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Arizona Prison Inmates Find Freedom Through Training Wild Horses

Aaron Granillo/KNAU

About four in ten Arizona prison inmates will be back behind bars within three years of their release. That number is far lower for a group of men at the state prison in Florence, where taming mustangs is part of a unique rehab program. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo reports it’s giving the inmates a fresh perspective on life, and a chance at freedom.

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Inmates looks on as Gringo trains in the prison stable's round pen.

One of the inmates is Brian Tierce, a scruffy man with a missing front tooth. He stands in the middle of a round pen, clad in bright orange prison garb. A white stallion, named Gringo, circles him. Their eyes are fixed on one another. 

Tierce gently flings a rope around Gringo’s neck, inching closer until he can touch the horse.

"It’s a really big accomplishment to get some of these horses to trust you enough that you’re not going to hurt them," says Tierce. "They’ve been through so much in life, between the round up, and getting locked up, to getting taken out of their environment."

Tierce can relate. He’s been behind bars nearly half his life, addicted to meth, directionless.

"Oh, I was angry. Very angry person. Just shooting drugs and committing crime," says Tierce.

He’s 50 now, serving his fifth stint in prison, a seven year sentence for domestic violence. But, this is his first incarceration training horses.

"It takes a lot of patience. You have to be able to give back to these horses and understand that you can’t push them around like you push things around in life," Tierce says. "Can’t bully your way around them, because that don’t work."

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Inmates watch as Randy Helm works with a wild horse.

Arizona’s Wild Horse Inmate Program started in 2012, when the Bureau of Land Management teamed up with state’s Department of Corrections. Every year the BLM rounds up the animals for population control. Some are brought to the Florence prison, where inmates tame the horses, and prepare them for adoption.

Supervising the program is a cowboy from Cottonwood, Randy Helm. He’s a certified horse whisperer and a former police officer.

"We find teachable moments with the inmates and horses," says Helm. "So, understanding that training horses is a process. Life is a process. It gives me a language to speak to them without being critical."

Helm knows first hand how horses can heal a troubled past. During his time in law enforcement, he went deep undercover as a narcotics agent. Life in the criminal underworld took a serious toll on his mental and physical health.

"When I transferred out of working narcotics, I was having tremors in my right hand, numbness and paralysis on my right side," says Helm. "I thought, man, I’m falling apart with just the stress."

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Randy Helm, Wild Horse Inmate Program Supervisor

Helm turned to horse training as a form of therapy. He uses a process called gentling, a softer and kinder approach to what’s known as breaking a horse. He says as the animals learn to behave, so do the inmates in his program.

"It’s interesting because I don’t think it is just jailhouse conversions, as much as I think it is they start realizing that change is not just a behavioral issue," says Helm. "It is, at its very core, it's a spiritual issue. So, something in that process has to change who they are."

It seems to be working so far. Of the 50 or so inmates who’ve gone through the program, less than 15 percent have returned to prison, compared with the state's 40 percent recidivism rate.

Richard Kline hopes to be part of that success when he’s released in two years.

Kline leads a chocolate brown horse, named Harley, through the prison stables. The young stallion is a newer arrival, and just started to trust Kline enough to brush his neck.

"Now, he just wants to be loved on," says Kline. "He’s just a big old baby."

It’s tough to imagine Kline was once a violent car thief. Now, he says he’s ready to settle down, be a family man, and find a job as a horse trainer.

Credit Aaron Granillo/KNAU
Inmate Richard Kline and his horse, Harley.

"They’re like big kids. And, like, I’ve never been there to raise my kids," says Kline. "You train them to do everything. And then you bathe them, and you keep their houses clean. And, you teach them everything they need to know."

Kline says he and his horses are like kindred spirits, once free-roaming and wild. They’ve found a new path now, one toward peace and a sense of purpose. 

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