CHOTEAU – Newport keeps his prison neck tattoo hidden under a mane of silky black hair.
Nothing else gives away the fact that he, Wyatt and Broseph did time at the Carson City prison after years running wild in the Nevada desert. That’s the life when you grow up a mustang eating federal grass.
Today, the three young horses have steady jobs working for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Ranger District, on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It’s a second chance any inmate might jump at, even if it means days of hauling heavy gear up rocky mountain trails.
“They’re far friendlier than I expected,” Forest Service lead packer Ian Bardwell said of his new stock. “When we came to get them, the prisoners who trained them referred to their horses as ‘getting paroled.’”
The Rocky Mountain Ranger District keeps about 50 horses and mules to manage tasks scattered along 1,100 miles of trail in the 1.5-million-acre wilderness complex. That raises a constant challenge for Bardwell, who must provide the trained and fit animals that handle the heavy lifting in the backcountry. Trail crews spend 10 days in the field, with four-day breaks. The horses work the same schedule.
The ranger station adds a few new ones every year as older stock ages out of duty. Many put in 20 to 25 years of service. Those senior horses typically wind up in the community, Bardwell said.
But with the cost of new stock constantly rising while Forest Service budgets shrink, finding affordable replacements became one of Bardwell’s bigger problems. So he was happy to help solve a problem for a sister agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM reported more than 67,000 wild horses and burros on its public lands in 2016 – up 15 percent from the previous year. That’s more than twice the recommended population for the amount of graze on those lands.
The agency used to find adoptees or buyers for about 8,000 horses a year in the early 2000s. That outlet has shrunk to about 2,500 annually since the financial crisis of 2008. Nevada leads the list with about 32,000 wild mustangs and 2,500 burros roaming public range suited for about 13,000 animals.
By comparison, Montana has a reported 160 wild horses on BLM lands, with a grazing capacity of 120. Wyoming has the BLM’s second-largest wild horse problem, with about 6,500 horses and room for just 3,700.
The Northern Nevada Correctional Center started its horse program in 2000. Originally a partnership among the Nevada Department of Corrections, Silver State Industries and the Nevada Department of Agriculture, it shifted over to an all-BLM horse program in 2007.
The program holds three adoptions a year, all done by auction. In the past 16 years, about 1,000 horses have been sold through the program.
It may be the only horse auction in the West with a dress code. Because the prisoners all wear blue denim, visitors and bidders are not allowed to wear anything blue. Tank tops and shorts aren’t allowed either. And leave the cell phones and cameras behind too.
Bids start at $150 for a saddle-trained wild horse, while halter-trained animals begin at $125. The average sale comes in between $800 and $1,000, although some auctions have gone to $15,000 for particular animals. Money raised from the adoptions pays for the costs of bringing the stock to auction and maintaining the holding facilities.
Program trainer Hank Curry advised prospective buyers that the horses are “green-broke” to saddle and rope, but could be spooky in new surroundings.
“It may not be scary to you, but it could be very scary to them,” Curry wrote. “For example, they have seen a wheel barrow, but not a bicycle. They have seen men on foot, but not a man carrying a backpack. They have little contact with women and are sensitive to perfumes or hairspray.”
In Choteau, Bardwell said the three horses were adapting well to their new home.
“I just got shoes on all of them,” he said. “The only thing that caught them off-guard was the pounding of the nails. They’re used to riding in a sand arena.”
While three to four months of training might seem slight for a new work horse, Bardwell said the prison program added a special benefit. While professional trainers often work with up to eight horses at a time, the inmates focus on one or two.
“We got there at 8 in the morning, and they were already working with their horses,” Bardwell said. “They were still there at 4 p.m. They have so much time compared to someone who’s doing this for a living.”