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Wyoming Prisoners Do Their Time Breaking Wild Horses

June 2, 1990

RIVERTON, Wyo. (AP) _ Prisoners in other states whittle away the hours stamping out license plates. Inmates in a Wyoming program do their time in the saddle - or trying to stay in the saddle - as they break wild horses.

Gary Starbuck, superintendent of the Wyoming Honor Farm, said the 2-year- old horse-breaking program molds inmates into more productive citizens than do prison cells.

″Some say they’ve got it too easy. It’s a country club. They want to see them do hard time,″ Starbuck said as he kept an eye on the bronco-busting recently at the sprawling, tree-studded corrections ranch.

″But what you end up with is someone bitter, probably harder on drugs than when he got there. That’s been the problem with corrections for 200 years. It’s punishment-oriented,″ he said.

The prison horse-breaking program is one of four in the United States, but the only one that breaks horses enough that they can be ridden, not just led by a halter. The horses then are offered for adoption by the public for $125 each.

The program is so popular among inmates that ″the first thing they want when they get here is boots and a cowboy hat,″ said honor farm staff supervisor Billy Eppler.

In Wyoming, one might presume there would be an abundance of incarcerated cowboys bucking for a chance to get back to their life’s work breaking horses. Not so. There is a shortage of qualified ranch hands in Wyoming, and most of the eight inmates now breaking horses knew nothing about the animals before they were convicted.

They learned fast.

″He kicked me in the head today,″ inmate Joe Trotter, a Chicago cabinetmaker convicted of a drug charge, said of Blade, one of the wild horses the Bureau of Land Management rounds up from Wyoming’s open ranges.

″It makes me all the more determined to ride him. It’s just a little bit dangerous. That’s all,″ he said.

″Ever since I was a little kid, I thought of being like a cowboy of the Old West. I’ve got it here,″ said inmate Jim Wiggins, who is doing time for burglary.

″I never picked up a horse’s foot before I got here. When I get out I want to keep working with horses.″

Each inmate in the program produces four to six rideable horses a month. The horse taming is one of several agriculture programs at the central Wyoming corrections farm. The other 100 or so inmates herd cattle and raise pigs or work in the dairy or butcher shop.

But the wild horse program is considered the most prestigious assignment among prisoners. It also is lauded by state corrections officials as a productive method of instilling a sense of accomplishment, self-confidence and pride.

″If they haven’t accomplished anything in their life, if they break a horse, that’s a real accomplishment,″ Eppler said.

The inmates, some serving time for rape and murder, are considered a low risk for escape from the minimum-security prison.

The only obstacle to freedom at the scenic ranch in the Wind River Basin is a split rail fence and a row of cottonwood trees.

Trotter believes he’s a better man for his newfound skill of breaking horses. But he can’t help but desire freedom.

″You get to thinking, sitting up there on my horse - the mountains are looking pretty good, I could just take off,″ he said.

″But it’s not like you can ride off into the sunset and forget about it. They’ll catch up to you. You might as well stay put.″

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