The Sacramento Wild Horse Program (WHP) is a collaboration between the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The goal of the program is twofold: to reduce the amount of horses currently held in BLM holding facilities through training that will allow them to become adoptable to the public, and to rehabilitate the in-custody participants by offering valuable social and vocational skills through the process of gentling these wild horses.
Located at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) in Elk Grove, California, the Wild Horse Program provides training to the wild mustangs it works with and the in-custody participants that help maintain it. The program, overseen by Ranch Manager Joe Misner, began in 2014, and received its first group of horses from the BLM’s holding facility in Litchfield, California on September 12th, 2014. With more than 40,000 wild horses currently being held in government holding facilities, the WHP works intensely with the mustangs it receives to gentle them into saddle started horses that can be adopted.
The program holds three adoption events per year, one during Spring, Summer, and Fall. Until the most recent adoption event, the highest bid for one of the program’s mustangs was $1,300. However, on June 12th, 2016 at the Western States Horse Expo in Sacramento, CA, a new record was set by Bonita, a 4 year old mare, whose winning bid reached $4,100. But if you ask Joe Misner or any of the staff and volunteers that work with the program, they’ll tell you it’s not about the money. It’s about giving these horses, through patience, love, and respect, a chance at finding a forever home.
The symbolic ties between the horses and inmate participants are many. Most of the participants describe their life before incarceration as “wild.” Some reveal they struggle with trusting others. And it’s often that you will hear an inmate explain that their criminal behavior is a result of doing what they had to do to survive. They paint a picture of being free, not being confined by responsibility. But many, too, explain that this foundation of instability has created fractures in their lives, relationships, and ability to meet goals.
Participants have a lot of time to reflect on themselves while working with these horses, and many have expressed their appreciation for this time. One participant explained that the phrase, “Slow is fast,” a statement used often by Joe Misner while instructing the participants, has stuck with him and proved applicable in his own life. He added, “This program has taught me a lot of patience and to slow down a little bit. Joe teaches us this with the horses; the slower you go, the faster the horse will learn.” This participant continued to explain that he has realized he often rushes in life and is eager to do things fast, but through the Wild Horse Program he has come to understand if you take the time to do something right the first time, you’ll accomplish it faster in the long run. He also conveyed his appreciation for each new skill he has learned when he explained, “Everything you do for the first time, like pick up a horse’s foot or ride one, is overwhelming.”
Another in-custody participant, who never rode or had even been around a horse before entering the program, spoke of his process learning the importance of patience and consistency while working with these horses, and stated, “The horse feels everything that you feel.” He further explained that before working with any of the horses, he takes a moment to clear his mind so that he can be fully present and allow for the horse to sense his commitment and trustworthiness; another example of a learned technique that can be useful to someone navigating society upon release from custody.
The program has seen a tremendous amount of success since it began in 2014, and continues to maintain this trend. The program consists of six levels, which all need to be successfully completed in order for a participant to complete the program. Since its introduction, 31 inmates have participated in the program, and three have successfully completed all six levels, one of whom landed a position at Save Them All, a horse rescue program in Elk Grove, California. Past program participants have successfully graduated from treatment and rehabilitation facilities and construction training programs, while others who are still in the program plan to continue what they’ve learned at RCCC. Some participants plan to build upon their knowledge and skills by attending a local farrier school after they are released from custody. As for the horses, all that have gone through the program have been successfully adopted. One 3 year-old mare who was adopted in 2015 at an event in Napa, California has been busy being shown at horse events, and has become familiar with multiple blue ribbons. Her adopter, Betsy, is quite proud of her.
The success stories of the participants and the horses evoke tears during adoptions while sparking the hope for the future of all involved. As Ranch Manager Joe Misner has said, “Mustangs are the greatest horse God ever made.” Whether they bring love to you and your family, or give you the courage and inspiration to change your life, their effect on those around them is truly miraculous.