Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

"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).

Over the last nine years more than 4,000 horses have been
trained in these programs. About 3,000 have been adopted by
private citizens. The others have gone to public agencies, such
as the National Park Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S.
Forest Service, prisons and local police departments. "There are
real advantages to wild horses," says Tom Pogacnik, chief of the
BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which set up the WHIPs.
"They have strong legs and perfect feet, and once they know you,
they're incredibly affectionate. They're not always pretty
horses, but they're perfect horses: They're horses as nature
designed them, not as humans have bred them."

Chenoweth, 44, has worked as a horse trader, trainer and
farrier, and he still finds time to compete in team roping
events. He has been running the Susanville WHIP since its
inception in 1987. The program's acronym, however, is something
of a misnomer. Chenoweth, like most WHIP instructors, is a
passionate advocate of "resistance-free training"--he likes to
say the horses are "gentled" not broken. "You won't see any
rodeos around here," he says, gesturing out to the corral where
the inmates are tending their charges. "It's all based on trust.
The horse sets the pace."

Such patience is crucial when wild horses first arrive at the
prison yard. Most of them have never before seen humans--except
for the BLM workers who "choked them with a rope and dragged
them in," Chenoweth says. "All the animals want is to escape. If
they think crashing through a fence or climbing over the top of
a man will get them out, they'll do it. The last thing they want
is to be touched. You have to wait for them to approach you."

Once the horses take that crucial step (it can take from one day
to as long as three weeks), the men can get them to allow
themselves to be groomed and to accept a halter, a bridle, a
saddle and a bit. "You've just got to learn to talk to a horse
right," Chenoweth says. "It's all about understanding."

"You've got to take your time," says Michael, a Susanville
inmate. "I was kind of nervous when I first got out here. But
you can't win a fight with a wild horse. They'll kill you
first." Michael is serving a 20-month sentence for possession of
methamphetamines and for assaulting a police officer. It's his
third time in prison.

Charles, who is serving a second prison term for auto theft ("I
have a small love for cars," he says, with an apologetic smile),
grew up with horses, but he had not had contact with wild horses
before coming to Susanville. "I enjoy this," he says. "They're a
little more temperamental than domestic horses. But you just
have to be patient. Otherwise you'll get hurt."

Indeed, there are injuries. Little Red, for instance, took off
while Doug was on him, running around the corral dangerously,
and bucking him off a couple of other times, resulting in bumps,
bruises and a sore back but no broken bones. "We've gone a lot
of rounds together, and I've gotten pretty banged up," Doug says
affectionately. "He's just a little jumpy. But I wish I could
take him home with me when I leave here."

Program administrators see injuries as inevitable and sometimes
even helpful. "Injuries play a role in the rehab," Pogacnik
says. "Some of these guys think they're pretty tough until they
learn that a horse can stomp them into the ground. This teaches
them to respect something other than themselves."

On a hot morning last summer, a Mexican inmate named Cruz was
learning to respect, if not exactly like, a little half roan
whose hooves needed cleaning. Cruz could get the horse to pick
up his hind hooves, but when the inmate went to clean out a
hoof, the horse pinned his ears, bared his teeth and kicked the
hoof into the air like a piston, making Cruz spring sideways.
This happened repeatedly, until the horse and the man looked
like an old-fashioned, spring-loaded mechanical bank. Bystanders
at first smiled, then snickered, then guffawed.

"He's an ornery one, ain't he, Cruz?" Chenoweth called over.
Streams of sweat were pouring down Cruz's face, and he muttered
something in Spanish toward the sky. But he never once yelled at
or hit the animal.

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

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

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."

Chenoweth, for his part, is pleased. "I'm on cloud nine," he
says. "I couldn't be happier. It's going to be bigger and better
than ever before."

Susan Davis's book on the science of sports will be published by
Holt next spring.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Developing trust between horse and man is a principal goal of the time-consuming gentling process. [Horse eating from hand of prison inmate]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Chenoweth (white cowboy hat) has been running the Susanville program since '87. [Tom Chenoweth and prison inmates sitting on corral fence]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Inmate Billy Thieman is training his horse to respond to hand signals and change direction.