Mary Dye believes in the healing power of horses.
She believes they can teach people important lessons in life, help nudge them down a better path. She believes they can redeem lost souls.
Dye, a two-term Republican state representative, has been riding since she was a girl. She has eight horses on her farm near Pomeroy, and when she’s in Olympia for the legislative session she stays with a woman who does horse rescues.
It was there she learned about a U.S. Bureau of Land Management program that lets prison inmates work with wild horses.
Run in conjunction with state correctional systems, the Wild Horse Inmate Program helps reduce the number of horses on federal lands by teaching inmates to work with them — to “gentle” them and train them, so they get used to humans and can be put up for adoption by the general public.
As soon as she heard about the program, Dye knew she wanted to bring it to Washington.
“A universal theme (in the corrections system) is substance abuse problems, which lead people to do bad things in their lives. As a society, we need to figure out how to redirect that,” she said. “This (wild horse program) is an opportunity to change the way inmates think about their lives.”
Dye spent much of last year learning more about the program. She traveled to Arizona to talk with prison officials and inmates about how it works there, and to watch an adoption. She also met with Washington officials at the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center in Connell.
When the 2020 session begins Monday, she hopes to introduce legislation authorizing a more detailed feasibility study. She wants to know exactly what would be needed to implement the wild horse program in Washington, from land and facilities to water rights and budget.
The study “should give us a road map, to see if this is something we can move forward with next year,” Dye said.
In what would be a unique twist on the program, Dye also talked with Walla Walla Community College, which until this academic year offered a farrier program to teach people how to properly trim hooves and shoe a horse. She’d like to combine that with the wild horse program, so inmates not only learn how to work with horses, but how to shoe them and care for their hooves.
“It would give them a marketable skill,” she said.
Gerald Anhorn, acting vice president of Strategic Initiatives, Workforce and Operations at Walla Walla Community College, said there’s “tons of opportunity” for farriers around the country.
“It takes time to get established, but some tell me they can make as much as they want — up to and beyond six figures,” Anhorn said.
A number of private schools still offer 12- or 16-week farrier courses, he said, but most college programs were phased out years ago. WWCC started a two-year farrier program in the 1970s — which included a one-year internship — but ended it last year because of low enrollment.
“Some said we just didn’t market it enough,” Anhorn said. “This is the first fall we’ve gone without it, so the wounds are still pretty fresh.”
The college is certainly open to the possibility of resurrecting the program, he said. It already provides a variety of workforce training courses at Coyote Ridge and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, so expanding that to include farrier work wouldn’t be a big stretch.
However, “there’s a lot that goes into it,” Anhorn said. “You need enough horses moving through (the program) to justify it. And safety is a huge issue; one kick could kill someone, so there’s a lot of training that goes on before you ever pick up a hoof.”
Caleb Erickson can attest to the dangers of the profession. The 24-year-old Craigmont resident has been working as a farrier full time for five years and served as an apprentice before that.
“I usually make one trip to the emergency room every year,” Erickson said recently, while trimming hooves on several of Dye’s horses. “I’ve been bitten, kicked. I had one horse rear back and strike like a boxer. This year another one drove a loose nail into my kneecap. A good horse can hurt a guy; a bad horse can really tear you up.”
That’s one reason shoeing is so expensive. A 2017 online forum for the Chronicle of the Horse magazine indicated the national average price for trimming and shoeing a horse runs around $150 to $200. Erickson does about 70 horses a week.
“I was going for a degree in criminology and forensics, but they can’t pay me what I make doing this,” he said.
Farrier work starts with trimming and leveling the hooves. The aim is to have the “frog” — the triangular pad at the sole of the foot — come into contact with the ground, so it can help pump blood through the leg. Then the shoe is attached, making sure the nail goes into the dead part of the hoof.
Wild horses get by perfectly well without trimming or shoes, Erickson said, but that’s because they travel 20 miles a day and wear down the hoof naturally. They also don’t carry the added weight of a person, or need the extra traction a shoe can provide for a cutting horse or racehorse.
Although he uses a hoof jack to hold up the hoof, farrier work is still backbreaking work. Combined with injuries, that’s another reason the profession is so difficult.
“Thirty is old for a farrier,” Erickson said. “I’ve gone through three kids (as apprentices). They usually last about a day. It’s hard work.”
Anhorn said Walla Walla Community College hasn’t made any decision about creating an inmate farrier program, but it’s intrigued by the possibilities. He noted recidivism rates for inmates who participate in workforce training are substantially lower than for the prison population as a whole.
Dye recognizes many questions still need to be addressed before Washington state signs on with the Wild Horse Inmate Program, and before a farrier training component is added. That’s why she wants to start out with a feasibility study, to get everything on the table.
But she also sees this as an opportunity, a way to go beyond the punitive nature of prison and give people a second chance.
“That first touch of a wild horse is life-changing — both for the horse and for the person,” she said.
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