Wyoming State Honor Farm established in 1931 and located at
Riverton, Wyoming, uses wild horses for inmate rehabilitation.
Its program, started in 1988, is the oldest horse program in
the United States prison system. The Honor Farm
is a 176-bed minimum-security prison for male felony offenders.
The Wyoming Department of Corrections operates the facility.
Work programs such as their Wild Horse Training Program assist
in teaching inmates new job skills and improve their social
and daily living habits. You may ask, “How can wild horses
help these inmates become better citizens? When you place
wild horses gathered off the open range with inmates who have
no previous horse handling experience what happens?”
wild horse, with its large size and power, will not tolerate
being mishandled and therefore demands respect. Horses
cannot be conned. They only understand honesty.
Wild horses off the open range have been free with no restrictions
beyond those of survival. This is very similar to the
inmates. They operated outside the law and beyond restrictions.
Society wants these inmates to live within the law. The
Honor Farm supervisors have found that the wild horse program
plays a big part in inmate rehabilitation. Inmates working
with wild horses learn that through honesty, respect, trust,
patience, and teamwork, even an animal such as the wild horse
will respond in a positive way. Inmates that are released
after working in this program have a higher percentage of success
in the outside world.
September 2004, we traveled to Riverton, Wyoming to attend an
inmate / wild horse training session, a wild horse horse-handling
clinic by Wild Horse Supervisor Mike Buchanan and a BLM Wild
Horse Adoption Sale. We observed first hand a training
program developed at the Honor Farm that is unique in the horse
Federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 gave the
Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and Department
of Agriculture U. S. Forest Service a mandate and the authority
to manage, protect, and control wild horses and burros on the
nation’s public lands in order to insure healthy herds and healthy
rangelands. The agency gathers excess horses from areas
where the numbers of wild horses exceed the optimum number that
the land, feed, and water can maintain. The Wyoming Honor
Farm receives a portion of these.
and the Department of Corrections have a working agreement concerning
these horses. The BLM brings the wild horses to the honor
farm. The horses, mostly geldings and mostly 2-3 years
old, come from a number of western states including Wyoming
and Nevada. The inmates work with the horses to gentle
them for sale and adoptions. This is a “win-win” situation
for both parties. The inmates working in the Wild Horse
Program have voluntarily agreed and chosen to work there.
assigned to the Honor Farm is a prison privilege. Inmates
have dropped enough points for good behavior at other state
prisons that they are transferred to the Honor Farm for the
remainder of their sentences.
Buchanan, Wild Horse Supervisor at the time, [from 1995 to 2008],
manages around 25 inmates and up to 200 wild horses in his current
program. When Mike assigns an inmate to a job on Horse
Hill in the wild horse program, the inmate begins by working
on the horse feeding crew. This gives the inmate a chance
to observe other inmates working with horses, the training techniques
used, and become familiar with horses. This also gives
Mike a chance to observe this new inmate and evaluate his performance.
Many of these men have never been around horses before.
This is not all bad since these men have no preconceived notions
about how horses should be handled. They can be taught
the correct way. The pay for an inmate in the horse program
starts at $35 a month, which in turn helps pay for his restitution,
child support, etc. and purchase his personal items. Most
inmates that work with the horse program are there for 11 months
to 2 years before they are released from the Honor Farm.
met Mike and his wife for supper our first night in Riverton.
Mike looks like a true Wyoming cowboy- tall, slender, quiet,
and soft-spoken. He also appeared to be a man who was
in control of his surroundings. He would have to be in
control to handle hard men and hard horses.
out in visiting with Mike that he had grown up in the Steamboat,
CO. area, worked on ranches, guided hunters, and wrangled dudes.
He drifted northwest to the Baggs, Wyoming country, met his
wife Karen, and married her in 1969.
on a large cattle ranch punching cows and starting colts.
He worked in the oil well industry for a time. Then in
the 1980’s he went to work for the State Prison System in Rawlins,
Wyoming as a correction officer. While Mike was inside
the walls at the Rawlins State Prison, he began to study inmates
and the body language they use in their interactions with other
offenders. He began to see there was a social structure
with a pecking order among inmates that was similar to wild
horse herds that ran free in the Wyoming Red Desert Country.
transferred to the Riverton Honor Farm in 1994 and was offered
the Wild Horse Supervisor job in 1995. He brought to this
job 7 years of observing inmates inside the wall at Rawlins
and a cowboy way of life working with horses and cattle.
He also had the ability to “read” people and horses. Mike
had found his calling and took to the inmate/wild horse program.
said “When I took over the program in 1995 there were 10 men
and 75 horses in my program, now we have 25 men and 200 horses.
When the new wild horses first arrive they are very curious
about every thing, but they trust no one. If you gain
their trust, you can do a number of things with them.
I soon found out that you have to be totally honest with a wild
horse. Inmates are very similar to the horses in the way
they view their new surroundings and people, and they trust
no one. You need to deal with inmates much like you deal
with wild horses.”
began to put some new ideas together. First, he found
that the criminal mind had to change and working with wild horses
could help do this.
found that you could not put an inmate in a round pen with a
rope and a wild horse. Mike said, "These inmates are too
aggressive. They wanted to run and rope this horse and
take it to the ground. They reminded me of a dingo dog
chasing horses. You could not call them off. We
had to come up with some other way than round pen work to get
these horses gentle and started.” Another big concern
that Mike had was “We needed to come up with a system to keep
these inmates from getting hurt and also to protect the wild
horses from injury.”
a couple of years of trial and error, Mike came up with a program
that was beneficial to both the inmate and the wild horse.
This program was designed to work the horse and inmate through
four progressive levels of training. Mike took some training
techniques that he has seen Ray Hunt and John Lyons use at their
clinics. In addition, he added his own ideas and came
up with what he calls “The Level System.”
said, “Our program is similar to how a rodeo judge scores a
horse and the rider separately. In the Level System you
need to be able to “read“ the inmate and the wild horse separately.
This program is designed to help the inmate through his interactions
with the wild horse. The whole program is based upon trust
and honesty between the inmate and the wild horse. We
are careful not to overmatch the rider to the horse so that
the inmate is set up to fail, or vice-versa.”
The Level System
is the beginning stage of horse training for both the new wild
horse and the new inmate. The Wild Horse Supervisor teaches
the inmate how to be safe around horses and the horse begins
to learn that humans are not a danger to them. Trust is
beginning to build for both inmate and horse.
wild horse is turned out of a chute with all the new inmates
forming a circle and standing against the wall in a large round
pen. This begins to teach the inmate and the horse to
bond in a non-resistant way. The wild horse will make
a circle of the pen looking and smelling. This horse is
looking for a way out and identifies the individual that is
the least aggressive inmate in the group. As Ray Hunt
would say, "The horse is trying to find the best deal it can
under the circumstances”
the horse has completed the circle, it will go back to the person
that is the least aggressive, and lower its head to the ground.
Then the horse will go around the pen and stop in front of the
inmate that is the most aggressive. Stops, ears will go
up, and the horse will snort at this inmate. This snorting
means that the horse senses danger. The horse will then
be released back into the wild horse pens. While all this
is going on, Mike is reading the horse and the inmates.
second wild horse is placed in the chute and is approached by
each Level 1 inmate. They begin to place a hand on this
horse through the chute gate. This is the first experience
that the horse has to feel the human touch. It also is
the first time many of the inmates have ever felt a horse.
Again, we are building trust between the horse and the inmate.
The horse is then released back into the wild horse pens.
This level may be repeated several times until the horse becomes
less resistant to the human touch.
the horse becomes less resistant to the human touch, a halter
is placed on the horse while in the chute. A bungee cord
is attached to the halter and tied to the side of the chute.
This introduces the horse to pressure and release. The
inmate learns to give back rather than take.
the horse begins to accept the halter and bungee cord, they
take off the bungee cord and a 30-foot soft cotton rope is attached
to the halter on the horse while it is standing in the chute.
With 3 or 4 men holding on to the rope the horse is released
out of the chute. This is the first introduction to the
horse learning to lead. The inmate learns to give back
in order to establish harmony.
the horse is beginning to learn to lead, the horse is tied to
an inner tube that is attached to the fence. This keeps
the horse from injuring its neck if it falls back on the lead
rope. Tying up the horse teaches it patience and respect.
This exercise is also designed to encourage the inmates’ patience
and respect for the horse.
is a more advanced, hands-on training program where the horse
learns to be handled in the open without a chute. The
horse at this level learns to let the inmate wash it, brush
it, and pick up its feet.
the inmates progress with their horse handling skills, they
are moved up in the level system just like the horses.
At Level III, inmates begin to get the horse used to the saddle
blanket and saddle on its back. A snaffle bit is placed
in the horse’s mouth for the first time. The horse is
asked to flex its body left and right. This teaches the
horse to move in the direction you ask when you are on its back.
The inmate is learning to “ask” the horse and not “demand” from
is the last step in the level system for both the horse and
inmate. The horse is taught to accept a man on its back
for the first time. The horse is taught to walk, trot
and lope. To be successful, the inmate must make a commitment
to stay in control of himself and still maintain control of
the horse without aggression.
Mike says in summary of the Level System,
“We are not very good at taking a horse on from Level IV.
Our main goal is to get the horse quiet and gentle, accept the
saddle, so you can step on and ride off. When we go beyond
this point the inmates do not have the horse handling skills
to teach the horse the finer points such as side passing, changing
leads, turnarounds, etc. However, I believe that one more
level of horsemanship might be forthcoming in the future.
Presently, when someone adopts these horses they can go on to
the next level, if they so desire.” Most of the horses
that offered for adoption and sale have around 90 days of training
by the inmates.
told me as we were watching horses being worked, “I can’t think
of another place in the country where you can learn as much
about horses as you can here at Horse Hill from Mike Buchanan.
It is unfortunate that you need to commit a felony to get in
On the day before the BLM Horse Adoption and Sale Mike Buchanan
conducted a wild horse horse-training clinic for prospective
horse buyers and other interested individuals. Mike discussed
the Level System that is used at the Honor Farm and demonstrated
horses on Levels 2, 3, and 4. Questions and answers followed
each level. A BLM representative was also there to answer
questions from the public.
56 horses were offered for adoption and sale. A catalog
was made available which told about each horse in the sale.
arrived at Horse Hill before daylight to observe inmates catching
and haltering wild horses in the dark. The horses were
caught and haltered, then led out to a pen where they were brushed
and groomed. I have caught a lot of horses in the dark
but never 56 wild horses. The inmates had a system worked
out. Some were catching, some haltering, and some leading
the horses out. One inmate kept track of where each numbered
horse should go. This system worked like clockwork with
no running or chasing the horses around. You could see
the trust the horses had in the inmates. You could also
see the pride in the inmates for what they were able to do.
The horses were tied side by side in a round pen after being
groomed. Each horse was assigned a lot number that
corresponded to the number of the horse in the adoption catalog.
Prospective buyers began to drift in. They walked around
the outside of the round pen where the horses were tied looking
at their catalogs and the horses.
sale began with an auctioneer and a ring man taking the bids.
Mike gave a short description of each horse that was up for
bid. Some inmates rode level 4 horses into the ring.
Other inmates led lower level horses that were not ridden into
the ring. All but three of the 56 horses put up for sale
When the sale was over, most of the horses
had sold. Those that did not sell were put back into training
or were offered for sale by the BLM on the Internet.
After the sale was over, everyone relaxed and we visited with
Robert Lambert, Director of Department of Corrections who had
driven to the sale from his office in Cheyenne as well as Honor
Farm Warden Dawn Sides and Farm Manager, Joe Crofts, who also
attended this sale. There were several representatives
from the Bureau of Land Management. We thanked everyone
for their hospitality and commented on their very professional
wild horse/inmate program.
For further information concerning the Wyoming Honor Farm Wild
Horse Program, contact:
Wyoming Honor Farm
40 Honor Farm Road
Riverton, Wyoming 82501
307-856-9878 or Fax 307-856-2505
BLM Rock Springs Wyoming Field Office
Wild horses are also available for adoption by appointment through
the BLM Rock Springs Corrals at (307) 352-0292 and the Mantle
. For more information, visit the website at