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Gentle Hands for Wild Horses
Susan Davis
November 11, 1996
Prison inmates learn more than a skill in a Bureau of Land Management program
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November 11, 1996

Gentle Hands For Wild Horses

Prison inmates learn more than a skill in a Bureau of Land Management program

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On a hot, sunny morning in northeastern California, two men are trying to bridle Lightning, a chestnut yearling with three white socks. Lightning stamps his hooves, tosses his head and backs up until the lead line threatens to snap and send him flying over backward.

"Whoa, there," says Charles, a burly man with a blond ponytail, who croons in a soft voice to the horse. "Steady now, steady now."

Doug, a slighter, older man, gently strokes the young horse's tense neck. "He's having kind of a hard time here," Doug says sympathetically. "He's a little bit afraid of this."

Tom Chenoweth, a horse trainer who has 30 years of experience, strolls over and unties the lead line. "Are you having a bad horse day, Lightning?" he asks, peering out from under his cowboy hat.

"He don't wanna take the bit, boss," Doug offers.

Chenoweth pats the horse. "We must have really irritated you yesterday, huh?" he says. "Great balls of fire, don't I know it!" A few minutes pass, and then Lightning slowly swings his head toward Tom. "O.K., now we're talking," Chenoweth says. He slips the bridle up over Lightning's nose. The horse backs up. They dance backward across the yard, the horse tossing his head, the man murmuring gently, until finally Chenoweth works the bit into Lightning's mouth and the bridle over his ears.

"He did it," Doug says with a smile.

"He always does," Charles adds, shaking his head appreciatively.

It's a bit odd to see three big guys sweet-talking a nervous horse. It's even odder when you realize that Charles and Doug are inmates at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, and Lightning is one of two dozen wild horses they are training for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Chenoweth, as head of the Susanville horse-training project, helps both sets of outlaws, equine and human, learn to fit into society.

Part rehab, part vocational training, the Susanville project is one of five Wild Horse Inmate Programs (WHIPs) set up by the BLM in four states. Their goal is twofold: to make wild horses adoptable by private citizens (and so keep their numbers down on public lands) and to teach inmates valuable vocational, psychological and, curiously, interpersonal skills (which, ideally, will help keep them out of prison permanently after their release).

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