SPRINGER – On an unseasonably cool day in late July, John Taylor took a break from working out a horse named Outlaw to talk about cowboy rehabilitation.
With a training whip in one hand and an orange prison shirt on his back, the former Marine described how he has worked to gain the trust of the horses he helps train – and the meaning of that trust.
“That’s the thing about horses – they teach you patience,” said Taylor, who is serving time in prison for vehicular homicide. “The more you try to tell them what to do, the more they resist.
“For me, it’s kind of shameful to be in here, but this is a way of making my family proud.”
Taylor is one of the first inmates participating in a program that allows prisoners without disciplinary problems on their records to work with rescued horses. The hope is that inmates will learn horsemanship skills and become more responsible, while the horses will benefit from the daily attention and care.
Six months after the horses first arrived, the program has state officials thinking big, though at least some equine rescue advocates remain skeptical.
Based on the grounds of the Springer Correctional Center, a state-run prison in northern New Mexico that holds roughly 270 inmates, the program was originally intended to be limited to incarcerated veterans, but other inmates have since been allowed to take part.
David Brown, the prison’s programs director, said a line of inmates is waiting for spots in the horse program. He said he has noticed a subtle shift in the demeanor among the participating inmates.
“I’ve noticed the guys out here have a better attitude,” he told the Journal .
Jason Rey of Albuquerque, one of two inmates who joined the program several weeks ago, had little previous experience with horses.
After getting to know the daily regimen that includes cleaning horses’ hoofs, learning to communicate with the animals via hand signs – inmates are not allowed to ride the horses for at least the first month – and other chores, he said it’s highly preferable to highway cleanup duty.
“We’re lucky,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to do something positive.”
Currently, just five horses and five inmates make up the program, though it could be expanded.
The program’s director, longtime cowboy Billy Jones, said he would eventually like to see about 15 horses and 10 inmates.
The inmate horse rescue program got its legs from a $75,000 appropriation that state lawmakers approved in 2013.
A round pen, small classroom and immaculately organized tack room make up most of the program’s amenities at the Springer prison. There’s also a site for veterinarians to treat the horses, some of which arrive in rough shape and needing medical attention.
As for the equines, the plan is for the rescued horses to be sold as ranch animals once they’re nursed back to full health, though at least one might be kept on as a staff horse, Jones said. No program horses have been sold to date.
State Corrections Industries Director Anna Martinez said that in addition to teaching basic horsemanship skills that could lead to jobs after an inmate’s release, the program is also aimed at instilling accountability.
“It’s a proven fact that when inmates, or anyone, works with animals it tends to lend a different side of rehabilitation – it has a calming effect,” Martinez said in a recent interview.
“We believe our inmates are in prison because they were selfish,” Martinez added. “If you only think of yourself, that’s what’s going to get you into trouble. But now they’re given another life that they’re responsible for.”
Eventually, money used from sale of horses could be used to help pay for feed, supplies and other expenditures in an attempt to make the program self sufficient. In its first year of existence, projected program costs included $17,500 for 48 tons of hay bales and $10,000 in veterinary services, according to internal agency documents.
Agency officials say they do not intend to request more state funds for the program.
Although the prison horse rescue program has received ample praise, the director of at least one other group has raised questions about what’s happening in Springer.
Debbie Coburn, the executive director of Four Corners Equine Rescue in the Farmington area, said she’s concerned the combination of inmates and horse training does not make for a true horse rescue program.
“I think it’s an inmate training program,” Coburn said. “I don’t think it’s a horse rescue.”
She said most licensed horse rescue organizations in the state will accept as many abused or abandoned horses as they can accommodate, not just a small number of animals that are deemed acceptable. There are 11 licensed horse rescue organizations in the state, a figure that includes the inmate horse rescue program.
Coburn also said she’s concerned the horses from the inmate training program could end up being sent to horse slaughter plants.
While some program horses might be sold at public auction, Martinez said in response that the agency would ensure the price paid was much higher than rates paid by slaughterhouses. She also said some of the program’s current batch of horses will likely be sold to staffers of a similar Colorado prison program.
“These horses are getting treated very well. We do care about the horses,” she said. “It’s a partnership, and while the inmates are getting some benefits, so are the horses.”
Although just five horses make up the program’s current population, other horses rescued by the state Livestock Board can be taken to Springer on temporary “emergency holds.” Six wild horses were held at the prison facility for eight days in March for that reason, Martinez said.
The Springer horse rescue program follows in the steps of other inmate work projects, such as furniture building, highway cleanup and inmate wildfire brigades. State inmates have also been put to work in the past year doing landscaping and other types of maintenance at state government buildings in Santa Fe.
Inmates are paid a low wage for their work on sanctioned programs, with those participating in the Springer program receiving 70 cents an hour.
Although state officials acknowledge the horse program is largely geared toward inmate rehabilitation, they say it’s also a way to pitch in during a state crisis.
“It is about the inmates, but we could have started an inmate program and not made it a (horse) rescue,” Corrections Department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said. “The rescue part was to do something good for the community.”
Meanwhile, the daily regimen at Springer Correctional Center continues, rain or shine.
Taylor, who said he might look for a job working with horses once he’s released from prison, showed recent visitors how he uses a training whip to put Outlaw through his paces.
From his position in the middle of a round pen, Taylor gets the horse into a trot, and then a steady circular lope, before gradually slowing him to a halt.
It’s almost possible to forget this is prison, though the razor wire that sits atop nearby fences and a guard who stands a few paces away are quick reminders.
“It’s nice that he trusts me,” Taylor says of the horse. “He knows that I’m not going to do anything that’s going to hurt him.”