Aug. 24, 2009 — -- The sound of rotor blades fills the air, and the wild horses are off. Heartbeats and hooves pound faster as the horses try to evade the helicopter's deafening pursuit. Slick with sweat, they gallop past stretches of range land as the aircraft hovers at a distance. The pilot is herding the horses toward cowboys hiding and waiting at a trap site in Skull Valley, Utah. The agents of captivity are closing in.
To the Spanish, they were "musteno." We know them as mustangs, every inch a U.S. icon -- the embodiment of the outlaw on the run.
"America's about freedom and these wild horses are running free," said Gus Warr of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "It's that image of the flowing mane and tail out in the wide-open sage brush."
But there comes a time when even outlaws have to stop running. If they are to survive, one way of life must end and another begin.
"It's really, it's very humane," Warr said. "It's probably the least stressful thing we could do to gather these animals. The helicopter pilot is like a glorified cowboy out there in the air. He's pushing the animals, maneuvering them so they go toward the trap."
And in these last moments of freedom, the mustangs will have an unforgettable introduction to humans -- the gatekeepers of a surprising new future.
Roundups, or "gathers," as they are known, are occasionally needed in order to manage the more than 33,100 wild mustangs living on 10 western-range states -- too large a population for the land to support. Warr grew up loving mustangs. He is now a wild horse specialist with the BLM in Utah, overseeing the gathers that take place every winter. Warr is sensitive to both the need for relocating surplus wild horses and to their fear during capture.
"If you could pull them aside and whisper in their ear and say, 'Hey, it's going to be fine. It's scary right now. There's no need to be afraid. We're not going to hurt you. We're here to actually give you a better life,'" Warr said.
Some of the mustangs will be sold soon to the public. Others will be trained and sold or offered for adoption later. But, either way, freedom's end rarely comes easy. During one Skull Valley gather, a newly captured mustang thrashed against the rails and tried to jump over the trap site's pens in its disorientation.
"That horse right there was just scared and it was a natural reaction," Warr said. "It wanted to get away. And if they can get over the top, they're going to do it. We've had horses go right over the top. And get out. And honestly, you see something like that, well, that horse deserves to be free. Let him go."
From Wild Mustang to Tame Mount
It's hard to imagine even the toughest cowboy ever handling this much wildness.
But that's where the mustangs' journey takes its next turn, and starts to get truly wild.
"How do you feel up there?" Kira Brazinki asked.
"Great, probably the best I've ever felt," said Claire Radda, an 11-year-old budding equestrian sitting high in the saddle.
"Yeah? You've changed since that first day when you started," said Kira, a 17-year-old mentor at an empowerment program for young people in Jackson Hole, Wyo., called Horse Warriors.
"I think I was really nervous," Claire said.
"I was afraid of so many different things," Claire said.
Kira holds the horse's lead as the two friends work together during a weekly summer lesson.
"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.
"They find out they can't intimidate a horse the way they have intimidated people their whole life," Hardin said. "With both the inmates and horses, the more you push, the more they push back."
The mustangs push back harder.
"I've been kicked, and I've broken probably almost every bone in my hand," Peterson said. "One of my horses flipped over on top of me, snapped my femur. I've had broken ribs, pawed in the face."
But, in this unlikely place, hardened criminals discover they are in possession of something of great natural value: love.
"I love on my horses, and they, you know, after two, three days in the round pen, they're following me around like little puppies," Peterson said.
And in the remarkable journey of mustangs and men, a surprising truth is discovered: Wild hearts can be tamed.
For the full story, watch "Primetime's" "The Outsiders" Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.