Only in Susanville can you adopt a wild horse gentled by prison inmates.
Imagine being four years old and Grandpa and Grandma have promised you a pony for your very own. That is what happened to Jeff Bowers, the little cowboy from Klamath Falls, Oregon. Dressed in a new cowboy hat, boots, jeans and western shirt, Jeff and his grandparents left Klamath Falls at 3 a.m., Friday, March 7, headed for Susanville. They were at the prison corrals when the gates opened at 9 a.m.
Like other potential owners, they would have just two hours to preview 19 wild horses up for adoption.
A joint venture between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Correctional Center (CCC), this unique vocational program is in its tenth year. The brain child of then-Warden Bill Merkle and Correctional Administrator Bill Flatter, the program began in May 1987 and the first horse was adopted in August.
This is the first year adoptions took place at the prison. Previously, the newly gentled horses had to be trucked several miles from the prison to the BLM corrals near Wendel, California. By holding the adoption at the prison, the horses were less nervous and the new owners were responsible for transporting them.
On March 7, each inmate proudly put his charge through its paces. One inmate, using the round corral, demonstrated what his horse could do. The crowd included an excited four- year- old. Using only voice commands, the inmate stood in the center of the corral and verbally directed his steed to trot, walk, stop and back up. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he called the horse to him with a simple, quiet, “Come here.”
Inmates are randomly assigned to the program. Most have absolutely no previous experience with horses.
The hands-on operation appears to teach the inmates patience and the importance of staying with a job until it’s completed. Pride and self-worth are evident.
The BLM uses a lottery-type system to determine the order of selection.
By early afternoon, the choices were made. Six horses were loaded into horse trailers and left the Center’s training corrals for their new homes. Six inmates knew their efforts had paid off as they watched their “project” leave prison grounds. One little four- year -old was a very happy cowboy.
About 500 horses have gone through the Adopt-A-Horse project since 1987. Almost all have been adopted, many by folks outside of California, according to BLM spokesman Jeff Fontana. Many of these horses have been gentled to the point they can be ridden.
CCC’s wild horse training instructor Tom Chenoweth is quick to tell you these horses are not “broken,” they are “gentled.” An educator by trade, Chenoweth is a cowboy at heart. He teaches a process called “limited resistance” or “resistance-free” training. The animals learn to be comfortable and relaxed around people. “It’s all based on trust,” Chenoweth said. “The horse sets the pace. Patience is crucial. The idea is make the horse want to cooperate, not have to cooperate,” he said.
It can take as long as three weeks before a wild horse will allow the handler to approach and touch it. An inmate must spend hours just talking softly, moving slowly around the animal and allowing the horse to get used to him. The inmate must prove to the horse he is not going to harm it in any way.
Every four months about 20 gentled horses are put up for adoption and 20 more wild horses are brought to the Correctional Center for gentling. That’s 60 horses per year available for little cowboys like Jeff Bowers.