It takes convict John Peterson four months of hard work to turn a wild, aggressive mustang into a saddle-trained horse.
Mustangs have returned the favor for Peterson, who's serving time for burglary at a Colorado state prison outside Canon City. Peterson works in the Wild Horse Inmate Program, which prepares mustangs for private adoption and for use by the U.S. Border Patrol.
"This program has taught me patience, perseverance," said Peterson as he scratched the black mane of Shorty, a bay-colored mustang at the East Canon Correctional Complex 120 miles (200 kilometers) south of Denver. "You can't rush these horses. ... It's a give and take type thing."
Shorty is one of 6,500 wild mustangs the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rounds up yearly to control a burgeoning population on the open range. The horses are taken to BLM facilities across the country, including nearly 2,000 at East Canon.
Inmates in the Wild Horse program start out cleaning stalls and trimming hooves and can graduate to become full-fledged horse trainers.
"We put a lot of work and training into these horses. Gentle them down and show them that there's a different way than they're used to out there on the range, fighting for their food and everything," said Peterson, a 44-year-old North Dakota native who says he's spent 23 years of his life in prison, mainly for burglaries.
The recidivism rate for horse trainers is half the national rate of 68 percent, said Brian Hardin, the program's supervisor for the Colorado Department of Corrections. "The animals take the place of the family unit while they're locked up," Hardin said of his inmates.
Demand for saddle-broken mustangs is high. Prison adoption fees are $1,025 per horse, compared to about twice that for outside adoptions, said Fran Ackley, the BLM's wild horse and burro specialist. At East Canon, about 75 saddle-trained mustangs are adopted each year.
The U.S. Border Patrol recently adopted about 20 mustangs. Its Spokane, Washington, sector uses them to patrol rough terrain along the Canadian border. Its El Paso, Texas, sector adopted two in May and plans to buy more.
"They are like American legends. So what better use to put them than protecting America's borders?" said Spokane-based Border Patrol Agent Danielle Suarez.
"You can use them at night. They're quiet, they don't have motors," said Ackley.
Adoption rates for mustangs that aren't saddle trained are declining, from 4,700 in 2007 to 3,700 in 2008. That, and a growth in the wild horse population, which has no natural predators, has increased the BLM's captive population to 26,000. The Canon City corral is expanding to hold 1,000 more horses.
Ackley blames the recession for the increase in unwanted horses. "I think horses are becoming more of a luxury than a hobby," he said. "And you read stories daily about people turning their horses out on BLM lands and just dumping them."
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said the agency's budget to capture and hold mustangs is strained. Care over a mustang's lifetime costs an average $15,000. And the BLM captured 5,000 horses on the open range in 2008, down from 10,000 in 2005.
"We've got too many horses on the range and too many in holding," said Gorey.
Colorado's corrections department is recruiting more inmates to saddle-train the horses. Its College Horse Training Management Program allows inmates to waive parole and earn college credit by training horses for six months. Twenty-two inmates have signed up.
Peterson, who's spent five years training horses at East Canon, is up for parole next year. He won't join the management program but does plan to get a job training horses when he gets out.
"This program for me is a way for me in prison to kind of escape," he said. "Just to get away from all the craziness and come out here and be with my colts."
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