Prison farm employs ‘gentling’ method to reshape horses, humans
Every day, prisoners inside a Wyoming prison farm rise to the challenge to transform wild horses that once roamed badlands across the West into well-trained riding horses that are adopted into new homes.
As highlighted in a 60 Minutes report, the 640-acre facility is known as the Wyoming Honor Farm. With its manicured lawns, tidy buildings, and a simple four-foot fence that separates the prisoners from freedom, it more resembles a dude ranch than a prison. There are no towers or armed guards.
The lucky 30 participants of the prison’s horse program train wild mustangs using a method known as “gentling.” This approach replaces force with patience for both the people and the horses.
“The horses are a major role in what betters those men,” said farm manager Travis Shoopman. “They can teach you life lessons every step of the way — teach you that you got something in you that you didn’t think you had. They can teach you that it’s OK to be afraid, but it can still be done. Nothing’s impossible.”
In addition to learning how to train horses, incarcerated participants also learn how to control their reactions and behaviors.
“We are in the people business and helping the horses is extra,” Shoopman said. “They learn to not lie to themselves about their feelings. They learn to control [themselves] whether it’s highest of high emotions or the lowest of low emotions.”
One of the participants, Michael Davis, explained the dynamic. “If you’re mad, if you’re sacred, that horse knows before you ever even touch it. You have to control your feelings considerably with the horse because it is so easy for them to pick up on your mood.”
The mustangs trained at the farm once roamed free on federal lands in wild herds. The Bureau of Land Management regularly corrals wild horses and ships them to enclosed pastures or farms like the Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary in nearby Lander, Wyoming.
Jess Oldham and his family, who run the sanctuary, are paid by the government to feed and care for the horses after they are removed from the public lands. In turn, the sanctuary provides horses to the training program at the Wyoming Honor Farm.
Warden Curtis Moffat spoke to value of the horse program in achieving rehabilitation. “We don’t provide the sentence to ‘em. We don’t provide the punishment for ‘em. … Our job is to supervise ‘em while they are here. And hopefully return ‘em to society where they’re responsible individuals, where they can be law-abiding citizens.
“I think this program goes a long way to do that. And I want to make sure they get out and … they’re gonna be successful. And they aren’t gonna reoffend.”
Peytonn Suchor is an incarcerated trainer who talked about what it felt like to enter a training pen with an 800-pound wild horse. He said his experience was one of heart-pounding excitement, but that the powerful connection he builds with the horses over time cannot be explained.
“It’s taught me responsibility. It’s taught me what I wanna do for a career when I get outta here. This makes you look at life a whole different way,” Suchor said.
After training the horses, also deal with the heartache of losing the horse when they are put up for adoption at an auction. The horses can easily sell for thousands of dollars, said the 60 Minutes report.
Buyers from all over the country visit the Wyoming prison farm in the summer for its horse auctions. The visitors inspect the newly trained horses before the mustangs take the stage for sale, hoping to find that special one. In just one auction, 34 horses went to new homes and the money raised contributed $65,000 to the Bureau of Land Management to offset its costs, according to the report.
“Yeah, Wyoming has a tendency to do things a little differently ‘cause we’re a smaller state,” said Warden Moffat. “And I think it’s one of those things … until you see it you can’t actually believe it yourself.”