Tens of thousands of wild horses roam the sagebrush-speckled range of Nevada, untouched by humans.
So it takes some courage — and a lot of patience — to finally put a saddle on one of those untamed horses and jump aboard.
“Nothing's more nerve-wracking than throwing your leg over the saddle for the first time,” said Michael Gotschall. “They generally trust you, but you really don't know what they're going to do.”
Gotschall, 45, is a minimum security inmate serving a sentence at the Stewart Conservation Camp in Carson City. But he’s also a horse trainer, spending eight-hour days on a fully functional prison ranch trying to domesticate animals that the Bureau of Land Management has rounded up from the wild.
His work with the 5-year-old, espresso-colored gelding Bocephus — named after the nickname of country legend Hank Williams Jr. — will be put to the test on Saturday. That’s when the public is invited to the ranch to bid on 15 different horses and a burro named Crystal.
Horses saddle-trained at the prison can go for a few hundred dollars but have been sold for as much as $15,000. The inmate trainers say they’re a bit nervous to see how their horses will handle the crowds and show off their skills; there’s some competition among the trainers on whose will fetch the most money.
Hank Curry, the cowboy hat-wearing rancher who teaches the inmates how to train their horses, said the experience is a reality check for the inmates. Some have never held a steady job but are learning day by day to set goals and take pride in their fruits of their labor.
“The auction is a real barometer, I guess you'd say, for how well you got your horse to train, how high they sell and how the people [respond],” Curry said. “It's kind of like taking your kid to school and he does well at school.”
In an effort to maintain the feral horse population at set levels, the BLM conducts periodic roundups of wild horses. Hundreds of them end up at the prison ranch, where most are held in corrals, cared for and sometimes adopted, but not trained.
Curry picks out a few select horses that will be trained each cycle. He looks for diversity in appearance and size, not just which animal looks most compliant.
The inmates — most of whom grew up in cities and have never ridden a horse — start the process by simply getting in the pen with their horse and getting the animal accustomed to their presence.
“It really takes a long time to get their trust,” said trainer Trevor Nau, 32. “It really takes a lot of time just working with them, just walking around in the pens with them. Calming them down so they won't run away from you.”
Eventually, the horses allow their trainers to put a bridle on.
“It was for sure a process,” said Juan Sanchez, 28, about his horse Gator. “He was scared of the pad. Everything is new to them, being mustangs.”
From there, the trainers try to help their animals learn how to go left or right based on the direction of the bridle. And then the saddle goes on — a step often met with bucking.
Curry draws on his years of experience to decide when the inmates should try to get into the saddle.
“It's scary for us, it's scary for the horse,” said Austin Miller, 24. “I love it. It's terrifying though. It's a great feeling once you got him calmed down.”
Inmates have watched the horses buck off their riders; they wear helmets and try to give the animals a wide berth to avoid injury.
Miller said he’s come to sympathize with the behavior of his horse, a gray animal named Gandolf, especially in light of the trauma the horses experience through the process of being rounded up. The controversial practice can involve low-flying helicopters to herd the horses.
“It's got to be traumatizing, and then breaking down those barriers,” Miller said. “It's really hard building that relationship with them. It's really rewarding to finally get them over that trust issue they have with people. It's really great to see that progression.”
On Tuesday, the inmates and their horses showed off skills honed through hundreds of hours of work to guests and members of the media. They filed into a covered arena in a procession with the leaders triumphantly carrying American and Nevada state flags.
They galloped to a country song. They circled in tight formation, and they stood calm and still in a line. After their choreographed routine, the horses take turns stepping on and off a circular wooden pedestal and crossing their feet in a grapevine-style dance step.
This is preparation for the auction Saturday, when guests from Nevada and beyond will come to bid on their favorites.
Some of the horses trained through the program — which has inspired a recent film shot at the Nevada State Prison — have gone on to work for military honor guards, at the Marine Corps’ cold weather training camp in the Sierras or for the police. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, for example, uses the services of a prison-trained wild horse named Suja to do crowd control at events including Reno’s upcoming Zombie Crawl.
Sanchez said he knows Gator will be going to a good home, but the thought of the forthcoming auction has him a bit emotional. He’s forged a bond with a horse that was initially shy and rebellious; they’ve both tasted freedom within the confines of the prison camp through rides on a short trail and by chasing coyotes in the pastures.
“In my case, I feel like he's taught me a lot of patience because they don't know what we want from them. It's not like we can really communicate other than body language,” Sanchez said. “So he's taught me a lot about patience, how to see things from different perspectives and just to see life differently.”