Horse sense

Inmates train wild horses at a Carson City prison

Trainer Kenny Parker hugs horse Jasper. Jasper hugs him back.

Trainer Kenny Parker hugs horse Jasper. Jasper hugs him back.

Photo/Georgia Fisher

A diverse crowd of horse fans has gathered for an auction at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center. The morning sun is already glaring on the bleachers, so people shade their eyes and leaf through paperwork while they wait.

Soon an Alan Jackson song blasts onto the PA system. Someone yips in approval.

“Well, way down yonder on the Chattahoochee …”

Seventeen horses and riders zip into the NNCC’s arena. Some bear flags, and every human and animal on display moves and bends as if he’s part of a single, graceful organism. There’s a fast trot, then a tight, choreographed canter.

“… it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.”

The lyrics would sound ridiculous, per usual, if the visuals weren’t so damned beautiful. Meaningful, too.

For inmates who’ve dedicated themselves to the art of training mustangs and burros, every auction is show time—a day to flaunt all they’ve learned and taught in the last three months, and a chance to place their equine companions in caring homes.

Among other things, the men say they’ve soaked up a remarkable sense of patience. Horses don’t take any bull, you know.

“They keep you honest,” says trainer Timothy Verdugo. “They really do. If you lie to a horse and cheat on your groundwork, it’s going to show. And if you’re in a bad mood, he’s going to know.”

May 31 was Verdugo’s last day with Sunset, a sleek chestnut gelding with a platinum mane and tail, and the sort of looks that would prompt any red-blooded kid to beg for a pony. Verdugo didn’t name him, but says that if he had, the horse would have been called Malibu, for Barbie-esque reasons.

Sunset brought the day’s top bid—$2,800—but that’s not what counts. The saddle-horse program fosters an obvious win-win scenario: displaced animals get homes, and inmates reap intangible benefits.

“It’s changed a lot of us,” says trainer Roland Moore. “Whatever energy you have is the energy the horse is going to have.”

The mustang initiative began at Warm Springs Correctional Center, and in 2008 moved to the NNCC, a lower-security facility that’s better known as an honor camp. The camp boasts a beef and dairy farm, even a dairy-processing plant, and it’s also a holding area for upwards of 2,000 horses, including the 80 or so who enter the training program each year.

Program director Hank Curry decides which ones he’ll take for the inmates. The men need certain qualities, too.

“We want people who are willing to work,” says Curry, a respected horseman who grew up on the rodeo circuit. “I want to know what they’ve done in their lifetimes.”

Construction workers make great riders and trainers, he says, because they’ve done hard labor. Guys who have played team sports are also apt to fit in.

Each horse is “green-broke” by the men, who start barn duties at the crack of dawn, then train and ride—or learn to ride, in most cases—until mid-afternoon. Everything they use, from their jeans to their saddles, has been donated.

In the end, Verdugo says, “I’ve seen [the horses] go to nice ranches, working cattle ranches. Other people have used them as lawn ornaments, but they still work with them.”

Still others take them for military and police jobs, parades—you name it. So is it hard to say goodbye?

“Well, I don’t want to sound like a softie,” Verdugo says with a sad smile. He looks resigned as he gives Sunset a little pat.

“It makes you feel good that they’re going to a new home,” he says, “and that somebody’s going to take care of them. But you don’t want to let them go. You’re with them 40 to 60 hours a week. You create a friendship.”

Icons of the West

Nevada is home to half of the country’s roughly 40,000 wild horses and burros. Their rangeland is limited, so to ensure that they can find enough food and water—and that grazing areas can regenerate—the Bureau of Land Management rounds some of them up, explains bureau spokesman John Axtell.

But nonprofits like the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign argue that the government’s helicopter roundups are cruel, pandering to private interests, and in violation of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burros Act, which protects mustangs as living symbols of the west.

In December, the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and Nevada Association of Counties filed suit against the BLM, imploring the bureau to increase roundups and “auction, sell or otherwise properly dispose of ” horses in holding pens. AWHPC director Suzanne Roy called the move “yet another meritless legal assault on federally protected wild horses and burros by ranchers who view these national icons as competition for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grazing on our public lands.”

It’s a controversial issue, and a sad one. But it’s no longer slaughterhouse-sad.

“People keep saying the BLM kills horses,” Axtell says. “The BLM doesn’t kill any healthy horses. If there’s a horse with a broken leg or something, they’ll euthanize it, but as far as a healthy horse, it either gets adopted or goes to long-term holding.”

The Palomino Valley National Adoption center is a long-term fix for some mustangs, as is the correctional center. A new method of horsey birth control is also being tested in the area.

The holding facilities are maxing out, however, and so is the agency’s budget. By the BLM’s math, some 8,000 excess wild horses and burros are adding to an already hungry, thirsty desert population.

“There’s only enough money to remove a couple thousand horses bureau-wide this year,” Axtell says, “which is going to cause problems, because it’s another drought year, and we’re way over [capacity]. “

Home on the range

Back at the auction, inmates pull out all the stops to get bidders’ attention, cajoling their mounts into fancy sidesteps, rope work, and the sort of tricks that make a crowd laugh and cheer. One guy actually does a flip off his horse’s back.

Hollie Sattler, a rancher, wins a little horse named Jasper. She’ll put him to work, she says, “in the same desert he came out of.”

“We’re going to take our time and get acquainted, and not be really fast and spooky,” she tells Jasper’s doting trainer, Kenny Parker. “But we’re gonna be a team. “

Trainer Martin Zatko works with Constantine, a freckled gray gelding who’s smooth in the arena and as endearing as a family dog when he meets people. Put a hand under his muzzle, and he’ll kiss you every time.

Like the other 16 horses and one fuzzy burro who’ll get new owners today, Constantine is nothing but mellow amid swarms of strangers —more humans than he’s ever seen at once.

He trusts his trainer. That’s all there is to it.

“Overall he’s just a loving, docile, sweet horse,” says Zatko, who hails from Slovakia.

The bond is forged “one step at a time. He aims to please, but you can’t get mad at him if he’s not producing the way you want him to. It has a lot to do with control and patience.”

Funny thing is, this job has always been a dream for Zatko.

“It’s a harsh reality to say that I had to come to prison to do this,” he admits, “but it was on my bucket list to train a horse, or at least to ride one.”

As for Constantine getting a new life, well, “he definitely deserves it. I know I want to go home.”