Oregon’s Hells Canyon and Eagle Cap Wilderness areas are some of the most rugged, wild land in the Lower 48. Home to the continent’s deepest gorge, the nearly 600,000-acres of federally designated wilderness is managed under the Wilderness Act of 1964, which means no cars, trucks, or motorized tools. To comply with that mandate, the Forest Service’s Eagle Cap Ranger District has always used horses and mules to pack in the heavy equipment necessary to build and maintain trails within the wilderness. But the herd is aging rapidly, and the budget for replacing the animals is small.
Enter the wild mustangs. For more than a decade, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has worked with inmates in the Nevada Department of Corrections to train these horses for adoption. This spring, managers of Hells Canyon and Eagle Cap Wilderness areas approached the BLM about using the mustangs on their trail crew. (The Wild Horse and Burro Act allows for exchange of horses between federal agencies.) Last spring, 11 mustangs joined the Eagle Cap Ranger District herd.
This summer, I visited the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, and then followed some of its horses into the Oregon backcountry.A herd of about 100 wild horses frequently gathers near the shores of Washoe Lake, just outside Carson City, Nevada. This is a particularly large herd due to its location in a lush habitat. The mustangs only real threats are starvation, thirst, and busy highways. (Car-on-horse accidents are common enough that the roads are marked with horse-crossing signs.)
The number of wild horses in the country is currently three times what the National Academy of Sciences considers sustainable, and their populations are growing 15 to 20 percent per year. Overgrazing is a serious threat to fragile desert ecosystems. As horses eat the native grasses, invasive ones like cheatgrass, which has no nutritional value for the animals, gain a foothold. The BLM’s task is to maintain the wild horse populations while protecting the ecosystems they live in.In 2002, the Stewart Conservation Camp built a 500-horse training facility adjacent to the 1,400-inmate Northern Nevada Correctional Center. “By utilizing inmate labor, expenses are lower for the BLM, and it provides a way for horses to be trained and put into public care,” says Justin Pope, supervisor of the program. “To date, over 1,000 horses have been adopted through the program.”“I don’t train horses. I train men,” says Hank Curry, while mending a worn saddle. Hank, a former cowboy and horse wrangler, is responsible for teaching the prisoners and horses how to respond to each other. “You have to develop those guys’ ability to follow instructions. These are life skills they’ll need to learn on the outside. It doesn’t always pertain to horse training.”Ken Parker, who’s serving a five-year sentence for drunk-driving offenses, had never touched a horse before he entered the program. He’s now one of its best trainers: some of his horses have sold at auction for more than $15,000. The training is only 120 days for each horse, and they are technically still “green broke,” or minimally trained, when they’re through.The mustang program has been an effective rehabilitation tool for the inmates, too. The recidivism rate of program participants is about half that of the general prison population. “The program keeps inmates from becoming mentally stagnant by allowing them to make decisions within their capacity while at work,” says Pope.Parker watches as one of the three mustangs he’s currently working with rolls off the sweat and stiffness from a day’s workout. “It’s not a prison out here. If you’re having a bad day in there, you come out here, and you can’t have a bad day out here,” says Parker. He already has two offers to work with horses when he gets out in a few months. He plans to adopt one of the mustangs.A horse prepares to have large pack saddles put on for the second time without a trainer grabbing its lead rope. Most of the horses will eventually come to the trainer with only a hand motion.What struck me most during my time documenting the training program was the patience, gentleness, compassion, and intuition the prisoners demonstrated toward the wild animals in their charge. You don’t “break” a wild mustang; you befriend it.Six hundred miles away, deep in the wilds of northeast Oregon, where there are no free-roaming horses, the mustang’s rehabilitation is in action. Here, John Hollenbeak, trail crew boss of the Eagle Cap Ranger District, leads a pack string below Sacajawea Peak, Oregon’s sixth-highest mountain. Hollenbeak, a longtime cowboy, logger, horse wrangler, and trail crew manager, is responsible for managing the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon Wilderness trail crew and pack herd.One of the mustangs’ early USFS missions was packing in tools and supplies for a work group from the Arizona-based Wilderness Volunteers. With just five employees on the 2016 trail crew responsible for more than a half-million acres of wilderness, volunteer groups are essential.
The horses are perfectly suited to the new job, navigating rugged, dangerous terrain. "By the fifth day of having them out there, you couldn't tell they were green,” says Hollenbeak. “A lot of these animals don’t spook at rocks and trees like some of our seasoned stock will.”Forest Service managers aren’t the only ones using mustangs in Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains. Local backcountry outfitter Del Sol Wilderness Adventures has been utilizing the animals for years. “I prefer mustangs over any other horse for mounted work in the backcountry,” says Jordan Manley, one of Del Sol’s wranglers. “Their feral history makes them well-suited for rugged terrain, and they are really good at keeping themselves out of trouble. They have tough feet and strong backs and are good with cattle.”Curt Booher, supervisor of the Recreation Department of the Eagle Cap Ranger District, says the initial goal was to cut costs. “Looking at the situation now, I don’t think we could have found better partners or stock opportunities, regardless of cost.”Eagerness to cooperate aside, they are still wild mustangs. “I watched the mustangs kick and bite each other, jump fences as tall as me, nearly stampede my co-worker as she fed them, and pull my boss several feet off the ground by the halter,” says crew member Duncan Galvin. “Yet every time we rode into the wilderness, a calmness seemed to set over them. To me, they acted right at home.”
For now, the mustangs have been put out to winter pasture on Forest Service land. “I think we've got the start of a great relationship with the BLM folks, and I've got a lot of confidence in the Horse Training Program,” says Hollenbeak. “I think next year we'll probably pick up a couple more."