Mustangs, inmates thrive at Arizona State Prison

Wild horses at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona.
Wild horses at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona.

This excerpt is from Alan Day’s new book The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs. A life-long cowboy, Day established the first government-sponsored sanctuary for unadoptable wild horses. He developed and successfully used a herd modification-training program for his 2000 head of cattle and 1500 wild mustangs.


The horse corrals and puddles from the recent rain could have been on any southwestern ranch. But the handful of men pitching hay weren’t wearing cowboy hats or boots or chaps. They wore bright orange jumpsuits, the uniform required of prisoners at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona, where I just arrived having driven an hour from Tucson. The horses in the corrals weren’t just any ranch horses. They were government-owned wild mustangs, and I had come to pay them a visit.

I took a last sip of cold coffee and hopped out of the pickup. A vehicle hurrying up the road turned into the parking lot and pulled in next to me.

The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs
by H Alan Day; with Lynn Wiese Sneyd. Foreword by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
Available from Amazon RRP$US20.31 or as a Kindle ebook for $US12.99
260pp, Bison Books, February 2014
ISBN 0803253354; ASIN B00HS993WC

“Nice to see you again, Al,” said Randy Helm, settling a Stetson on his head and extending a hand. Randy supervises the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) started in 2013. When the program was in the talking stages, he had called on me for input on the design of the corrals. He had heard about the wild horse sanctuary that I had created on my South Dakota where I had managed 1500 wild mustangs for four years. That endeavor had required quite a bit of corral redesign and rebuilding. Born and raised on an Arizona ranch, Randy is a cowboy deluxe, a horse whisperer with extensive experience in law enforcement, including that of chaplain.

We crunched across the gravel toward the corrals. A forklift was parked by a pile of long metal tubing that eventually would be used to build more corrals.

“Right now we have 400 horses, but eventually we hope to get that number closer to 2000,” said Randy. “We also have a couple hundred burros.”

I knew from my experience managing Mustang Meadows ranch wild horse sanctuary, that the Bureau of Land Management removes the horses from federal lands when the animals start overpopulating. The horses remain in BLM holding pens around the country either for life or until they are put up for adoption and sold. Randy indicated that many of these horses were shipped from Nevada.

We headed toward a motorized cart. “Hey Justin,” said Randy to a bald-headed inmate who looked to be in his thirties. “How’s that new group doing? Is that mare still being friendly to you?”

“They’re doing real good, Mr. Helm. She came up right close to me this morning.”

“Nice job. Maybe she’ll be one we can saddle up soon.”

Justin grinned.

Randy Helm with the mustangs. © Lynn Wiese Sneyd
Randy Helm, who supervises the Wild Horse Inmate Program at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona. © Lynn Wiese Sneyd

Another prison approached. “Mr. Helm, sir, if you need any extra help over Easter, I’d be glad to come out here.” Randy said he appreciated the offer and would keep him in mind. We climbed in the cart and headed along the outside of the corrals.

“If you treat them with respect, they respect you,” said Randy, perhaps referring to both man and beast.

In order for an inmate to work with the horses, he must be held in minimum security, which means he has less than five years to serve on a sentence, and pass a lengthy interview with Randy. Twenty inmates currently work with the horses and the waiting list for WHIP jobs is quite long. The program seeks to build the men’s self-confidence, patience, respect for living things and sense of purpose, as well as provide them with skills they can use upon release. The BLM benefits too. Prisoners gentle and train the horses that are then sold to the public at a reasonable price.

Randy stopped the cart near horses poking their noses between the corral tubes. As we started to get out, they jumped back almost in unison, snorts and grunts reverberating. They were a fairly handsome, healthy looking bunch. A palomino, couple of blue roans, and some darker, chestnut colored horses. They jostled against each other, then realizing we did not pose a threat, returned their nose to the feed.

Randy explained that the state also grows feed for the horses – alfalfa and sudan grass on 800 acres of farmland near the prison.

We toured the rest of the grounds. Two inmates were saddling horses preparing to ride them around an obstacle course. In a small corral, an inmate brushed the feet of bay with a soft rope, getting her accustomed to being touched. Yet another inmate led burros around the corrals. He had given each of them a biblical name. These were activities common to many a working ranch, but this “ranch” was unique – it was part of a prison system.

By the time I climbed back in my pick-up, the sun sat high in the bright blue sky and the puddles in the corral had begun to dry. The men in their orange jumpsuits were engaged with the horses or busy working on the corrals. A healthy, good feeling pervaded.

I drove out the lot and down the road for a mile, followed its curve, then passed the main prison buildings painted in a grey-blue and surrounded by yards and yards of heavy razor wire. Bodies in bright orange jumpsuits milled around or sat in front of rounded huts.

I don’t know how many prisoners are in this country, but upwards of 40,000 wild horses are in government holding pens that are like prison for mustangs. The only difference between human and equine prisoners is that the mustangs haven’t committed any crime. Randy had said that he received inquiries about WHIP from other correctional facilities in the West. I drove out of Florence with the hope they follow his lead and offer this same opportunity to men who are trying to better their lives and animals trying to get back theirs.

Follow the tour
Follow the tour

alan-dayAlan Day’s upbringing branded him a cowboy from the day he was born. He was part of the third generation to grow up on the 200,000-acre Lazy B cattle ranch straddling the high deserts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The ranching and cowboy lifestyle appealed to him so greatly that after graduating from the University of Arizona, he returned to manage Lazy B for the next 40 years. During his career, he received numerous awards for his dedicated stewardship of the land.  In the 1980s, Alan purchased a cattle ranch in Nebraska and soon after, a ranch in South Dakota. The latter became the first government-sponsored sanctuary for unadoptable wild horses. He developed and successfully used a herd modification-training program for his 2000 head of cattle and 1500 wild mustangs. 

Alan and his sister, Sandra Day O’Connor, co-authored the New York Times bestselling memoir, Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, which chronicles the story of the Day family and growing up on a harsh yet beautiful southwestern ranch. Alan is a member of Western Writers of America. Now retired, he divides his time between Tucson and Pinetop, AZ.

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