Wild Mustang Hearts Heal Human Scars

"I was afraid I would have to trot on my first day, that I was going to fall off or was going to be bucked off," Claire said. "I was afraid of silly things that weren't really going to happen. Sometimes, I thought I was a little too fearful."

The mission of Horse Warriors is to help kids deal with profound social and physical troubles, using the nurturing relationships with horses as a motivator.

And if Claire and Kira are any indication, there's plenty of potential healing power in a steadfast and loyal companion -- because their gently behaved horse with the shaggy mane is a formerly wild mustang named Canyon.

"Canyon is a great horse," Kira said. "He is really loving and caring. Sometimes I just think of him as a big dog, and kind of big and playful and, like a young puppy. But, other times, he really is like an old wise teacher."

It's hard to know which of these three friends has come the farthest in the past few years. Claire's soft-spoken and shy nature made her a constant target of bullies at school. Kira was born missing her entire femur and thigh, requiring her to wear a prosthetic leg most of her life. As for Canyon -- he used to be one of those outlaws on the range.

"We love Canyon," said Priscilla Marden, executive director of Horse Warriors.

She says caring for and learning to ride a powerful, 1,000-pound horse teaches young people responsibility and gives them confidence, and something else.

"Honestly, I think it is love," she said. "I think it's the kind of love we don't find with people. They come with a great intuition and they are completely engaged and, for our kids, that is what is the hook. There is someone paying 100 percent attention to you."

She said that's especially true of Canyon.

"Canyon is one of a kind," she said. "We've got other horses that have come to us, but they haven't had the love that Canyon's had. I mean, he's like, he's just a delightful, friendly guy."

Of course no one knows that better than the girls, who got to wondering how Canyon came to be ... Canyon.

"I think it would be really interesting to see the people who gentled Canyon," Kira said. "It would be interesting to take him back, too, and say look what you did."

So, just who did make Canyon as playful as a puppy and a wise teacher?

Outlaw Mustangs' Outlaw Trainers

"My crime history started in 1982," Jon Peterson said. "I'd been robbing safes for 26 years."

Meet inmate No. 50706.

"I'm a safe-cracker," he said. "Just to, to supply my drug habit, you know, support my drug habit. Cocaine, meth. Lot of weed."

Peterson has spent 22 of his 44 years behind bars. He's serving a four-year sentence at the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City, Colo.

Each morning, Peterson and 50 other inmates are frisked on their way out of prison before taking a short bus ride down the hill to a place where wild, newly incarcerated men meet their match in frightened, newly captured wild mustangs: the Wild Horse Inmate Program, or WHIP.

New inmates start at the bottom, mucking out pens and feeding and watering the animals. Eventually, one or two dozen will learn to work directly with the mustangs, readying them for adoption. Somewhere between the grunt work and the grooming, a convicted felon can learn a lot about himself, and what it takes to earn the trust of a wild animal, program director Brian Hardin said.

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