Over the last nine years more than 4,000 horses have been trained in these programs. About 3,000 have been adopted by private citizens. The others have gone to public agencies, such as the National Park Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service, prisons and local police departments. "There are real advantages to wild horses," says Tom Pogacnik, chief of the BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which set up the WHIPs. "They have strong legs and perfect feet, and once they know you, they're incredibly affectionate. They're not always pretty horses, but they're perfect horses: They're horses as nature designed them, not as humans have bred them."
Chenoweth, 44, has worked as a horse trader, trainer and farrier, and he still finds time to compete in team roping events. He has been running the Susanville WHIP since its inception in 1987. The program's acronym, however, is something of a misnomer. Chenoweth, like most WHIP instructors, is a passionate advocate of "resistance-free training"—he likes to say the horses are "gentled" not broken. "You won't see any rodeos around here," he says, gesturing out to the corral where the inmates are tending their charges. "It's all based on trust. The horse sets the pace."
Such patience is crucial when wild horses first arrive at the prison yard. Most of them have never before seen humans—except for the BLM workers who "choked them with a rope and dragged them in," Chenoweth says. "All the animals want is to escape. If they think crashing through a fence or climbing over the top of a man will get them out, they'll do it. The last thing they want is to be touched. You have to wait for them to approach you."
Once the horses take that crucial step (it can take from one day to as long as three weeks), the men can get them to allow themselves to be groomed and to accept a halter, a bridle, a saddle and a bit. "You've just got to learn to talk to a horse right," Chenoweth says. "It's all about understanding."
"You've got to take your time," says Michael, a Susanville inmate. "I was kind of nervous when I first got out here. But you can't win a fight with a wild horse. They'll kill you first." Michael is serving a 20-month sentence for possession of methamphetamines and for assaulting a police officer. It's his third time in prison.
Charles, who is serving a second prison term for auto theft ("I have a small love for cars," he says, with an apologetic smile), grew up with horses, but he had not had contact with wild horses before coming to Susanville. "I enjoy this," he says. "They're a little more temperamental than domestic horses. But you just have to be patient. Otherwise you'll get hurt."
Indeed, there are injuries. Little Red, for instance, took off while Doug was on him, running around the corral dangerously, and bucking him off a couple of other times, resulting in bumps, bruises and a sore back but no broken bones. "We've gone a lot of rounds together, and I've gotten pretty banged up," Doug says affectionately. "He's just a little jumpy. But I wish I could take him home with me when I leave here."
Program administrators see injuries as inevitable and sometimes even helpful. "Injuries play a role in the rehab," Pogacnik says. "Some of these guys think they're pretty tough until they learn that a horse can stomp them into the ground. This teaches them to respect something other than themselves."
On a hot morning last summer, a Mexican inmate named Cruz was learning to respect, if not exactly like, a little half roan whose hooves needed cleaning. Cruz could get the horse to pick up his hind hooves, but when the inmate went to clean out a hoof, the horse pinned his ears, bared his teeth and kicked the hoof into the air like a piston, making Cruz spring sideways. This happened repeatedly, until the horse and the man looked like an old-fashioned, spring-loaded mechanical bank. Bystanders at first smiled, then snickered, then guffawed.
"He's an ornery one, ain't he, Cruz?" Chenoweth called over. Streams of sweat were pouring down Cruz's face, and he muttered something in Spanish toward the sky. But he never once yelled at or hit the animal.