In Florence, Arizona, a mile from the intersection of Butte Avenue and Route 79, are men and mustangs whose only sunlight visits through prison bars. The Arizona Corrections Industries (ACI) prison complex there houses roughly 3900 men while just across the road the Bureau of Land Management holding center keeps approximately 550 wild horses and 85 burros in federal care.
Between these incarcerated men and wild horses stands one 62 year-old ex-cop, fourth-generation Arizonan and lifelong cowboy named Randy Helm, program supervisor for the Arizona WHIP (Wild Horse Inmate Program).
Not a single one of the 50 inmates who have participated in WHIP and been released from prison have yet to return, reflecting a zero percent recidivism rate well below (per the Bureau of Justice Standards) a national average that reflects two-thirds of those released being re-arrested within three years.
And since WHIP started in April 2012, more than 150 ground- and/or saddle-broke horses and burros have been adopted annually. Many are trained trail horses for the U.S. Border Patrol, ideally suited to riding the line along the rough terrain of the Arizona-Mexico border.
“I didn’t realize then how much I was learning,” says Helm when he looks back on his first “paying job” at age 15 training horses, which soon included transitioning Thoroughbred ex-racehorses into new careers as working cow horses.
Taking on the tough challenges has always seemed to speak to the otherwise soft-spoken cowboy. After high school he was drafted for Vietnam, enlisted in the Air Force and entered AF Law Enforcement, and after his service, became a police officer working undercover narcotics. In 1994, he met his first mustang, a five year-old BLM mare: “There’s a great bonding element to gentling a wild horse. I was hooked.”
Helm found his way back to horses through TPORA (Texas Police Officers Rodeo Association) rodeos and was once ranked third in the state in Bull Riding. Choosing to earn a degree in Theology and stay with his department as police Chaplain after the loss of a close friend, he found solace in horses. “As a Chaplain, I was still training horses and respecting, more than ever, the process of how you have to calm yourself before you can relax a horse. Everything has to culminate to one focus, where all life’s ingredients come together.”
The ingredients to his worlds of law enforcement and horse training were also coming together. In 1999 the BLM invited him to lead a gentling clinic, with the goal of training 12-15 wild horses suitable for adoption by the end of a weekend. For the next dozen years, Helm led roughly six such clinics a year.
“I had the privilege,” he grinned, “of making mistakes in front of people. It was an honor and an education.”
Good horsemanship is about learning enough to understand how much more there is to know. He spent six weeks in 2011 with two of the most respected names in natural horsemanship – John and Josh Lyons – coming away from the experience a Lyons Legacy-certified trainer. When the BLM called again, inviting him to consult on a proposed wild horse program in partnership with Arizona corrections where idle inmates would work with unschooled mustangs, he was ready.
“The more I looked,” he said, “the more I liked. I didn’t want to just consult. I wanted to be involved.”
The result has been a win-win on all sides. “When WHIP started there wasn’t a single horse or pen. Everything was from the ground up. All the internal construction was by inmates. Many learned skills, like welding and landscaping, while constructing a holding facility for 1200 to 1500 animals, and pens seven-feet high (to meet BLM requirements). The department saw this as investing in infrastructure.”
Men and mustangs have also been able to invest in themselves. Too modest to allow himself to be called a role model, Helm’s empathy for the men in his program – which include those serving time for armed robbery, aggravated assault and second-degree murder – is very real.
“I’ve been told, ‘You’re the father I never had.’ Some of these men have never had a male role model to show them that this is how you do life.”
“I intentionally made the program racially diverse because the stereotypical cowboy hasn’t been black. I wanted everyone to get the same chance with the horses and to go back to the yard talking about how well they were treated. Leave politics in the yard. The horses build friendships yard politics can’t. Our job is to ride and encourage each other. We are one team.”
A team whose men have gone from absolutely no horse experience to using horses to change lives.
“One inmate, who is still incarcerated, had zero experience. Hadn’t so much as petted a horse before. Grew up in Los Angeles and maybe had a goldfish. He’s learned to handle mustangs so well that he’s one of my best trainers in the facility. Two others, who are out of prison, are managing a barn and a therapeutic riding program for veterans with PTSD, and the other is integrating his horse experience with a drug and alcohol rehab program. It’s rewarding to see these guys out there making a difference in their communities.”
A program about training horses has become training for life. Helm’s guidance often comes in the cowboy way: “After working with horses these guys’ world views and patterns have changed. They’re not likely to go back to jail because they learned that to change your behavior, change your herd.”
“That’s what makes BLM horses so good for this program because they want to be willing members of a herd. These horses come with a clean slate. They are looking for leadership. Some are so willing their progress goes almost too well, and you have to be careful not to take short cuts. We have to give a horse a good foundation first because the greatest enemy to becoming ‘best’ is ‘good enough.’”
For 2017 he hopes to see the program add a trainer, expand its wild burro program, accommodate a “big need” for more U.S. Border Patrol mounts, and continue discussion regarding an Arizona WHIP program for the state’s women’s prison. “I want to include women inmates. It’s a matter of getting infrastructure and other details ironed out.”
“If I had a wish, I’d like more horses coming into the program. Right now I have a waiting list of sheriff’s departments and other programs that want horses. I won’t send horses unless I’m confident they’re ready.”
What does he look for in a BLM candidate for WHIP?
“Conformation and disposition. A curious horse that wants to get closer will probably come along quicker. But one who shoves right up to be petted might be harder because they’re showing a lack of respect for your space that could translate into the round pen. I avoid really dominant and really strong horses after one big mare cleared a six-foot holding pen from a standstill. My dad always said to look for a ‘kind eye,’ and I still do.”
When a formerly wild horse leaves the program to start its new life, emotions run high “These guys get tearful when they have to say goodbye. Working with horses opens a capacity to love. So much of what we do with horses we can apply to communicating better with each other.”
“This program isn’t about making money but about breaking even while employing as many inmates as we can. If you learn to train horses, you can apply that work ethic to anything. These are horses and men who have learned together that, to get past what’s behind you, you’ve got to look at what’s in front of you.”
To learn more about the Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)working together with the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to offer the Arizona WHIP program, see www.aci.az.gov.