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A California Program Uses Horses to Help Prisoners
Photo courtesy of Daniel Henson

In August, I stood in the dayroom at Valley State Prison, in central California, stunned by what I saw out the window.  

There were horses in the prison yard. The majestic animals were mingling with a few dozen prisoners. My gut turned over. I needed to be outside with the horses. 

I worked my way over to the area, where Denise Taylor was speaking to a group. 

“Horses have a 10-pound heart that emits an electromagnetic field 12 to 15 feet around them,” Taylor told the group. “Your heart will sync with the horse’s heart. Isn’t that cool?”

Every Tuesday, Taylor drives an hour from Circle T Ranch in Lemoore, Calif., to our prison. Depending on availability, she brings four horses, four of her ranch crew and her part-time herding dog, Trigger.

Photos courtesy of Daniel Henson

Taylor designed her program, “New Beginnings,” to be a seven-week interactive course. Participants learn how to handle a horse by completing various tasks, including saddling the horse.

On that day, I was drawn to a steed named High Voltage — the largest horse of the bunch. He stood at what must be 7-feet tall, from his hoofs to the tip of his ears. He was deep shades of brown and black, and well groomed.

High Voltage was trained in Europe to jump competitively, but when it came time to perform, he ran up to the jump and stopped. The rider kept going. The horse was sent to exile in America. 

I couldn’t help but think of us in prison, how I didn’t perform properly in society and was shipped off. Just like High Voltage, I was sent to a strange and distant land.

Next I met Tilly, a beautiful American Paint Horse held by Sara, who visits our prison with Circle T Ranch. As Tilly munched on food, Sara spoke to me. 

“A horse doesn’t care about your past,” Sara said. 

Her words shot right through my heart. 

“She only cares about how you treat her,” she said. “How you speak to her, how you lead her — that’s all a horse cares about.” 

I placed my arm around the magnificent animal. It may have been Sara’s words or High Voltage’s story or both, but a tear welled up in my eye. 

Paul Gonzalez is a part of Circle T Ranch. He worked for the prison system for 30 years. After retirement, Gonzalez still visits prisons to help men so they can have better prospects upon their release. He said he believes horses make a big difference in prisoners’ lives.

“They help with PTSD, and they help the men open up to allow love in and their feelings out,” Gonzalez said. 

Taylor was certified through O.K. Corral to operate the horse therapy program about three years ago. O.K. Corral offers seminars to help educate horse therapy professionals.

Now, in addition to people in prison, Taylor’s program helps survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as people with autism, cerebral palsy and addiction.

Taylor said she hopes the horses “help people heal.”

“Horses teach us body awareness,” she continued. “Run up to a horse and it will run away. Horses are a calming influence on all around them. They help people develop critical life skills like compassion, empathy, anger management and communication.”

Just then, I saw a corrections officer interacting with the horses and participants. I figured it would be safe to ask him his opinion.

“A guy who’s been locked away for 20 years might have never seen a horse,” he said. “A horse can make them realize there is more to life than just the neighborhood they are from and prison. It can expand their horizons.”

As the day was winding down, I took High Voltage for a walk. I gently grabbed the lead rope and headed off. A styrofoam cup I’d had in my back pocket fell to the ground with a faint “tink.”. High Voltage jumped at the sound. I grabbed the rope right under his bridle and spoke to him softly, reassuring him. I led him away from the danger. 

I had somehow earned High Voltage’s trust. I took that very seriously. It made me feel wonderful.

I was unaware, but Taylor had been watching me closely. 

“Isn’t it amazing, he is so big and yet so scared of a tiny cup?” she asked.

Before the day ended, I spoke to other people about the program. Jairo Quiroz said he never thought he’d see a horse in his life, much less in prison.

“When I first saw the horse, it was alien to me,” Quiroz said. “I totally forgot about prison and saw this animal in front of me. I felt surprised, excited. All I could think about was going up to it and touching it. When I did, I felt calm and happy.”

Kevin Harris stood still and watched the horses as they left. He learned to ride 20 years ago and fell in love with them. 

“It takes my mind off prison, being out here with these horses,” he said. “It’s relaxing and makes me realize how much I took horses for granted and life for granted.” 

Jose Rael sat on a bench next to the horse trailer. He said his bond with the horses makes him feel more connected to himself and gives him hope for the future. 

“I have a lot of anxiety and panic attacks. The horses help calm me,” he said. “It doesn’t feel real at times being out here. Knowing that next Tuesday I get to go see the horses and pet them makes my whole week. It’s all I look forward to.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Daniel Henson is a writer incarcerated in California.