There’s an unlikely group of men in Arizona helping to rehabilitate and train wild horses and burros captured by the Bureau of Land Management.
The trainers aren't your typical cowboys wearing cowboy boots and hats. Instead, they’re dressed in orange and make no more than 80 cents an hour.
With giant fences and guard towers, you’ll find these trainers hard at work about 65 miles away from Downtown Phoenix at the State Prison in Florence.
“My kids grew up while I’ve been in here. It’s like getting a chance to raise my kids again. You got to teach them everything, you have to clean up after them, you have to clean their cuts and scrapes and then you have to send them out into the world,” inmate Richard Kline said.
Kline is one of 20 inmates involved with Arizona’s Wild Horse Inmate Program. The group spends five days a week training 35 wild horses at a training facility on the prison grounds.
"It teaches you to be consistent. You get up every day, you get ready, go to work, come out here, you take care of these animals so it's teaching you a pattern,” Kline said.
During the program’s six-year history, the inmates have trained roughly 300 horses. This unique program is one of only three in the country.
“I was scared to death of horses, scared of getting kicked and now my favorite thing to teach a horse is how to pick up its feet,” inmate Toby Ray said.
Like a wild horse, Ray wasn't tamed. He has been in and out of jail for drugs violations, but life changed when he started interacting with these large animals.
“I’ve learned more probably than these horses learned from me about patience, having to deal with fear, courage,” Ray said.
The bond between horse and inmate grows quickly as the two learn to trust each other.
“The horses aren't mean. They are just really afraid when they get here so it's really neat to get them from that to this,” Ray said.
After three to four months of training, the horses get adopted.
“Now their lives are getting purpose, they're getting trained, they will be able to work on ranches and the Border Patrol,” Ray said.
Most of the inmates in the program have never even touched a horse before, but something magical happens when they finally do.
“It’s been very rewarding,” Program Director Randy Helm said.
Helm is a kind, passionate leader who takes a genuine interest in each inmate.
“I’d rather them leave here with character and integrity than to be a great horse trainer, but if they can leave with both, that would be great,” Helm said.
Helm knows of only one inmate from his program who's gotten out of prison and ended up back in.
“That is my desire that none of them would reoffend and return and I make it a point to talk about it,” Helm said.
For Helm, it’s not just about training these horses for the future, but training these men for life outside the barbed wires.
“When you see these guys not just get out and not reoffend, but get out and pursue things you never thought they could pursue or be able to reconnect with family and move on with life and be a productive part of society, it's extremely rewarding,” Helm said.
For Ray, that day has finally come.
“I’m going to miss this job, been a great job,” Ray said.
Ray’s four-year sentence is over and he’s inching to get out of prison.
“While he has been in, he has stopped smoking, he's running an AA program on the yard, he's got a mentor on the outside,” Helm said.
Ray is now out of prison and in a recovery program in Phoenix. He’s just one example of how these horses are taming wild hearts in Florence and helping inmates get their lives back on track.
“I honestly know without a doubt, this program is not just for the horses, this program is for us,” Ray said.
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