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Inmates train America's wild horses to help enforce U.S. border security

Paul McGuire, of the Bureau of Land Management office in Moore, OK, assists with coordination of the regional program between America's wild horses and the Border Patrol.
BY SONYA COLBERG Published: January 2, 2012

The program began in 2007 with Colorado prisoners training wild horses for the Border Patrol, or private use. It has grown to more than 130 trained mustangs.

The inmate training program just began for the Rio Grande sector, which had been leasing horses to patrol that section of the border.

Olivares said she was initially skeptical when it was suggested that her team look for Border Patrol horse prospects at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas. She said it seemed risky to use horses to patrol the border after just 60 to 90 days of training.

When the team visited the prison to look at mustangs the first time in June, she pictured herself getting bucked off. Instead, she found horses with a solid foundation. Suddenly, her team faced an unexpected dilemma.

“It was almost like “American Idol.” Out of 10 or 12 head, we could bring back just six,” Olivares said.

Assessing the talent, they had to turn down a couple of horses that seemed a little lazy, along with the palomino whose golden coat and white mane and tail would reflect light and catch unwanted attention on patrol.

“If I go to pick up a horse from someone locally, you don't know what training they've had. With these, I know their foundation. I know where they were started. And I know who did the job and I know they do a fantastic job,” Olivares said.

“We've gotten 11 so far, and we wouldn't even consider taking one back.”

She said, even considering the cost of feed, shelter and other expenses, the mustangs have saved the sector about $100,000.

Cents and sense

The Hutchinson prison has a partnership with the bureau to pasture about 300 formerly wild horses that are 5 years old or older or haven't been adopted for other reasons. The prison receives from the bureau $3.40 per horse per day, or about $372,300 yearly.

From these horses, Dexter Hedrick, wild horse and burro training program manager, and lead trainer Dion Pope select horses to be trained by inmates for adoption by the public or Border Patrol.

“Horses are very smart animals. They will alert the agent to the movement of people before the agents can see it. They're actually doing the agents' jobs in a lot of ways,” Hedrick said.

They typically have about 20 or more wild horses in training with inmates who must qualify for the program.

The men make 25 cents to 60 cents per hour, though an occasional rider may get up to $3 per hour. Hedrick said the peak pay for most other jobs at the minimum-security prison is $1.05 per day.

Those who get past their fear or already have some horse sense go on to teach the horses basic maneuvers such as “stop,” “back up” and “walk sideways” so the rider can open and close gates. Instead of the prison corrals turning into a wild West scene of flashing spurs and terrified broncos, Hedrick described a “horse whisperer” approach in which they train the horses as gently as possible.

“I feel blessed to be able, at my age, to do something for my country. Being 60, I can't join the military, can't be in the Border Patrol. But I can get these horses ready for the Border Patrol,” Hedrick said.

Hedrick said the program offers a second chance for both horses and humans.

“It's good for the guys, and it's good for the public,” Hedrick said.

“You can see changes in the guys. Now, they've got something to care about. Something to be responsible for.”