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Inmates train America's wild horses to help enforce U.S. border security

BY SONYA COLBERG scolberg@opubco.com January 2, 2012

About midnight, the two mustangs stopped their soft munching.

The U.S. Border Patrol agents quietly had tied their inmate-trained mustangs among thorny shrubs just north of the Rio Grande.

Agent Audra Wannemacher and her partner had information that smugglers would be trying to cross the border illegally from Mexico into the U.S.

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With a cunning earned running public rangeland with thousands of other wild horses, the agents' horses wove through the cactus plants and scrub brush that thwarted the Border Patrol's white-and-green trucks and ATVs. The agents tracked the group about a mile, while agents farther north moved in to try to box in the group.

The two partners waited in the darkness at the edge of a cliff.

Suddenly, Wannemacher's black gelding Nitro turned and looked at the agents. Then he and the other horse looked in another direction. They looked again at the agents and away again.

“Hey, can you look over in this direction? I think the horses are trying to tell us something,” Wannemacher said to the agent with the night vision device.

The horses had “alerted” on 30 people crossing the road in the direction the agents hadn't been watching. Springing into their saddles, the agents could see a half-dozen illegal immigrants climbing the cliff.

They asked them in Spanish to give up. Some did. But more scattered into the black night, igniting a blaze of crashing hooves, horse hide and body-armored agents behind them.

Nitro flattened his ears and galloped after one running immigrant. His black hooves pounded through the darkness, closer and closer to the illegal immigrant. The man stopped, raised his arms and gave up.

“The horses could smell them before we could see them. And with their hearing, they can pick up the noises before we can. They kind of alert to it. Now that they've been out there for a few months, they're picking up on what they're here to do. It's very helpful to have those heightened senses of the horses,” Wannemacher said.

She said the agents and their horses caught 21 of the 30 people that night.

Since October, the 11 mounted agents have arrested 784 people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally along the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which snakes over 316 miles from Brownsville, Texas, to Falcon Heights, Texas, Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Mary Olivares said. They've also seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana in the two months.

The mustangs are part of a new partnership in which the Border Patrol adopts wild horses caught on public land by Bureau of Land Management contractors and then trained by prisoners.

Olivares said the former wild horses bring to their jobs something beyond the ruggedness, stealth and instincts of prey animals that must use their hooves and intellect to survive in the wild.

“They make a huge psychological impact. Huge. All you can hear is this thunderous sound behind you. All you hear is hooves. They're pretty scary,” Olivares said.

Paul McGuire, of the Bureau of Land Management office in Moore, assists with coordination of the regional program between America's wild horses and the Border Patrol.

“We're not only working to preserve mustangs as valued icons of the American West and providing Border Patrol with a very useful tool to secure the border, but also providing a program that helps with inmates' introduction back into society,” McGuire said.

The program began in 2007 with Colorado prisoners training wild horses for the Border Patrol, or private use. It has grown to more than 130 trained mustangs.

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