Friday, February 25, 2022

Wild horse redemption

by Gregory Saville

One of the great things about living in Colorado is horses, especially free-roaming, wild American Mustangs. When we first arrived in Colorado, we spent four months living on a ranch with some friends who had a number of horses that we could ride and enjoy. They are remarkable creatures both frightening and magical. 

Step outside any city in Colorado and you’ll find horses on the land, in equestrian centers, and on farms. What do horses have to do with crime and prevention? Think of the Horse Whisperer, the story of how working with horses can help those afflicted by trauma.

In 1986 the State of Colorado Department of Corrections and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management established the Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program. The horse whisperer program provides jobs to prisoners who voluntarily agree to learn how to tame wild Mustang horses – a case of the rough-and-wild inmate meeting the tougher, wilder, and much more dangerous Mustang horse. Inmates go through hours of classroom learning and then spend up to three months with mentors helping to tame a wild horse. The story is beautifully told by the documentary film The Wild Horse Redemption


The Colorado program teaches inmates compassion, patience, and discipline.
Screenshot from The Wild Horse Redemption

Over the years, hundreds of inmates have been successfully released from prison following the program by learning skills in discipline, patience, and compassion. The program's success is well known among state correctional circles. 

This alternative style of rehabilitation, albeit within a prison system, is a step towards a different way to treat crime and justice. Alternative justice like this is even better when applied before entry into the formal system, in a community setting – the so-called restorative justice method. Otherwise, we only end up trying to rehabilitate people who have already become hardened to crime.



We cannot ignore the rehabilitation of offenders back into society as a part of neighborhood-building. We cannot build and maintain livable, safe communities unless we learn what to do with those who commit crimes. Eventually, almost all offenders end up back in society. 

As criminologist Todd Clear and I wrote years ago about a concept called community justice

“This alternative approach to public safety uses neighborhood problem-solving strategies to obtain better, longer-lasting results. It holds offenders responsible locally and then reintegrates them back into their communities… Society must look at new ways to reform the criminal justice system towards community justice and rebuilding our neighborhoods from within.”


There are better ways to reach out to our wayward citizens.
Screenshot from The Wild Horse Redemption 


I am excited to hear of the recent announcement by the City of Vancouver, Canada to become a city committed to restorative justice – A Restorative City.

My friend, criminologist Evelyn Zellerer is one of the many initiators of the idea and, as a powerful influencer in the restorative movement, Evelyn plays an enormously positive role in initiatives like this around the world (she also loves horses). 

SafeGrowth is a close cousin to community justice approaches like Restorative Cities. Such approaches teach us that we cannot build our way out of crime without re-building the trust lost through the actions of some of our wayward citizens. 

True, not all will respond. Many are lost in drugs, violence, trauma, and other ailments. They may need intensive and creative programs before rejoining us. But as we see from the Colorado horse whisperers, there are peaceful and productive paths back to us.