I remember the best day of my childhood. On a late spring afternoon after school, I stepped off the bus and onto the county road I grew up on in northeast Missouri (the bus driver didn’t take us to our individual houses like all the kids who lived “in town”). From there, I saw the black tail of my horse, Joey, swishing flies as he meandered through the field that stood between my grandparents’ house and ours. But after a second look, I saw the black tails of two horses swishing around. I nearly cried out of excitement. For a fifth grade girl growing up on a farm, the only thing better than one horse was two.
Over the next year, I pored over books that could teach me everything I needed to know about bonding with my new horse — from the “Horseman’s Veterinary Encyclopedia” to “Seabiscuit.” But the book that I kept coming back to was “Shy Boy,” by Monty Roberts. Roberts is an American horse trainer who went out into the high desert of the West for a three-day ride and came back with a mustang that became his most beloved horse. I was enamored with the idea of gaining a wild horse’s trust, and with being able to understand an animal that American and Native American lore has celebrated as noble, powerful, sensitive, intelligent and — as Roberts wrote it — “above all, free.”
I probably read “Shy Boy” four times between then and my teenage years. But I never ran my hands across the withers of a mustang. I never slipped a halter over the muzzle of a wild horse. Heck, I never even saw a wild horse. To me, the story of gaining the trust of the most romantic animal in American culture was just that: a story.
But for the prisoners at the Wyoming Honor Farm, it’s their life.
The Wyoming Honor Farm is a minimum-security prison. It sits just one mile north of the small town of Riverton, Wyoming — which is home to a little over 10,000 people at the confluence of four rivers and a jurisdictional history embroiled in land disputes between the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes and the state government.
After the land was ceded from the Wind River Reservation in 1905, it was transformed into a quintessential Wyoming town: full (but not too full) of livestock, long fences and the cowboys who work with both. In 1931, the State Penitentiary Farm (later to be renamed the Wyoming Honor Farm) opened, and even state prisoners became cowboys.
The farm started as an experiment. What if 30 inmates with marked good behavior were allowed to leave high-security facilities to maintain a working farm — complete with beef cattle, swine, poultry, crops, dairy and butchering operations? According to Andrew Brenston, one of the first onsite supervisors, the farm allowed former prisoners to be “successful in finding and maintaining their place in society and become useful citizens once again.” The idea of putting a minimum-security prison on a farm — where inmates slept, worked, learned and served out their sentences away from the typical penitentiary setting — worked in the state of Wyoming’s opinion, and the farm received additional funding.
Over the years, the farm grew. In 1985, a new dormitory was built to accommodate 40 inmates. That expanded to three more dorms and more than 200 inmates some years. A vocational education shop was built, land was leased from the state to graze cattle and an education center was established. The Wyoming Department of Corrections wanted the farm to be a place where inmates could change the course of their lives.
And it just might be working. According to the corrections department, the Wyoming Honor Farm has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation. And despite the growth over the years, the work program has largely stayed the same. Annual operations include 700 cattle and over 500 acres of alfalfa, corn, oats and other crops, as well as construction and forestry teams. The inmates still harvest hay by hand, bucking bales in the summer heat. But one big change came in 1988, in the form of a deal with the Bureau of Land Management to help manage the wild horses in the area.
The timing was almost too perfect, in the ironic sense. In the fall of 1987, Wyoming Honor Farm staffers Joe Crofts and Vance Everett were searching for a horse program to add to the farm’s operations, over 15 years after the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 was passed. The bill allows the agency to round up excess wild horses and burros — “excess” being determined by a certain number of horses being allowed for certain acreage and water resources — and have them destroyed or removed from public lands across the Intermountain West.
Most often, the removed mustangs and burros are sent directly to auction or kept at long-term facilities. But the Wyoming Honor Farm staffers had a different idea in mind that would benefit both the captured mustangs and the incarcerated men at the farm. Crofts and Everett met with Don Glenn from the BLM and spoke with him about establishing a wild horse training and adoption program — one where inmates on the farm would train mustangs and burros to become domesticated animals that would be adopted to ranches and individuals. Something clicked.
In February 1988, a shipment of wild horses arrived off the range. Like many of the men who ended up at the Wyoming Honor Farm, their introduction to the Wyoming Department of Corrections would be their first behind bars.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Data shows that there are 810 prison or jail inmates for every 100,000 adult U.S. residents ages 18 and older. Wyoming’s state statistics are even higher.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit, Wyoming has an incarceration rate of 850 per 100,000 people (a number that includes prisons, jails, immigration detention and juvenile justice facilities). The state of Wyoming has a higher percentage of people incarcerated than any democracy on earth, despite having the lowest population in the country — and despite crime rates declining. To add even more pressure, the state’s prison population is expected to grow, increasing approximately 9% between 2019 and 2024.
While the Wyoming Department of Corrections claims to have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country due to the honor farm, there’s an intake protocol inmates must meet to be accepted into the facility, and the facility has a limited capacity of about 280 men.
Similarly, there’s a capacity for wild horse adoption programs. Only a limited number of mustangs will be placed in these programs and then put up for private adoption after being trained, while the rest will be placed into large long-term holding facilities.
Programs like the honor farm’s, which allow inmates to train mustangs, have proven to be beneficial to both horses and inmates. Currently, similar programs are also in Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas and Nevada.
Incarceration, recidivism and criminal rehabilitation form a complex knot caught in the threads of American politics, culture and economy. Talk of legislative reform is common — but change is slow. Proposals to lower prison populations, fund prison education programs and invest in community-based treatments are met with stalwarts like budget needs and infrastructural red tape. But the reality is that right now there are people within the system, living in a world away from one they’ve ever known before, preparing for the time to come when they are expected to step onto the other side of the bars and be changed.
Most men who are detained at the Wyoming Honor Farm are 11 to 24 months away from fulfilling their sentence. The facility was established to allow inmates to work on an operational farm and learn new trades that could make them employable before their release, in hopes of easing their reintegration. But as the years have passed it’s become more than just a place to learn how to weld steel or fight wildfires or rake hay.
The goal of the Wyoming Honor Farm, as stated by the Wyoming Department of Corrections, is to provide vocational, agricultural and educational programs and treatment. All inmates are required to leave the Wyoming Department of Corrections with at least a GED certificate. Some inmates find a sort of compass for navigating their future in a traditional classroom (the prison has offered classes in collaboration with the University of Wyoming on Stoicism, where Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” is read). Others find that compass in a dusty round pen where a wild horse turns the direction you want it to, but only if it trusts you.
“A horse won’t lie to you and won’t lie for you,” Curt Simmons, the wild horse supervisor at Wyoming Honor Farm, says to me, in between the staticky messages of his radio chattering about the morning’s chores and the team of inmates going out to buck bales of just-harvested hay.
Simmons has worked at the Wyoming Honor Farm since 1994, taking on the role of wild horse supervisor in 2014. He’s tall, broad and surprisingly soft-spoken. It’s an unexpected trait in a man who’s responsible for tough horses and tough men. But despite the long list of crimes committed by the men that are in his wild horse program, Simmons can also see the prospect of redemption. In his years at the farm, he says he’s seen plenty of men come in with “no self-esteem and poor social skills” and leave with self-worth and an ability to work with others with patience and respect.
“The horses are making better men,” he says. “We’re not miracle workers, but we see good things happen here.”
This fall, the wild horse program is operating with 159 horses and just under 20 men — a lean crew considering that there are normally 30 men working in the training program. To work with the horses, inmates must indicate their desire to be a part of the program. They are then interviewed and evaluated by staff to determine whether they are a good fit. Simmons emphasizes that men don’t need to have any ranch or farm experience to be accepted into the program, and that many of them don’t. In fact, some have never even touched a horse when they are accepted into the program.
All inmates in the program start by cleaning out pens and completing other basic chores. “We need to see that they can get along with others and stay on task,” Simmons explains. “We need to see how they work together and how they are around the horses. Then they work their way up” — up to the round pen, where the horses are trained.
The horses are taken into government custody and — just like the men — given a number. In training, the first goal is to establish to both the horses and men that the other is not a danger. That’s hard to do when literal tons of four-legged mustang power hostilely thrash at anyone who comes near them. But somehow, these inmates go from that to having a horse willingly be harnessed, saddled and even ridden.
The first exercise of the training program begins when a horse is let out into the round pen, with the men forming a circle standing against the walls. The mustang circles the pen, looking for a way out — and identifying the man who the horse believes to be the safest option. The horse will then stop and lower its head in front of that person. This process is repeated with each horse, allowing the staff, the men and the horses to get a sense of one another.
Then, horses are placed in a chute where inmates can touch them — with the hopes of desensitizing the horses to feeling pressure and human hands. Sometimes, moving beyond these beginner exercises to get the horses used to human presence and touch can take weeks. “If you are overaggressive the horse won’t respect you,” Simmons says. “The horses are a good litmus test for how the men are actually doing in their rehabilitation. For the first time they’re learning that there’s something more in life than ‘you.’”
From there, it takes months, and a lot of patience, for the horses to be “gentled” — to learn to accept a halter, allow the men to wash them and clean their hooves, to allow the men to lead them and to accept a bit and saddle.
In most cases, each mustang is in the program for about three months before it is taken to a BLM adoption event to be publicly auctioned. From those auctions Honor Farm horses have found new life in surprising homes. Some have been adopted by the U.S. Forest Service to aid in rebuilding trail systems. Some have been adopted by the U.S. Marines Color Guard to become a part of the force. Some by the Girl Scouts. Twelve horses were adopted by the Kentucky Horse Park to work with underprivileged and delinquent children. The program was so successful that the park adopted 12 more.
In October, 40 gentled wild horses and 10 burros were auctioned from the Wyoming Honor Farm, with bids starting at $125. More auctions will take place through December before picking back up again in spring 2022. At an on-site auction years ago, one former inmate — John Shuck, who was released in 2013 — had a horse he trained in the program sell for $5,075, a price well above what is paid for most domestic horses and a number he was very proud of when interviewed by the local newspaper. But oftentimes for the inmates, the auctions are bittersweet — they see the horses they’ve bonded with and watched change from wild mustangs into gentle friends go to new homes on the “outside,” where they’ll start new lives and where their numbers will become names.
It’s a transformation that is too rich in metaphor to ignore. “The horses are incarcerated and so are the men,” Simmons says. “Going to prison is not a positive situation, but we want to take a negative and make it a positive. So I tell the men; ‘At this farm, you took a pit stop along the way to being who you can become.’”
If you looked down the tree-lined paved driveway of the honor farm today, you’d see quaint white outbuildings neatly placed at the end — the largest with a traditional barn cupola sitting atop the red gable roof. Men at work walk around in collared T-shirts and ball caps. There are steel corrals and a wooden hitching post. It has all the trappings of a farm that that little girl from Missouri could recognize.
But look a little closer and you’ll find bulbous security cameras suspended from those white outbuildings and signs that not only have the Wyoming Honor Farm emblem on them, but also warnings of K-9 search units on the premises. The horses in the corrals have brands on their necks, coarse manes and fetlocks with long, feathery hair. They’re beautiful. More so than a story that I read once. They’re as beautiful as a second chance gets.