Photo of a man holding a flag while sitting on a horse.
Cody West from the Colorado Department of Corrections.  (Francis “Fran” Ackley)

Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program

By Fran Ackley

Canon City, Colorado, is home to the BLM’s Royal Gorge Field Office.  It is also home to one of the largest prison populations in the country.  During the 1980s, the BLM was implementing an adoption program as part of its effort to manage wild horse populations and their habitat, and many mustangs became candidates for adoption.  At the same time, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) was seeking labor opportunities for inmates.  In 1986, the BLM and the CDOC recognized an opportunity to help each other and created the Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program (CWHIP).

What began as a makeshift, temporary holding and training facility, with a capacity of about 50 horses, has evolved into a state-of-the-art training facility, the largest BLM holding facility in the country, with a capacity of 3,000 animals.  It has more than 100 pens, varying in capacity from 1 to 125 horses, connected by an alley system that was built and designed by BLM and CWHIP staffs.  The CWHIP employs seven full-time staff members from the CDOC as well as 50-60 inmates.  In addition to routine sorting, moving, and loading, the staff administers tens of thousands of vaccinations annually, feeds the horses 20-30 tons of hay per day, and deworms more than 10,000 horses each year.  The most time-consuming task is keeping hooves trimmed, but with the aid of four hydraulic tilt chutes, supervised inmates can trim 400 hooves or more per day.

Over its 25-year history, the CHWIP has trained thousands of inmates in animal care and horsemanship.  The work provides inmates with a meaningful, productive way to pay their debt to society and saves millions of taxpayer dollars.  In addition to learning a valuable skill, inmates gain a sense of accomplishment and pride, self-esteem, and respect.  Mustangs have a way of leveling the playing field among inmates—regardless of their size or how many tattoos they have, they’re all equal in the eyes of the mustang.  Most of the inmates have no experience when they begin, and most don’t look like horsemen, but after a year of working mustangs 5-7 days a week, they know their business.  For many of them, taking a wild mustang, training it, and seeing it adopted is the most rewarding experience of their lives.  Upon release, some inmates have made new lives for themselves in the equine industry. 

A unique bond and a mutual respect develop between many of the inmates and the horses they train.  The day-to-day struggles and victories experienced between the inmates and mustangs can be seen in “The Wild Horse Redemption,” a 2007 documentary based on the CWHIP that follows the capture and training of several mustangs.  It was selected for the Toronto Film Festival as well as several other film festivals. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several other states initiated inmate training programs based on the Colorado model.  These programs were initially successful, but changing circumstances required the BLM to withdraw financial support.  One reason was that BLM’s new removal process targeted younger horses that did not need to be trained to make them more adoptable.  Canon City’s program was faced with a choice:  either shut down or make the program pay for itself.  The CDOC chose to make the program self-supporting.  Rather than simply gentling (a relative term) mustangs and sending them to adoptions all over the country, the CDOC reasoned that there was a much larger market for saddle-trained mustangs and that training horses to ride might make enough money to support the program.  It was a big risk for the CDOC and the BLM, but it paid off, and it forms the foundation of their partnership today.  Even after 25 years, demand for trained mustangs outstrips CWHIP’s ability to train them.

There have been many success stories for CWHIP mustangs.  Graduates have gone on to compete in dressage, jumping, calf roping, team roping, barrel racing, and competitive trail riding.  They have also been used for search and rescue, equine-assisted psychotherapy, organizations for disabled riders, and just about every other equine discipline.  The most common use, though, is for recreational riding. 

The U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) has been adopting CWHIP mustangs since 2007, and it now has more than 125 mustangs patrolling both the northern and southern borders of the nation.  These mustangs have become favorites of the USBP due to their durability, versatility, tough feet, and the fact that they are at home in rough terrain.  On January 20, 2009, 10 mustangs from the USBP’s Project Noble Mustang program marched in the Presidential inauguration parade in Washington, DC.

The first and longest-running inmate training program of its kind, the CWHIP exemplifies a win-win partnership and continues to provide benefits to adopters, the taxpaying public, inmates, and mustangs.

Francis “Fran” Ackley has been with the BLM for 28 years, the last 20 as the program leader for Colorado’s wild horse and burro program.  He lives in Canon City and has raised three daughters, all of whom learned to ride on mustangs.