By Samantha Szesciorka, HRL Guest Author
[This article was originally published in November 2018 in Sagebrush Rider Magazine. It has been updated.]
It’s late October and I’m headed to prison. Thankfully not in handcuffs and not with a horse trailer. It was tempting to bring my trailer… just in case. I’m on my way to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City for a horse auction. A prison may seem like an odd place to buy a horse, but this particular auction regularly attracts buyers from around the country. A few movie stars and celebrities have even attended over the years.
At first glance it looks like any other Nevada ranch. Hay bales are stacked high, tractors are scattered around the pastures, horses and cows stand in corrals and pens. But the barbed wire fences, guard towers, and armed officers roaming the grounds are a stark reminder that inmates are the cowboys on this ranch. Indeed, as I arrive early in the morning, a small group of inmates wearing matching blue denim uniforms and riding helmets are already warming up their horses in the arena.
The Northern Nevada Correctional Center is a medium-security prison that also houses minimum-security inmates. A small group of those inmates, with approval for good behavior, are allowed to join the prison’s wild horse training program. There, the inmates are paired with wild horses and will spend several months transforming them from untouchable to rideable. The trained horses are offered to the public through a competitive-bid auction several times a year.
Since the Carson City prison program started just over 20 years ago, word has spread and it has developed a cult following. Attendance has steadily increased at each auction and so have the prices. Fans say the program is beneficial in many ways. It helps the inmates learn new skills and aids in rehabilitation. It makes it easier for the average horse person to adopt a wild horse if it is already gentled and started. Lastly, it helps chip away at the growing number of wild horses that need to be adopted.
Nevada’s prison program to gentle and adopt out wild horses started in 2000 as a cooperative agreement between the Nevada Department of Corrections and the Nevada Department of Agriculture. The agreement morphed over the years and today the inmates train Bureau of Land Management horses and burros. Hundreds of horses have been adopted out over the years and hundreds of inmates have gone through the program.
Prison programs that pair inmates with animals aren’t uncommon. There are several facilities in the U.S. that use inmates to train dogs, cats, and even off-track Thoroughbreds. Nevada’s prison program for wild horses isn’t unique either. There are programs in a handful of other states that work with mustangs, but Nevada’s has become one of the most well-known. The dusty ranch in the shadow of a prison has been the subject of news stories and documentaries around the world. In 2019 it was even the backdrop for a major motion picture called The Mustang.
Leading the Herd
The inmates tend to get most of the attention, but there is one man behind the scenes who has quietly steered the program to success. Hank Curry has been the head trainer at the correctional center for 20 years. “They had had it for two years but it was floundering,” he says. When the position opened up, Hank applied along with 50 other people. When I ask him why he thinks they hired him, Hank says with a chuckle, “I was the best liar.”
He’s kidding, of course. Hank has a quiet and thoughtful demeanor, but a sly sense of humor. The truth is, Hank had a lifetime of experience working with horses that qualified him for the job. He was raised in a ranching family and grew up riding and training horses alongside his father. When he was hired to take over the prison program, Hank was confident he could make it flourish. “I knew what I wanted to do when I started it,” he says. “I had been around auctions and horses and training. The only thing I really wasn’t around was the inmates so I had to learn that.”
As if working with wild horses isn’t enough of a challenge, Hank has to work with a ragtag group of trainers. Men who are serving time for committing crimes. Men who have little to no experience with horses. Men who are caught up in a system that rewards bravado. “When these guys come to prison they can be anything they want to so lying is permissible. In fact, it’s almost encouraged,” says Hank. “They come in and tell me, ‘oh yeah I’ve trained horses,’ but when they walk in the corral I know if they have or they haven’t.”
Working with wild horses is a humbling experience for the men. Brute force won’t get you anywhere. That’s the first thing the inmates have to learn, but it’s a lesson that Hank lets the horses teach. Sometimes it takes a few scrapes and bruises. “It’s a reality check for these guys. And they need it. They need to grow up,” says Hank who sees himself as a teacher to the inmates as well. But if an inmate can’t handle it, they’re out of the program. For Hank, what’s most important is getting these horses trained and permanently adopted.
“I want them to stay adopted,” says Hank. “I could cheat and use a horse trader trick to get them through the sale and look good, but they’re not really broke.” Hank has high expectations for the horses he brings to auction. “I have a guideline in my mind of what they’re going to be and I want them to be that, “he says. “They’re good about their feet, they’re easy to load, they’re easy to catch, they’re easy to saddle. They stand around and act like gentlemen.” If a horse isn’t at the level he wants it to be, Hank will pull it from the auction.
“Horses that are dangerous or whatever, that’s going to ruin a sale. Why even sell them? That’s a waste of time,” says Hank. The horses from the prison program are adopted by people with all sorts of experience – from beginner riders to seasoned competitors. With only a few months of training, these horses are still “green broke,” but Hank still wants them to be safe for adopters of all skill levels. His advice to the inmates? “I tell them to act like you’re breaking this horse for your mom… and pretend like you like your mom.”
““When these guys come to prison they can be anything they want to so lying is permissible. In fact, it’s almost encouraged. They come in and tell me, ‘oh yeah I’ve trained horses,’ but when they walk in the corral I know if they have or they haven’t.””
Hank is also responsible for selecting which horses will go through the prison program. Along with good confirmation, he looks for horses with a variety of physical traits to meet a variety of adopter needs. Sometimes it comes down to trying to predict what discipline a horse might do well in. “What’s this horse look like? Would he make an endurance horse? Would this horse make a trail horse? Would this horse make a ranch horse?” says Hank. Thanks to his careful consideration, each auction tends to have horses with a range of heights, builds, and even colors.
As for his training philosophy, Hank believes exposure is key to starting a well-rounded horse. He has the inmates work with the horses in arenas, corrals, and out on the trail. The horses move cows, get roped off of, cross water, and more. The variety of experiences helps make confident horses. “Let’s say you’re in junior high, you play basketball. You play every day at your school. Now you join the team, they haul you to a different school. There’s different noises, the lighting is different, everything’s different. You have to prepare your horse just like you would a kid, so that he can perform wherever he goes,” says Hank. He’s fond of comparing horse training to raising kids.
Hank turns 73 this year. Despite some health issues, he isn’t slowing down. He owns three mustangs, and still rides, ropes, and competes. When I ask him if he ever thinks about retiring he’s quiet for a while, as if he’s never considered the question or he’s deciding how to answer. “I’m fine right now,” he finally says. “When I go to work in the morning I like it and I like where I’m going and what I’m doing. I don’t really see myself just sitting around watching tv.”
“I can relate to the horses because I am in prison and they’re locked up too,” says William Staples, one of the inmates participating in the auction. The 39 year old is serving a nearly two-and-a-half-year sentence for trafficking a controlled substance. Originally from Colorado, William did have some experience with horses prior to entering the program. “Not like these horses though! They were real gentle horses,” he says with a laugh.
William learned quickly that taming wild horses is tough work, but it doesn’t require a heavy hand. “I learned a lot about patience,” he says. William and the other inmate trainers spent up to eight hours a day, five days a week working with the horses for this auction. Getting to the point where they could make first contact with the horse was a huge breakthrough moment. “There’s definitely like a breaking point with the horses and the calmer you are the better the horse is,” William says.
Some inmates seem to have a knack for working with wild horses. William is one of them, but he’s modest about it. “Hank’s been a great teacher,” he says. Most of the inmates only work with one horse at a time, but William trained two for this auction: Fozzy, a five-year-old gelding from northwestern Nevada, and Slick, a three-year-old gelding from northeastern Nevada. William says he’s proud of how they turned out and he’s hoping the horses sell for a high price.
“I learned a lot about patience…There’s definitely like a breaking point with the horses and the calmer you are the better the horse is.”
I wonder out loud that if you had to be incarcerated, this program would be a good way to pass the time. William agrees. “This has made everything so much easier,” he says. “It’s just a really good program. It’s good for us. It’s good for the animals. It’s an all-around good cause.” William didn’t know anything about the BLM or the need for wild horse adoption before he came into the program, but he is glad to be a part of something that helps get horses adopted.
During his time in the program William also trained a horse destined to be a police officer horse in New York. He tells me this with a big smile. There’s a real sense of pride in the inmates involved with the program. It means a lot for them to see the horses go on to bigger and better things and it gives the inmates hope that they can do the same.
Many inmates from the program have gone on to parlay their new horse training skills into careers after their release. That’s something William hopes to do when he gets out in December and goes home to Colorado. He says while he doesn’t want his time in prison to define him, he’ll always remember the horses he trained here. “It’s been a great experience. It’s rewarding to know the horses are out there.”
The gates at the correctional center open to the public at 9am and there is a line of trucks and trailers waiting. Early is best for the auction, because attendees only have one hour to meet-and-greet with the inmates and the horses. For potential adopters, this is their first and only chance to see the horses up close and in-person. Attendees head straight to the arena where the inmates are lined up with their horses. They can’t go into the arena with the horses, but attendees can stand at the rail to ask the inmates questions and have them demonstrate things in the saddle.
As more and more people arrive, the fence line begins to fill up. The inmates cheerfully answer question after question about their horses. Hank makes the rounds chiming in with information as needed. Most people have come just to see the show, but they still stop and visit each horse and chat with the inmates. The serious shoppers probe a little deeper and ask the inmates to show them how the horse travels on a loose rein or picks up their feet. For their part, the horses all stand quietly tolerating the barrage of hands coming through the fence to pet them.
Promptly at 10am, the main event begins. It’s a great turnout – the bleachers are completely full. The inmates perform a choreographed routine, carrying flags and doing patterns in the arena as The Devil Went Down to Georgia blares from the speaker. After the National Anthem, the auction begins. First up is William’s horse Fozzy. William trots and canters the bay horse in circles, then dismounts to demonstrate how easily he picks up his feet. He gets back on and continues to ride around the arena as the auctioneer begins.
The opening bid at the auction is always $150 but prices can vary wildly depending on the horse. In the past, the bids have gone as high as $15,000, but the average price is generally around $2,500 per horse. As William shows off what Fozzy can do, the auctioneer calls for bids, but the crowd is quiet. The auctioneer continues to call and finally a card goes up. Fozzy is a nice horse, but the first horse of the auction is usually the toughest sell until the crowd warms up. Fozzy sells for $200. It’s a steal.
The crowd cheers and claps loudly. The sale seems to have successfully broken the ice. The second horse goes for $2,700. One by one the horses are ridden out by their trainer. All of the horses are in Western saddles and snaffle bits. They give all four feet easily. They move willingly in each gait. They back up. They load in a trailer. That’s the minimum requirement for the program, but some trainers throw in extras. A few trainers wow the crowd by standing up and jumping off. Some swing ropes. A couple have even started teaching sliding stops.
Energy begins to build. Sufficiently fired up, the crowd is throwing out bids with ease. Some horses bring on dramatic bidding wars. Frankie, a stocky pinto gelding, goes for $4,000 and Big Blue, a tall blue roan gelding, goes for $4,700. William’s second horse, Slick, sells for $2,500 to a man from Utah. The rest of the horses sell for between $1,300 and $3,500. The crowd cheers wildly each time the auctioneer yells “Sold!” Everyone wants these horses to sell, and the more money raised, the better. A small portion of the proceeds from each sale go to the prison, but the majority goes back to the BLM to help care for horses in holding facilities.
As the auction comes to a close, it’s a flurry of activity as the winning bidders sign papers, write checks, and bring their trailers in. The inmates give their horses final pats and hugs. One by one each horse is loaded up. William watches as the trailers carrying his horses drive off. Slick and Fozzy are leaving for new lives of unknown possibilities. Saying goodbye to the horses can be surprisingly emotional for the inmates, but William remains positive. “It’s definitely a sad day, but they’re going to a good home,” he says. “That’s what’s important is trying to get them out of here and give them a chance.”
Hank helps load up horses and shakes hands with adopters. He listens politely as people tell him about their plans for the horses. He doesn’t appear sad about seeing the horses go, rather he looks accomplished. “I’m always proud,” he says. “It’s kinda like parenting, almost, with these horses. It’s like putting your kid on the bus.” The auction is over, but there’s no rest for the weary. Hank has to pull new horses and the inmates have to start the process all over.
To New Beginnings
All the horses from the auction are off to new adventures, but two in particular have a big journey ahead of them. Frankie and Big Blue, the high sellers, were adopted by a pair of friends who out came all the way from North Carolina. “I’ve wanted a mustang for 52 years and that is the exact color I have wanted since I could say the word horse!” says Sharon Ziegler, Frankie’s new owner.
Sharon has been following the auctions at the Carson City prison program for years. When she found herself in the position to get another horse, it seemed like the right time to make the 5,000 mile journey. “It’s always been with me for some reason, so it was meant to be and it was meant to be at this time,” she says.
““I don’t think there are words that could express how important this program is…It gives everybody something. It gives the inmates a purpose. It gives these horses a home.”
As they prepared to load up their new horses in the trailer, Sharon and her friend Liz were already excitedly discussing new names. To honor the horses’ unique journey, they decide on Convict (Frankie) and Folsom (Big Blue). The newly christened horses load up easily into the trailer, but they won’t have much time off. On the journey back home, Sharon and Liz intend to make several stops to ride, including at Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas and Bryce Canyon in Utah.
For Sharon, this auction was the realization of a lifelong dream, but it was also the chance to support a program she deeply cares about. “I don’t think there are words that could express how important this program is,” she says. “It gives everybody something. It gives the inmates a purpose. It gives these horses a home. It saves the taxpayers. The gratitude we have for these men and the BLM bringing these horses here… I can’t express it. It’s unreal.”