Rep. Mary Dye: Wild Horse Inmate Program could offer hope for Washington inmates

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My first love of horses came at the age of 13 when we bought “Peanuts,” a quarter horse bay for $250 and he became my long-lasting friend.

I learned how magnificent these animals are. It takes time to gain their trust before they let you into their lives. Peanuts could sense my emotions. If I was having a difficult day, he knew and was careful around me. I learned something every day from this beautiful animal. Most importantly, he taught me to be calm in spirit. It was difficult to lose this friend when he died in 1993. Through Peanuts, I gained an appreciation of horses. Today, we have eight on our farm.

Last year, I learned of a unique program involving wild horses and inmates in Arizona. The Arizona Department of Corrections' Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) lets prison inmates work with wild horses and tame them for adoption. I was intrigued by the concept and decided to see for myself how it works. Last fall, I toured the Florence, Arizona prison and met with the program supervisor, Randy Helm, — a cowboy, a certified horse trainer and a former police officer.

From bare land, Randy was able to create a training facility with a holding center, where more than 900 wild horses and 85 burros are cared for. He began training inmates on how to “gentle” a horse. Up to 72 wild horses are gentled at any one time. The inmates learn about the care and treatment of animals, while building self-confidence. They learn the value of patience, warmth and respect for all living things. Just as important, they learn employable skills that can be used upon release.

While building this program, Randy also discovered that while the animals transition from wild to willing, the inmate in a very natural way learns anger control, delayed gratification and the importance of process that helps that person be successful and develop an entirely different worldview. He reminded me what I knew from my experience with Peanuts. Horses are healing, therapeutic, and they touch you spiritually deep within your soul.

Of the inmates who have participated in the program, only four (about 15 percent) have returned to prison, compared with the state's 40 percent recidivism rate. They have become better husbands, better fathers, and as they have gentled the horses, so have they become gentle.

Such an impressive program! Why can't we do the same in Washington state? Upon return, I reached out to the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center in Connell. The center already works with Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) in several vocational programs.

Since 1974, WWCC has offered a program to train students how to become farriers who specialize in taking care of horse hooves, including shoeing the horses. However, the program was discontinued last June because of low enrollment. I also spoke with college officials about combining their program with inmates at Coyote Ridge. Both these entities are interested in becoming involved in a Wild Horse Inmate Program here in Washington state.

Creation of such a program must be carried out thoughtfully. There are still many questions that must be addressed. That's why I introduced House Bill 2579. The measure would have the Washington Department of Corrections conduct a feasibility study and develop an implementation plan for a wild horse training, holding and farrier program at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center. The report would be completed and submitted to the Legislature by Nov. 1, 2020.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously, and is now on its way to the governor for his signature.

Arizona has shown that this program can have amazing results. As I learned from my own Peanuts, horses can have a lasting impact on people. Let's bring this program to Washington and give inmates a chance to improve their self-image, confidence and patience, empathy, employable skills, and finally, hope as they connect with these amazing animals.

Editor's note: Rep. Mary Dye represents Washington's 9th Legislative District. She and her husband, Roger, operate a 3,000-acre wheat farm near Pomeroy and care for eight horses.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000