CANON CITY, COLO. — The art of horse training is much like taming a lion. Inherently risky, it is a delicate dance between man and beast - the goal being never to break the animal, merely to bend it. Indeed, wise trainers progress slowly, understanding that trust is the product of hard work and endless patience.
In Caon City, Colo., within the confines of the state's largest prison complex, this trust unfolds daily. In a sweeping valley set beneath the Wet Mountains, dozens of inmates rise at dawn to train wild mustangs - virtual strangers to human contact - to carry a rider and follow commands.
This unusual program is a significant footnote to an era when society is meting out stiffer sentences, prison populations are soaring, and rehabilitation is often discouraged. Mustang training gives individuals who have often struggled to connect with people a means of discovering kinship with another being.
And it has become something of a model - replicated on a smaller scale by prisons in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and California. Its success is measured not only in participants' recidivism rate - much lower than the national average - but also in how it changes prisoners' lives.
"The best thing is that it teaches you that there's something tougher than you out there," says Fergie, a two-year participant who prefers not to give his last name.
To be sure, introducing these 1,000-pound wild horses to training is no task for the timid.
Under the program, administered by the US Bureau of Land Management, the horses are gathered from Western rangelands to balance wild horse populations with available forage and water. After that, they are taken here to be trained, then sold at prison auctions each month.
Still, the idea of melding prisoners with mustangs - which to many epitomize freedom - is an odd antithesis. Yet for the 30 or so inmates who train wild horses at the East Caon Correctional Complex, the decade-old program isn't just about tasting freedom from the back of a magnificent animal. It is an arduous exercise in discipline, patience, and courage. Prisoners often find their limits tested.
"It teaches you that you have to use something other than violence to deal with [the challenge]," says Fergie. "You have to learn to finesse your way through it."
Not every inmate is appropriate for the program. To qualify, prisoners must be within five years of parole eligibility and assigned to a minimum-restricted facility at the seven-prison Canon City complex. Also, inmates who enter the program do so voluntarily - although Colorado prison inmates are encouraged to work, they are not required to.
But can giving inmates a chance to bond with animals really help them prepare for life outside the barbed wire? Officials here believe so, and the raw numbers support them. Of the inmates who've been through the program, about 45 percent have landed back in the system - an impressive figure compared with the national recidivism rate of 75 percent.
"You gain life skills from this," says Tim, an inmate who came to the program seven months ago. He is serving a seven-year sentence for vehicular homicide and will be eligible for parole in two years. On most days, Tim works with four or five horses, each of which teaches him a distinct lesson, he says.
"They are all different, so you have to be flexible - what works for one horse doesn't always work for another," he says. "You have to be patient. You have to get over a lot of humps as far as fear is concerned. You have to have your own drive and initiative to get the work done."
The inmates are also getting a practical education that may lead to a job on the outside, says Tony Bainbridge, director of the horse-training program. Prisoners learn business-management skills and are required to complete 160 hours of classroom education, including basic horse care and veterinary medicine.
To date, the horse program has saddle-trained some 5,000 mustangs. Under federal wild horse laws, the BLM takes a $125 adoption fee at the prison auctions each month, and the prison keeps the balance of the sale price, typically between $700 and $800. Last year, the program cleared a profit of $50,000, says Mr. Bainbridge.
He credits the inmates with making the mustang program a success. The threat of injury, day-long exposure to weather extremes, and strenuous work tend to keep slackers away, says Bainbridge. "You're looking at a group of people that everyone has given up on, and they want to redeem themselves," he says.