic motion and heat sensors that dot the area. The technology can spot people crossing the border, but retrieving them is where the horse patrol comes in.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been buying horses from the inmate program since its inception. The animals are well-suited for the slow tracking of smugglers; the “chase” creeps along in the rugged terrain. There are no high-speed chases out here on the rocks.
Horses can also move further distances much faster and more quietly than other forms of vehicular movement or humans on foot can. Plus, horses are naturally intelligent. While an agent may think he can tear through a wash on an ATV and then end up misjudging the depth and getting stuck, a horse knows its limitations and can gauge which path is best.
There has long been a romantic and contentious history of wild horses in the U.S. They are often viewed by the general public as enduring symbols of American individualism and power, but some ranchers see them as threats that compete with their cattle for grazing space.
In 1971, the Bureau of Land Management passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, in part to protect the animals from overzealous ranchers who had resorted to violently culling the herds. Since then, the BLM has acted as a facilitator for capture and private ownership of the animals and brokering sales to other government agencies.
“One inmate told me he never... really worked through the process and saw it to completion,” Helm, the narcotics detective-turned-horse trainer, says. “His first horse that we finished was adopted out. He had tattoos all over, standing there crying…They’ll get tearful. These are guys who’ve been to prison four or five times.”
The connection between agents and horses is undeniable, as is the connection between the inmates and horses. Trust is the underlying current. The horses must reach a point where they trust humans, and the inmates are being entrusted with that job. This also requires putting trust in themselves to accomplish something very unique, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
(originally published HERE on Mashable.com)