Learning to Walk

Working with horses and residents at a prison-alternative ranch.

  • A long time ago, the residents used to ride the horses. But as the accidents and injuries piled up, along with the mythic tales which accompanied them, the horses became much more than a liability. They were deadly.
    Photo by Moyan Brenn

I asked everyone to gather up and meet me over by the round pen. Earlier, we ran the horses out of the shop area, past the garden with the corn growing tall, and down through the 15 acres of pasture we keep for them in the middle of the property. Bucking and twisting, resisting and rearing, we eventually corralled them into the round pen—a recently built structure at the far end of the pastures. Today will be the first day we start working the horses. Twelve men and a few women assemble around me. Some are casually talking, while a few others are very quiet and watchful. There are still a number of them who struggle to hold their attention on any one thing too long. They gaze at the horses with a glazed and stagnant eye.

This ranch is their prison—all of them multiple offenders, felons. They refer to themselves, over and over again, as people who have done some very bad things. They live at the ranch now after hitting rock bottom; the ranch is here to save their lives. Period. Horses have always been part of the ranch. They live loosely with the residents on the property, which sits along the banks of the Rio Grande. By loosely, I mean they roam freely in the pastures, they gather in the automotive shop when it rains and snows, and in the woodshop when the flies get too bad. They forage through the ranch dumpsters for cookies, leftover baked goods, Wonder Bread. At night they are corralled into sizeable pens with shelter, water, and alfalfa hay. During the day they wander the entire property like giant gods who have dominion over all things: humans and horses coexisting in containment.

No one on the ranch knows much of anything about horses. They don’t know that Wonder Bread and Tastykakes are not good forage for an animal that has historically grazed on grasses, flowers, and tree bark for thousands of years. The horses run in packs like dogs chasing the residents when they bring the trash out from the cafeteria after meals. The residents gather in a tight circle next to the trash carriers. They carved wooden poles in their woodshop that they carry to fend off each attack. Residents have been bitten, had arms and wrists broken, been tripped and stepped on, and frightened out of their skin. Men and women, toughened by prison and living on the streets, run as fast as they can for safety when the horses begin their charge.

For me it was just another call. Another person or ranch asking me to help them with their horses. It’s my job, what I have done every day for the last 20 years. I hear many stories of how people are having trouble with their horses. I can hear the trouble in slow motion, see the footage shoot through my mind. There are a lot of things that go unsaid: the slightest movements, a flick of an ear, the corner of an eye, a shortening of breath—all of which when noticed could have averted the whole bad tale in the first place. But this call was different. Not once in my life had I heard of horses acting like this: scavenging, marauding war parties of horses. I didn’t think it could be true, and if it was I certainly needed to see it.

My first trip to the ranch was on a Sunday. The one day of the week the residents have off from a grueling work schedule. At the ranch, they have a livestock division. That means certain people are required to feed and care for the horses, ducks, dogs, and cats that live on the ranch. There are two heads of the livestock division and about twelve other members who split daily duties of caring for the animals. A long time ago, the residents used to ride the horses. But as the accidents and injuries piled up, along with the mythic tales that accompanied them, the horses became much more than a liability. They were deadly.

When I first came to the ranch, the livestock division was run by two women, Angie and Sarah. Angie was in her early 30s, a heroin addict for 15 years. She was in prison for a multitude of crimes, with the last term for robbing her mother’s house on the pueblo. Her mom turned her in, feeling certain that prison was the safest place for Angie to be. Sarah was 45; a mother of three, a meth and heroin addict, and a prostitute since she was 13. Sarah was emotionally volatile, a damaged woman trapped inside a strongly abused body. Angie and Sarah had caused a recent stir by claiming that the horses were not being treated properly by the other members of the livestock division, who were mostly all men.

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