The Susanville inmates who participate in the horse program are "minimum security," meaning they don't have a history of violence. Chenoweth doesn't carry a gun or handcuffs, and he expects the inmates to do their work without constant supervision. Ironically, it's often the toughest guys who catch on the fastest. For instance, Michael, the third-time prisoner, is one of the most skilled trainers in Chenoweth's yard. And murderers and other violent offenders are often the best trainers, according to Tony Bainbridge, who heads a WHIP at East Canon Correctional Complex, in Colorado. His program employs "minimum-restricted" prisoners, who have to be watched at all times. "They've got the tenacity to stick with things a little longer," says Bainbridge. "The dopers are always whining. And the sex-crime inmates end up doing more harm [to the horses] than good."
It would be nice to think that the mere presence of the noble horse could put these men on the straight and narrow. In truth, wild horses are more easily reformed than the inmates in the program. "The men get gentler, sure," Bainbridge says. "But it's not due to their getting a calmer outlook. It's just that you can't go too fast with a wild horse. It's a matter of survival."
Chenoweth agrees. "When I first came here I thought I could rehabilitate the men," he says. "But now I know that by the time we get them, it's a little late. They're kind of set in their ways."
Still, Chenoweth feels his work has some effect. "I've made people think about life more profoundly than ever before," he says. "I think I've made them be a little more honest, because you know you can't bull——a horse." He pauses to watch as Michael canters around the corral on a sorrel named Big Red. "The Lord protects fools and children. I don't think most cowboys could do what we've been able to do here."
The inmates play it cool about the program, but they admit they have benefited. "This is about as good as it gets for me," Michael says. "I've learned a lot here, and I like getting off the prison yard. Every horse I've trained I'd like to take home with me." Michael is a journeyman plumber, so he doesn't plan on going into horse work when he is released, but he says he would like to own a horse and maybe do some training on the side.
Doug, who is incarcerated for three years for receiving stolen property, has also caught a bit of horse fever while in jail. "I'm thinking about gettin' a little land, starting a little program for myself," he says, grinning broadly. "Tom told me you can take a $125 horse, train it, and sell it for $1,500. When I heard that, I made up my mind. That'd be a good way to make a living."
The Lord doesn't always seem to protect the prison programs, however. Forty-five thousand wild horses roam the West, but the land can sustain a healthy population of only about 24,000. The BLM doesn't euthanatize the excess animals, so the best way to reduce herd levels is by helping the public adopt them. A trained wild horse is more appealing, and far less dangerous, than an untrained wild horse. But in the last few years, BLM has stopped paying for the upkeep of wild horses at several prisons. "We're in the business of land management, not inmate reform," Pogacnik explains.
New Mexico decided to close its wild-horse training program when the BLM withdrew its funding in 1993. At East Canon Correctional, Bainbridge charges each adopter of a wild horse $435 for the training. (Until 1992 it was free.) His program is the largest of the five and is self-sustaining, although the hay and veterinary services are provided gratis by the BLM. About 25% of the horses are adopted right out of the BLM's adoption corrals, before they're trained, and the remaining animals are adopted on site at the prison's corrals. The adopters pay the training fee directly to the prison program. "BLM doesn't pay us a penny," Bainbridge says. "We're doing it on our own."
This summer the BLM threatened to withdraw its funding from the Susanville program as well, despite the excess herd levels in the Susanville district and despite drought conditions in southern Nevada that were forcing a roundup of horses there. For 10 weeks Chenoweth had no horses and was worried that his program had ended. ("My ulcers are back," he said at the time. "I go in the field behind my house every night and scream. I can't bear to see this program end.") But in mid-September the BLM renegotiated with the prison and allowed more horses to be there than before, for longer periods of time. The BLM also doubled the adoption fee for prison-trained horses, to $250.
When asked about the agency's erratic behavior toward the program, Jeff Fontana, a BLM spokesman for the Susanville district, said simply, "We had no horses to take there at the time, and we needed to review the program with the prison."