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Healing power of horses: the Wild Horse Inmate Program

 By Tim Hayes, author of Riding Home: The Power of Horses To Heal
One of my first experiences in witnessing the amazing dynamic that is possible in the interaction between horses and humans occurred at a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado. It was here that I was introduced to the Wild Horse Inmate Program or WHIP. The Wild Horse Inmate Program was originally set up by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to assist in managing the country's thousands of free-roaming wild horses.
To safely gentle thousands of horses and prepare them for adoption by the American public would require many experienced horsemen. Unfortunately, this was prohibitively expensive so the BLM came up with what they believed to be an ingenious solution. The concept was simple: if prison inmates could be used as cheap labor and taught to manufacture license plates, why not teach them how to gentle wild horses?
In 1995 I went to this prison to study the wild mustang and learn what effect, if any, working with horses might have in the practical rehabilitation of hardened inner-city criminals. What I saw was a miraculous transformation I don't think anyone could have imagined. I certainly hadn't.
The inmates who participated in WHIP had committed every crime imaginable, some frightening or violent. They arrived at prison with a lot of swagger. Most were from gangs. In their world they saw themselves as tough guys, dangerous, bad. But the first time a wild mustang came at them, their rock-hard attitudes crumbled. On the streets the only way they knew how to relate to almost anyone was with anger, mistrust, and deadly force, but now it was instantly apparent that their way wouldn't work with these horses.


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