Saving wild horses - and convicts
Chris Culcasi has fallen off a horse 17 times in the last nine months and climbed back on every time.
Next month, he’s going to try applying that old-fashioned grit to the rest of his life after he’s released from the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in south Sacramento County.
Culcasi, 40, is part of the Wild Horse Training Program at the jail, which pairs inmates with captive wild mustangs for a life-changing experience.
He is one of only six men who have completed Level 6 of the natural horsemanship training program since it began at Rio Cosumnes in 2014. That requires training a never-been-touched wild mustang until it’s adoptable. By the end, trainers must take a horse through a series of complicated maneuvers.
But Culcasi’s biggest test will come Jan. 2 when he’s due for release.
In the last seven years, Culcasi hasn’t spent more than six months outside the jail, caught in the cycle of addiction and incarceration. He’d get out, get high on methamphetamine and steal cars until he was caught and sent back to jail, where he’s currently nearing the end of a 2 1/2 year sentence for grand theft auto.
“I get out there and there’s nothing to fall back on,” Culcasi said. “And there are no excuses. I get out there and I get to using and everything is out the window.”
Culcasi is hoping that his horse training skills will be what keeps him on the right path – one that found him unexpectedly. When a woman came by Culcasi’s cell and offered the wild horse training program, he accepted simply because inmate trainers get two trays of lunch rather than one.
“Before I got into this program, I never even thought about stopping,” he said. “I’m actually thinking about getting out and I’ve even made a back-up plan for when I get out if I can’t go to farrier school.”
Ideally, Culcasi would go to an eight-week farrier school where he can get certified to work as a horseshoe specialist, a job that can produce a yearly income between $60,000 to more than $100,000. But to get there, he needs about $6,700 for tuition, room and board.
If he can’t enroll in the school, he will go into a Volunteers of America re-entry program, which aims to give formerly incarcerated men access to job training and recovery resources.
“I’m tired of going out to nothing,” Culcasi said. “This just woke something up in me.”
Retired Sacramento County Sgt. Wayne Ebe said the most important moment for released inmates is right when they leave incarceration – where they go and what they do. If they can’t immediately find a legal way to get money and a place to sleep, they end up on friends’ couches, likely with the same people they ran with when they got into trouble.
“They go right back to family and friends in the same neighborhood,” he said. “And the equine thing would take them out of that neighborhood where it’s very tempting to re-offend or use drugs again or go and commit crimes to create money.”
Ranch manager Joe Misner said only one man who went through his program has returned to jail for a 90-day detention on a probation violation. Compared to the nearly 60 percent one-year recidivism rate for repeat offenders in California, that’s a surprising statistic.
Misner said the success comes from a combination of his program and the horses themselves. He sees a lot of similarities between the inmates and the wild mustangs. The horses adapt to their environment like the inmates do, he said.
“(The inmates) have to say certain things, act certain ways, to protect themselves in (the jail) environment and that’s what a wild horse does,” Misner said. “If I’m in this environment, what do I have to do protect myself, how do I stay safe?”
When an inmate meets a wild mustang, they’re blank slates for each other, Misner said. The inmate doesn’t know a wild mustang from any other horse and the horse just sees a human, not a convicted criminal. It gives the inmate the chance to be a whole new man.
“You have to give a part of yourself,” Culcasi said. “They’re scared. You’re a predator and all they do is survive, like us.”
Misner, whom the inmates call Mr. Joe, said he “fires” any inmate who isn’t a good ranch employee, meaning they are no longer allowed to be part of the program. Misner is there for the horses, he said, not the inmates. He thinks that’s part of why the program can be so transformative.
“I treat them like men and I expect them to act like men, no matter if they are incarcerated,” he said.
His job and the feed and care of the horses is paid for by the Bureau of Land Management, which has about 55,000 horses overall. Each horse can cost the government up to $50,000 over the course of their life if they’re not adopted or trained. The Sheriff’s Department funds the staff, like Ebe, and food and clothing for the inmates, Misner said.
The trained horses are sold at auction, such as the one coming up on Dec. 10.
Culcasi will leave the ranch less than a month later. He thought he might have a shot at paying for farrier training by getting state funds intended to help rehabilitate inmates, but that hasn’t come through. His employment specialist at the jail also sought state vocational rehabilitation funding, to no avail.
Culcasi knows it’s a long shot to count on state money. He’s nervous enough about the potential to fall back into his old life that he’s set up a GoFundMe account to try to raise the funds. Ebe said all it takes is a few days with nowhere to go for an inmate to revert to his pre-prison lifestyle.
“Bang, it starts all over again,” Ebe said. “These real high-risk guys can’t have a gap in the momentum when they get out ... If they can transition into immediately going out and working in the equine industry, where there are plenty of jobs, that would keep the momentum going.”