US Border Patrol recruits: Wild horses, tamed by prisoners

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Prisoners training horses to be used by US Border Patrol
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Prisoners training horses to be used by US Border Patrol
A full moon rises behind U.S. Border Patrol agent Josh Gehrich as he sits atop a hill while on patrol near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A sign stands on a private property near the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback head out on patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
People in Mexico wave at U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego, California, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback patrol along a beach just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A U.S. Border Patrol agent from Boulevard Station looks out over the U.S.-Mexico border as he patrols in the hills near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. border patrol agent Katherine Griffith looks out from atop her horse while out on patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol agents from Boulevard Station look out over a ridge after sunset near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Benjamin Ditges sits on his horse as he patrols the U.S.-Mexico border near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
U.S. Border Patrol supervisor Bobby Stine drives a car as he catches up with his horse patrol near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle drives along the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol supervisor Bobby Stine looks out over his station's patrol area atop a hill near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A wild mustang border patrol horse, named Boss, chews on the latch of a government transport trailer before going out with U.S. Border Patrol agents on patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, U.S November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol horse goes for a run during an off-patrol day at their station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol agents prepare their horses for patrol at their station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A farrier applies a new horseshoe to a U.S. border patrol horse at their station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
U.S. Border Patrol horses Hollywood (L) and Apache roll in the dirt at their patrol station in Boulevard, California, U.S November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Program manager Randy Helm looks over the names of horses being trained as part of the the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Pictures of horses hang on a wall at the U.S. border patrol station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An inmate trains a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Randy Helm rides a horse, while inmate Gabriel Curtis gestures, as they train a horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An inmate rides a wild horse over an obstacle course as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Inmates tend to horses as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The view shows Wah Wah Valley where wild horses were herded during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
A temporary corral is seen in the Wah Wah Valley where wild horses were sorted after being herded during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
A wild horse is herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
An inmate's saddle and helmet sit on a fence inside Florence State Prison at the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A wild horse attempts to escape being herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
An inmate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Wild horses are herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Wild horses attempt to escape being herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
The trap corral is seen in the Wah Wah Valley where wild horses were herded during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
An inmate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program ( WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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FLORENCE, Arizona, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Long before the desert sun has had a chance to heat the dusty prison yard, some 20 inmates at an Arizona state prison begin quietly tending horses.

The men - many with violent histories - gently maneuver bits into the mouths of mustangs still unaccustomed to human touch; they remove caked mud from hooves and tighten girths against bulging bellies. And the horses, which just weeks ago roamed free, mostly comply with what is asked of them.

SEE ALSO: Denver police horse euthanized after being tied up 16 hours; officer docked vacation day

Both the men and the horses are still learning how to live behind fences.

Prisoners participating in the Wild Horse Inmate Program train mustangs that will eventually be adopted by the U.S. Border Patrol, providing the agency with inexpensive but agile horses, and inmates with skills and insights they hope to one day carry with them from prison.

For Brian Tierce, 49, who has served about five years of his seven-year sentence for domestic violence and assault, the horses have taught him "a lot of things I didn't know I had in me - patience, perseverance, kindness, understanding."

"I've got to be a compromising person, otherwise I'll never get this job done."

At least 80 percent of the U.S. Border Patrol's current stable of 400 horses come from inmate training programs in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Nevada. The horses are critical for patrolling the rugged and remote stretches of the Mexican border to detect illegal crossings by migrants and drug trafficking.

And, at $500 to $800 for a saddle-ready horse, the price is right.

Some 55,000 mustangs roam the Western U.S., more than double the number public land can support, said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jason Lutterman. Those that do not end up in adoption programs face an uncertain future.

'GENTLE' THE HORSES

At the prison in Florence, a cactus-dotted town about 140 miles north (225 km) of the Mexican border, participating prisoners round up their horses before dawn and work all day under the watchful eyes of Randy Helm, the third-generation rancher, former narcotics officer and self-proclaimed "cowboy preacher" who supervises the program.

Over the course of four to six months, the men train their horses - with names like Billy, Rocky and Patches - to tolerate bridles and saddles, respond to commands to trot and canter and perform footwork that will come in handy on the uneven desert terrain along the border.

Helm, 62, teaches the men not to "break" the horses, but to "gentle" them. The method relies on incremental steps and rewarding the horses for good behavior. Any inmate that raises a hand to a horse gets booted from the program.

"It's more working on us than on them," said Rick Kline, 32, who has served five years of a seven and a half year sentence for stealing cars. "It's a new understanding of calming down."

He hopes to apply that skill of staying calm to parenting his two kids when he gets out of prison.

Bret Karakey, 35, who is in prison for identity theft, recently broke his hip when he was thrown from a horse. But he came back without hesitation.

"I kind of need this," he said.

Most prisoners who apply for the program don't have experience with horses, and Helm prefers it that way. They tend to be gentler with the animals.

Florence began its horse training program in 2012, and while it is too early to assess the long-term effects on participating inmates, of the 50 or so who have gone through it and been released, none has returned to prison, Helm said. The national recidivism rate is about 68 percent within three years of release.

Helm says he sees real transformations in inmates who stay with the program.

"A lot of them haven't really bonded with a person, let alone an animal," he said. "It's been really interesting to observe these guys' lives change."

30 PHOTOS
Where the wall already exists along the US-Mexico border
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Where the wall already exists along the US-Mexico border
A gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence is seen outside Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
U.S. customs and border patrol officers inspect a vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
U.S. customs and border patrol officers inspect a vehicle entering the U.S. from Mexico at the border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Men talk on a street in the town of Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A U.S. customs and border patrol officer stands at a border crossing in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Recent arrivals from Mexico wait to board a greyhound bus in San Ysidro, California, United States, October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Highway 82 towards Douglas, Arizona is seen near Sonoita, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Clouds float above the border towns of Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A sign warning drivers that firearms and ammunition are prohibited in Mexico is seen at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Buildings in Nogales, Mexico (R) are separated by a border fence from Nogales, Arizona, United Sates, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An abandoned car sits off the side of a road near Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A worker makes his way through the water after setting up an irrigation system on an agricultural field, near Calexico, California, U.S. October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An abandoned car sits off the side of a road near Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A church at the Museum of History in Granite is seen in Felicity, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A man drives a tractor plowing a field at sunrise near Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
Residential homes are seen next to the fence that borders Mexico, in Douglas, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Pedestrians wait to cross the street in Calexico, California, Unites States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
The town of Bisbee is seen in Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Pedestrians make their way into the the United States from Mexico at the pedestrian border in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A roadside collection of alien dolls and toy UFO saucers is seen next to a roadside residence neat Jacumba, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A road abruptly ends next to a sign for a cattle ranch near Douglas, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A boy rides an all-terrain vehicle next Mexican border along the Buttercup San Dunes in California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
An old refurbished gas station is seen in Lowell, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A man rides a tricycle past a grocery store in a town that borders Mexico, in San Luis Butter, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A U.S. customs and border patrol truck drives past the fence that marks the border between U.S. and Mexico, in Calexico, California, United States, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
A truck drives west towards California along highway 8 near Gila Bend, Arizona, United States, October 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Electronic items are displayed in a shop window in Calexico, California, United States, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A residential home is seen in Nogales, Arizona, United States, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 
A fence separates the border towns of Nogales, Mexico (R) and Nogales, Arizona, United Sates, October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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SURE-FOOTED, SPRY ON PATROL

U.S. Border Patrol adoptions are key to the government's effort to stem the nation's growing population of mustangs. A federal law passed in 1971 tasked the Bureau of Land Management with managing wild horse and burro populations in the American West, both to protect the animals and to ensure that vegetation was not overgrazed and water sources depleted.

But with the soaring cost of hay and dwindling public interest in horse ownership, the BLM can place only about 2,000 into adoption each year, severely limiting the number it can capture from the open desert and plains, Lutterman said.

Fifteen years ago, the BLM was rounding up more than 10,000 mustangs and putting about 6,000 into new homes each year.

Border Patrol is the biggest single purchaser of mustangs from the inmate programs.

On horseback, the agents can navigate desolate stretches land that vehicles cannot. The mustangs are sure-footed on steep terrain, crossing creekbeds without hesitation and stepping spryly over rattlesnakes.

"It really feels like the Wild West out where we patrol for sure," said Bobby Stine, supervisory agent of the San Diego Sector Horse Patrol Unit. "There's just not a lot of law enforcement presence, except for us."

The border is an unforgiving place; just 654 miles of fence exist between the United States and Mexico, accounting for about a third of the border. The rest is defined by mountains, rivers, private ranches and wild country - terrain more suited for horses, which all agents had back when Border Patrol was founded in 1924.

21 PHOTOS
Life along Mexico's border with the United States
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Life along Mexico's border with the United States
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: A digger removes sand drifts from the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 28, 2016 in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation center, California. Without daily removal of the sand, the dunes would cover the fence and undocumented immigrants and smugglers could simply walk over it. The border stretches almost 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. Border security and immigration issues have become major issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People meet loved ones through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: Haitian refugees look over donated items at an immigrant center on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. In recent months a surge of Haitian refugees has arrived to Tijuana, seeking asylum at the border crossing into the United States. The center, called the Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava, serves breakfast to more than 1,000 immigrants daily, many of them deportees from the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: A digger removes sand drifts along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 28, 2016 in the Imperial Sand Dunes recreation center, California. Without daily removal of the sand, the dunes would cover the fence and undocumented immigrants and smugglers could simply walk over it. The border stretches almost 2,000 miles between Mexico and the United States. Border security and immigration issues have become major issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: Immigrants, many of them deportees from the United States, eat breakfast at a soup kitchen on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The center, called the Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava, is run by a Catholic order of priests and feeds more than than 1,000 immigrants each morning. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 24: People stand in line to cross legally into the United States from Mexico on September 24, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Securing the border and controlling illegal immigration have become key issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A couple holds hands while meeting loved ones through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence which ends in the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Mexicans enjoy a late afternoon near the U.S.-Mexico border fence which ends in the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park, located on the border between the two countries is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A child plays in the Pacific surf near the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The nearby Friendship Park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Immigrant activists pray at the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side in San Diego on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Maria Rodriguez Torres, 70, embraces a grandchild after seeing her other grandchildren for the first time through the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. She had traveled with family members from Mexico City to see her grandchildren through the fence at 'Friendship Park.' The U.S. Border Patrol opens the park on the American side on weekends to meet through the fence with family and friends through the fence at Tijuana. The park is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: Residents line up to receive free food at mobile food pantry near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 26, 2016 in Jacamba Hot Springs, California. The Feeding America truck delivers to the border town's needy residents twice a month. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, CA - SEPTEMBER 26: A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle stands guard along the U.S.-Mexico border fence on September 26, 2016 in Jacamba Hot Springs, California. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
JACAMBA HOT SPRINGS, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 26: A cardboard cutout of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is on display at a debate-watching party for supporters of Hillary Clinton at the Yum Yum Chinese restaurant near the U.S.-Mexico border on September 26, 2016 in Calexico, California. People across the country tuned in as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton participated in their first debate. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: Mexican farm workers hoe a cabbage field on September 27, 2016 Holtville, California. Thousands of Mexican seasonal workers legally cross the border daily from Mexicali, Mexico to work the fields of Imperial Valley, California, some of the most productive farmland in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: A A Mexican farm worker plows a U.S. farm on September 27, 2016 in Holtville, California. Thousands of Mexican seasonal workers legally cross the border daily from Mexicali, Mexico to work the fields of Imperial Valley, California, some of the most productive farmland in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HOLTVILLE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: A marker stands over an immigrant's grave on September 27, 2016 in Holtville, California. Hundreds of immigrants, many who died while crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States, are buried in a pauper's cemetery. Many of the grave markers simply read 'John Doe.' (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
TIJUANA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A man looks through the U.S.-Mexico border fence into the United States on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park on the border is one of the few places on the 2,000-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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The San Diego border patrol unit has 28 horses, and the Tucson unit more than 130. Fifteen horses from the Florence prison were adopted in 2014 and 2015.

The task of the Florence inmates who train the horses is, at times, thick with irony: Some are Mexican nationals, apprehended on the border for drug-related offenses.

The inmates, though, say they don't mind that the horses help law enforcement. They are simply happy the animals no longer face thirst and starvation in the drought-stricken West.

"All the 'inmates against cops' stuff - that's not true," said Kline. "They're just doing their job. And we're doing our job. These horses depend on us."

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