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At this Wyoming prison farm, inmates tame wild horses – or are the horses taming the men?

A man in a bright orange shirt and hat sits on a roan horse in a corral.
Travis Shoopman
Wyoming Honor Farm inmate Taylor Meece tries to get his wild horse, Scarlet, to learn to come to a complete halt.

Recidivism rates in the U.S. are some of the highest in the world. And in Wyoming, 33 percent of inmates are back in prison within the first year. But studies show that animal therapy can help reduce that by teaching things like responsibility, nonviolence and empathy.

Wyoming has a special program – one of only five in the country – that teaches inmates how to tame wild horses. Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards visited the Wyoming Honor Farm near Riverton for this report.

You can hear a longer version of this story on The Modern West podcast.

In the spring sunshine, a guy in a red inmate’s shirt rides a big red horse named Scarlet around a corral. On her neck is a white freeze brand from her round up by the Bureau of Land Management. Taylor Meece says his goal today is to get Scarlet to come to a complete halt. But he’s having a little trouble. She’s paying more attention to my microphone than to him.

“She’s got one ear listening to you,” Meece says.

Travis Shoopman, the agricultural manager at the Honor Farm, gives him some pointers.

“Take a deep breath, Mr. Meece, you’ll be fine,” he calls out to Meece. Then Shoopmanm turns to me. “It’s just a little bit how they sense as well. He’s a little nervous. She’s a little nervous.”

Finally, Scarlet calms down.

“For her not listening to me very well, I’m not going to give her a break,” Meece says as he circles her in the corral. “She’s gotta show me something I like. I’m going to pick her back up to a trot.”

And away the two of them go.

Not many wild horses get so lucky as Scarlet, though. That’s because of the growing numbers of the animals on the landscape. Back in the 1970s, there were only about 17,000 wild horses in the West. Now there are over 83,000. The booming population left very little grass on the range for them to eat. A couple of years ago, the BLM removed more than 4,000 from Wyoming’s range. Many ended up in long term holding facilities in the Midwest or were purchased to sell for slaughter.

Shoopman says the Honor Farm’s training program doesn’t solve this enormous problem.

“But the more skill sets that we give that horse, the more value he has in this world,” he says. “That horse being feral, wild, untouchable, not ridable doesn't have a lot of value to a lot of people.”

Shoopman says the same goes for the men. Training them to work gives them value, too.

“Some of them haven't known a lot of other things. And it's those little steps of progress, like getting up every day, being on time.”

That old fashioned idea of breaking horses? Shoopman says Honor Farm doesn’t do that.

“We don't break anything. It's a terrible term.”

Instead, they use the philosophy of Natural Horsemanship to apply pressure and release. Same goes for these men. Many have never ridden a horse in their life. For instance, growing up in Gillette, one of inmate Meece’s only experiences with horses was as a teenager.

“This horse bit me on the face!” he says. “They have big teeth and he got a hold of me. But I was determined to not let that hold me back.”

Meece knows what it’s like to be held back. His mom died when he was 16 and he started getting in trouble. Then he was accused of a crime that he says he didn’t commit. When he was sentenced to eight to 13 years, he says he experienced a mental breakdown.

“It was horrible,” Meece says. “It was a concrete box. It's a really tough environment to be in. I was pretty much fighting for my liberty at that time until I was completely stressed out. And I had for sure lost my mind twice in county jail.”

But then, the Department of Corrections sent him to the Honor Farm. His first horse was a palomino.

“So I was feeling like a rock star,” he says. “And then they go to clean up his feet. And I don't know what happens in the chute pen, like, he gets stuck in one of these parts and ends up breaking his foot as the part comes off. And it's pretty horrible. And unfortunately, they had to put that horse down. And so that was a big tragedy to me.”

Meece’s anxiety came flooding back. He had to go back on anti-anxiety medication.

But then, a little buckskin mare named Belle came along.

“I would work her every day, and then I really started seeing results with her,” Meece says. “Consistency is a big deal when you're training horses. Showing up to work one day, and half a day the next, and not showing up that day, you'll see it directly in your horse's behavior. And I seen that 100 percent with that horse. And then I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta double down. Like, this horse’s success depends on me now.’”

The time came to sell Belle at the Honor Farm’s public auction. A doctor bought her for $125, money that went back into the prison’s budget. Meece says experiences like this improved his mental health.

“Horse hugs are the best hugs in the world, because they're huge, and they'll wrap their head around you and stuff like that. And so, I mean, if that doesn't calm me down, like eternally, I don't know what will. It’s absolutely helped my anxiety.”

Meece says a rancher he knows in Gillette has offered him a job cowboying when he gets out. And he’s already got his eyes on a horse he wants to adopt, a spirited Spanish buckskin named Bruja.

“You know, wild horses are special because they're on the prairie,” Meece says. “Just the tough life that they have out there, they become strong after generations and generations of living out there.”

Truth is, many of these Wyoming men have also led generations of tough lives. At the Wyoming Honor Farm, the message is loud and clear: As a community, we can’t give up on them – wild horses or men – because maybe someday, someone will give them a good home.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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