About midnight, the two mustangs stopped their soft munching.
The U.S. Border Patrol agents quietly had tied their inmate-trained mustangs among thorny shrubs just north of the Rio Grande.
Agent Audra Wannemacher and her partner had information that smugglers would be trying to cross the border illegally from Mexico into the U.S.
With a cunning earned running public rangeland with thousands of other wild horses, the agents' horses wove through the cactus plants and scrub brush that thwarted the Border Patrol's white-and-green trucks and ATVs. The agents tracked the group about a mile, while agents farther north moved in to try to box in the group.
The two partners waited in the darkness at the edge of a cliff.
Suddenly, Wannemacher's black gelding Nitro turned and looked at the agents. Then he and the other horse looked in another direction. They looked again at the agents and away again.
“Hey, can you look over in this direction? I think the horses are trying to tell us something,” Wannemacher said to the agent with the night vision device.
The horses had “alerted” on 30 people crossing the road in the direction the agents hadn't been watching. Springing into their saddles, the agents could see a half-dozen illegal immigrants climbing the cliff.
They asked them in Spanish to give up. Some did. But more scattered into the black night, igniting a blaze of crashing hooves, horse hide and body-armored agents behind them.
Nitro flattened his ears and galloped after one running immigrant. His black hooves pounded through the darkness, closer and closer to the illegal immigrant. The man stopped, raised his arms and gave up.
“The horses could smell them before we could see them. And with their hearing, they can pick up the noises before we can. They kind of alert to it. Now that they've been out there for a few months, they're picking up on what they're here to do. It's very helpful to have those heightened senses of the horses,” Wannemacher said.
She said the agents and their horses caught 21 of the 30 people that night.
Since October, the 11 mounted agents have arrested 784 people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally along the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which snakes over 316 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to Falcon Heights, Texas, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Mary Olivares said. They've also seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana in the two months.
The mustangs are part of a new partnership in which the Border Patrol adopts wild horses caught on public land by Bureau of Land Management contractors and then trained by prisoners.
Olivares said the former wild horses bring to their jobs something beyond the ruggedness, stealth and instincts of prey animals that must use their hooves and intellect to survive in the wild.
“They make a huge psychological impact. Huge. All you can hear is this thunderous sound behind you. All you hear is hooves. They're pretty scary,” Olivares said.
Paul McGuire, of the Bureau of Land Management office in Moore, assists with coordination of the regional program between America's wild horses and the Border Patrol.
“We're not only working to preserve mustangs as valued icons of the American West and providing Border Patrol with a very useful tool to secure the border, but also providing a program that helps with inmates' introduction back into society,” McGuire said.
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.”