Under an 80 million acre sky of immeasurable blue lies, Santa Fe in New Mexico. You can ride or drive, or catch a Greyhound bus or train, through the desert and mesas, in any direction for hundreds of miles. Out there are lynxs, jaguars, coyotes and snakes. Sometimes one has to hold on when looking up at the firmament.

The outskirts of Santa Fe, along St Francis Drive that runs off Highway 25, are bordered by every fast food outlet that America has to offer, where folk consume quantities of burgers, chips, tacos and pizzas and drink gallons, but gallons, of Coca-Cola and piss-poor jugs of beer. In a small main square, in front of russet adobe buildings, unhappy Indians sell trinkets of turquoise and silver to tourists.

There are art galleries with huge modern paintings, senseless to me, although in one there is a postcard of a lovely Remington, and a few expensive restaurants from which it is easy to turn tail.

In a bar with more anodyne beer (they have ‘lite’ versions) there was news of a horse programme run by the prison 15 miles south of Santa Fe, from a personable young man who’d spent a little time locked up there. He didn’t say why. It sounded interesting.

I’d been drifting through California and the south-west picking up work as a horse coper, and had been heading towards Tom Cruise’s ranch outside Santa Fe. But as I drove through the gates and between ordered white railings towards the ranch house it occurred to me that the Church of Scientology’s approach to horse training might not be mine. I turned around, back onto the highway.

Within a week or so I found a bunk in a small ranch nearby with work training slow racehorses to be hacks or showjumpers, even polo ponies, anything really. The money was commission-only on sales but board and lodging was thrown in. We sold a few. Then I tried the prison.

In Level VI, the ‘Supermax’ of the New Mexico Federal Penitentiary, is the death chamber. It is illustrated on Wikipedia and looks oddly, chillingly, like a prop from a Doctor Who programme. It is maintained in pristine condition despite the abolition of the death penalty in New Mexico in 2009 (the last time it was used was in 2001 to kill a child rapist and murderer). There was a sense of nostalgia there.

Not so far away was the Horse Program, a form of therapy for the prisoners in which wild mustangs were brought in from the vast ranges of the Bureau of Land Management for the cons to tame and sell after they became rideable. It was a difficult time for all concerned. The horses were rounded
up by helicopter on the prairie and then herded into a corral. After a selection process they were driven into a 16-wheeled truck and delivered into a corral at the prison where each man on the programme was allotted his charge by the head honcho, depending on how he saw the capabilities of the man and the character of the horse. On the whole the horses, not very big, were mulish and ill-nourished, but after regular feed they simply became mulish. There was a system to the programme that allowed little leeway in the treatment of the mustangs, since that was how it was done in that corner of the United States of America, ’neath the o’er-stretching, all-encompassing azure blue.

One morning I was in the ring, one of several, with a big man, African-American these days but to the eye black or, more properly, ebony. He was called Ray and had unfortunately stabbed a man, quite deliberately, but failed to kill him. He minded more about that than his prison sentence, which was considerable. Oddly enough he seemed kind, or was at least was so in his demeanour, and thoughtful. He considered things.

With us was a sullen, and by now recalcitrant, flea-bitten roan, about 15 hands but strong enough through his chest and quarters to carry Ray, who was at least 15 stone, maybe more. The trouble with Ray was that he was immensely powerful, with arms like jackhammers, and when he pulled on the reins – a natural response to the insecurity he felt when the roan took off in the wrong direction – the horse’s head almost came off.

Ray was by no means a natural horseman, but he loved animals. The roan appreciated the way Ray mumbled when he tacked him up. The problem was that Ray had come again with a severe bar bit with a port (as he had been told to do). The roan knew it, and hated it. Ray had got the saddle on easily enough and cinched it up without a murmur from the roan. He knew he was going to have trouble with the bit and had left it til last. It wasn’t going well, pointlessly in fact. There was a moment of despair when Ray looked to have abandoned the enterprise, then he turned again to the roan with a hostile look in his eye. The roan looked nervous, as he should have been, but Ray wasn’t going to give up.

We went back up to the tack room where, amidst piles of leather and sacks, we found a hackamore, a bitless bridle. Ray was fascinated. How could it work without a bit? We trudged back to the ring where the hapless roan stood alone and disgruntled. Ray changed the bridles and slipped the newconfiguration over the the beast’s head. He, too, was puzzled. Where was the bit?

Ray got on board, eased forward, and along they went, this way and that, in circles, straight lines, stopped, started again, fell into a lope, left and right, the roan even changing legs kindly, though Ray didn’t notice. The pair of them were fascinated by this apparently carefree life. The roan was cagey to start with, admittedly, but so intrigued by a perambulation without pain that he hardly noticed Ray on top. Ray thought he was John Wayne.

A few days later the cons were coming out of the tack room with their saddles and bridles, ready to start the day. The head honcho spotted Ray with the hackamore, the bitless bridle. He stopped him and asked him what the fuck he was doing with it, a piece of frippery. Ray looked uncomfortable, abashed even, the big man at a loss for words.

I stepped forward and explained the problem with the roan. It didn’t go down well. Ray was sent back to the tack room for the dread bar bit. I was taken aside and soon learned that the prison programme wasn’t the right environment for my kind of fooling with horses, and that ‘these are my cons, and they’ll do it my way’. That was it. It was time to go, by all accounts.

Back at the ranch I went into the barn, cool in the half-light, with thin rays of the sun through the roof beams illuminating the motes of dust. There were maybe 15 horses in their stalls out of the heat of the day, dozing, snuffling in the dirt for the last few grains of food. A few lifted their heads as I came in. They weren’t interested. I thought of Ray and the roan. I didn’t see them again.●

Comments are welcome