ALAMO, Texas — Three mustangs stand at the edge of a cabbage field just after nightfall, poised to run. Their riders, all Border Patrol agents, have received word that a group of migrants are trekking across a levee that runs alongside the Rio Grande.
It is difficult to see much aside from the blinking red sensors in the far distance. Except for the cries of killdeer that carry over the farmland in this rural part of the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest sector of the U.S.-Mexico border is quiet.
Suddenly, the radio chirps and the horses lurch forward. They streak across the field until they reach a dirt road, where two young men kneel, their hands up.
Twenty and 30 years old, the men unpack their meager belongings — a strawberry soda, an MP3 player wrapped tightly in a plastic bag — and peel off the life preservers they used to swim across the river.
The 20-year-old stands beside the horse, and as an agent takes down his information, he explains why he left Rio Bravo, Mexico. "We have no future where we're from," he says.
Were it not for the MP3 player, a similar scene could have played out 92 years ago, when agents on horseback formed the ranks of the newly created U.S. Border Patrol. Despite the rise of high-tech tools like drones and infrared sensors, horses have once again become a key tool in border enforcement.
But the herd that the Border Patrol uses to police the borders isn't made up of just any breed. Many of the mounts are wild horses, also known as mustangs, culled from the hardscrabble rangelands of the American West. And in an ironic twist, the wild horses-turned-law-enforcement agents are trained by an unlikely group: prisoners.
"Here is an opportunity to give something back to somebody who has either fallen on hard times or certainly found themselves in the crosshairs of the law," said Raul Ortiz, deputy chief patrol agent of the Rio Grande Valley Sector, where a herd of about 40 horses, with 30 riders, made approximately 8,000 apprehensions last year. "It's not just a tool for us to use out there in the field. It's got bigger implications for the organization and for the country."
The unique program is part of a multi-million-dollar industry, where the captive labor of prisoners produces products from farmed tilapia to body armor. It is the result of a partnership between the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Land Management, and state correctional agencies from Colorado to Arizona. But rather than profit, the program was conceived as a way to humanely manage wild horse herds.
In addition to selling trained horses to the Border Patrol, prisoners also train horses for private adoption. The BLM estimates over 58,000 wild horses and burros roam public land from Nevada to Oregon, their lineage a mix of Spanish stock and domestic breeds. The federally protected herds remain a national treasure, a symbol of our wild past, but their numbers have to be carefully managed, as population growth has outpaced the ability of public rangeland to support herds.
The program wasn't necessarily conceived as a way to rehabilitate prisoners, said Randy Helm, the wild horse and burro inmate program supervisor for the Arizona Department of Corrections. But the nature of horsemanship, and of the wild horses themselves inevitably changes the lives of many prisoners who come through the program.
"Some of them come in with situations in life where I think they can connect a little more to where that horse is," Helm said. "That horse has to learn to adapt to an environment to be successful. That horse has to learn to deal with its past. The horse has to learn to deal with its fear….I'll try to emphasize to the guys out here, if you fail to learn from these horses, you're missing a great opportunity, because they can teach us a lot about ourselves."
As the dust settles in the shadow of concertina wire, Brian Tierce, 48, slowly brushes his palm down the neck of Justice, a colt born in the stables at Florence State Prison, in Florence, Arizona, about an hour and a half north of Tucson. Lanky and skittish, Justice doesn't quite yet trust Tierce, who is serving a seven-year sentence for aggravated assault. From drug possession to theft, Tierce has spent a cumulative 23 years behind bars.
But just as Justice will eventually learn to trust him, Tierce has learned, finally, that he's good at something. "This is my silver lining," Tierce said. "I'm really good at this."
Like many of the prisoners in the program, Tierce's addiction to drugs -- methamphetamine in particular - led to a seemingly unbreakable cycle of incarceration. In 2011, he was convicted of assault after choking his girlfriend during a fight.
Before he entered the program at Florence, he thought, "I'm going to be 50 years and four months when I get out this time. You know, it's like, 'Where do I go? What do I do?' I'm not skilled at anything except getting high."
But working with the horses gave him some faith, he said, and he became one of Helm's best trainers. "When I got locked up I had no belief in myself," he said. "I didn't think I could even go fill out an application to get a job…Now I actually have belief that when I get out of here, I can accomplish whatever I want to as long as I put the effort into it."
As Tierce ties Justice to a fence post to be groomed, men in orange jumpsuits work with the horses in pens and on obstacle courses, kicking up dust and, sometimes, tumbling into it. Prisoners working with more advanced horses toss water bottles and other objects their way, intentionally trying to spook them in order to replicate what the animals will experience in the field with the Border Patrol.
At least four other correctional agencies, including the Colorado and Nevada state corrections departments, have wild horse training programs. The first program began in Colorado about 30 years ago, while Arizona launched its program in 2012. Prisoners train and gentle hundreds of mustangs a year.
Supervising some 40 prisoners and more than 500 trained and still-wild horses is Helm, 61, a soft-spoken cowboy who took a few diversions in life. He served as an undercover narcotics officer in Texas, then became a chaplain, then went back to his ranching roots when he adopted a wild horse and became fascinated with the process of training. He began to devote his time to mastering the art of training wild horses, eventually running clinics at so-called "cowboy churches" and other events, and working with both horse and human victims of abuse.
He describes the methods he teaches not as horse whispering, but "natural horsemanship," or "low-resistance" training. A long way from the old ways of "breaking" a horse, Helm teaches prisoners to work with the nature of the horse, rather than against it.
"What you're really doing is you're creating an atmosphere where the horse starts identifying you with peace," Helm said.
The wild horse is particularly suited for border enforcement, agents say. While horses were essential to the Border Patrol when it began in 1924 -- all recruits were required to own a horse and a gun -- over the decades advances in technology left the horse behind, and the number of horse patrol units declined.
But in the early 2000s, CBP began investing more money into its horse program. Today in the field, horse patrol units with wild and domestic horses work alongside helicopters, drones, sensors and other high-tech tools. Horse sense is an "old school" technology, said Bobbi Schad, operations director for the Tucson Sector. "Their sight's better, their hearing's better. They can travel further, a lot faster than we can."
Sure-footed and tough, wild horses are built to handle the harshest environments, from the rocky gulches and jumping cholla that cover the ranchland in Nogales, to the sweltering, thorny corridors of the Rio Grande Valley. "They'll give us 10 hours of good work in the south Texas heat," said Ruben Garcia Jr., horse patrol coordinator for the Rio Grande Valley. "And they won't skip a beat."
The horses work in an intense environment. On any given day or night, Border Patrol agents respond to a multitude of high-stress situations, from assisting sick migrants in the desert to apprehending frightened mothers and children, to facing armed and dangerous smugglers.
Agents can also find themselves galloping alongside screeching police cars in dense urban areas or careening through mesquite trees in the dark brush.
"You have no idea the capability of these horses," said Joe Ghrist, an agent with the horse unit in Tucson, while sitting atop Geronimo, a product of the Florence program. "It's like the wild West out here."
On a recent Friday in the Rio Grande Valley, the horse unit was dispatched to the parking lot of Jack-in-The-Box in Hidalgo, Texas. A group of young men and teenage boys had been apprehended after scaling the levee with a ladder. They had traveled north for a month, from violent Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador, before crossing into the U.S.
The group sat against a CBP van, their faces dejected. Helicopters swirled overhead. Without warning, agents galloped from the restaurant, down black tarmac, then cut toward a fenced lot full of semi-trucks.
Flanked by horses, agents found another young man, hiding between the trucks.
Nostrils heaving, sweat rising off their flanks, the horses flattened their ears as he was led to a waiting van.
"You simply can't replicate their natural instinct," said Garcia, Jr., "Pitch quiet, completely dark, and their heartbeat just accelerates."