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Inmates learn as they teach wild horses

Just two weeks into a new program that allows inmates to help train wild mustangs, a chestnut mare is already allowing herself to be hand-fed by a pack of humans.

The horse is one of 20 given to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department by the federal Bureau of Land Management in the bureau’s first wild horse program with a local law enforcement agency. The BLM has similar programs in place with five state prison systems – not including California. Those programs have been shown to lower recidivism rate among inmate participants.

“It’s a win win for everybody,” said Amy Dumas, a BLM program manager, during a media event Thursday at the new program stable behind the county’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center south of Elk Grove.

While the program teaches a valuable vocational skill to inmates, it also teaches them critical life skills, said Sheriff Scott Jones.

The BLM has 40,000 wild horses that have been rounded up and await adoption, said Dumas, manager of the wild horse program for the agency in California. Buying a wild mustang is an inexpensive way to buy a horse, but it’s hard work teaching it to trust people. Mustangs that have some training are much easier to place, Dumas said.

The BLM also facilitates direct adoptions and supports “extreme mustang makeover” horse training events. Untrained horses can be adopted from the county site. Trained horses fetch a higher price at auction.

The 20 horses arrived at the correctional center on Sept. 19. Since then, three of them have been moved from a large holding area into smaller pens where they’re socialized and prepared for riding. Joe Misner, the Southern California horse trainer hired to run the program, said he expects a horse to be ready in 120 days.

The hope is to expand the facilities – built by inmates using mostly recycled materials – to house up to 90 horses and train more than a dozen at a time. Eight offenders are working in the program, constructing the site and working with the horses. The number of inmates involved in the program could grow to 20, officials said.

“The program is going to not only teach an additional vocational skill … but it will also teach some fundamental emotional skills that will not only carry them through a job, when the offenders get out, but through the rest of their lives,” Jones said. “You can’t lie or fool a horse. You’re going to need to know patience and humility. They don’t care how tough you are or what your station is outside of the facility.”

Sgt. Brad Rose, who runs the correctional vocational programs, said he’s had more inmate interest in this program than any other offered at the facility. While still under guard, the program puts inmates outside the double fence line of wire. Look to the sun soaked grassland to the west and they might briefly forget they are still boxed in by the perimeter fence. A volley of shots from the nearby law enforcement gun range restores a sense of place.

Dumas said that when the horses first arrived, the gunfire would put them on edge, but they quickly learned the sound was not a threat.

Misner has seemingly mastered how to not be a threat. He came to the post after competing in 13 extreme mustang makeover events, in which trainers have only 90 days to train a horse. He also ran a program pairing injured Marines with mustangs.

With a full array of news people looking on, Misner entered a chestnut mare’s pen, pulled her halter in hand and within minutes had her eating from reporters’ hands. Most wild mustangs treat people as people might treat a lion. But this mare was quickly trading fear for trust.

“She’s learned leadership. She’s learned trust. She’s going to make someone a great horse,” said Misner, who led her socialization.

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