For over ten years the state prison located in Hutchinson has provided a unique opportunity for some of its inmates. They help manage hundreds of wild horses brought in from the western United States due to overpopulation. The inmates train, groom and care for these animals - in return, they enjoy a degree of freedom and they gain valuable skills.
Across the street from a sign displaying ‘Maximum-Security Prison,’ you’ll find over 350 horses, some wild and others gentled and saddled. The facilities are expansive, with horses colored in browns, golds and blacks standing in their pens. The majority of them are here temporarily and others will stay and receive training. Today is an open house; anyone interested in adopting these horses can come and see them up close. You can take a wild, untrained horse home for $125, or a saddle-trained one for $800.
Dexter Hedrick is the supervisor here, he watches as trainers work with a newly acquired colt. The horse is beige, with a white stripe running down its snout. It's experiencing some of its first physical contact with a human. It kicks the ground, wanting to be left alone.
This scene plays out almost daily. Hedrick oversees dozens of inmates at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, where some train the horses and others maintain the facilities.
“This is a job. It’s eight hours a day and five days a week,” Hedrick says. “And then there’s feeding crews even on the weekends. They come out, make sure nothing’s in trouble.”
The inmates are paid 25 to 60 cents an hour, depending on their experience. The men who sign up to train the horses have to be in good physical shape.
Hedrick says it usually takes about a year for them to learn the techniques of getting these wild animals to listen and respond.
“Most of the trainers have three, four horses each that they're working on all the time,” he says. “First thing in the morning, they go catch their horses and they groom them, clean out their feet and get ready for the day.”
The men all wear blue jeans, a grey t-shirt and work boots - some wear baseball caps that cover their buzz-cuts.
Lance Olson’s job is to keep the horses clean and well fed. His face is red and scarred, but it sports a big smile. He grew up just a few miles from here. He’s been working with the horses since March.
“Well, I’m 53 years old, I’m here for manufacturing methamphetamine. I got a 20-year sentence. I’m eight years into it,” Olson says.
There are no barbed wire fences surrounding these men, no armed guards at the gates. The only thing standing between them and the open road is a few supervisors and the inmates’ commitment to themselves.
“This is not like being in prison to me, you know, this is my freedom over here,” Olson explains. “Although, with that freedom comes a responsibility to continue making the right choices. There’s a lot of opportunities to do certain things here. My choices are to help better myself.”
Dexter Hedrick says the men who train these horses are kept busy. It takes about five months to get a horse ready for adoption.
There are tens of thousands of horses still running wild on government land in the western United States. They are reproducing too rapidly, and according to the Bureau of Land Management, populations aren’t sustainable. Many are gathered up and sent to long-term holding facilities in parts of the Midwest, like the Flint Hills of Kansas. Others end up here.
“What we're trying to do is get these horses off of government money and into private hands," Hedrick says. "We adopt out quite a few, probably a hundred or so every year. That keeps the federal government from having to pay for these horses’ upkeep for the rest of their lives.”
There are four other programs like this across the country, the first started in Colorado in 1986. These training programs are not the sole solution to the wild horse problem in the U.S., but they’re successfully taking hundreds of horses off of government funding each year.
The Hutchinson program, which has been here since 2001, receives no money from the state of Kansas. It gets about $4 per-day, per-horse from the Bureau of Land Management just for holding these horses on their land. They also receive money to train the horses from the Mustang Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to adopting out wild horses.
The inmates’ backgrounds vary, but they have one thing in common: they’re happy to be doing this.
John Neu is a 31-year-old from Topeka. He’s training a dark brown mare with a long black tail. He’s telling her to take steps forward and steps back, teaching her to walk in the direction he wants her to go, making a clicking noise to get her attention.
“This is the best job in Kansas Corrections, you get the most freedom, you get to learn something you can possibly take to the streets if you want to. I’d never touched a horse before I came out here,” Neu says.
He’s also serving a sentence for controlled substances. He says he’ll be released from Hutchinson in about a year and would like to be around horses when he’s out, even if it’s not his primary job.
On this particular day, the inmates mingle with visitors who’ve come to peruse the selection of horses. There’s a barbecue grill going and everyone stops for lunch. Pride can be seen on the faces of these inmates as they talk to the visitors and show off their horses.
They seem happy to be outside, swapping stories with other horse lovers.