The art of gentling

Haley Cohen in The Economist:

ArtAs the Arizonan sun begins to rise, Brian Tierce guides a bay gelding into a round pen and closes the steel gate behind them. Tierce, thick-necked with grey-blue eyes, leads his charge to the centre of the pen and picks up a Styrofoam saddle pad he had left in the dirt earlier. He holds the pad forward and the gelding, named Obi Wan after the Jedi Master in “Star Wars”, sniffs it suspiciously. Suddenly frightened, the horse snorts and strains his neck away. Tierce lowers the pad to his side and says soothingly: “It’s okay, boy. You’re okay.” He waits for a full minute, watching to see if Obi’s head sinks into a more relaxed position. When it does, Tierce tries again, gently sliding the pad down the horse’s muzzle and across his cheeks. He explains: “He’s never had this on him, ever. I could probably get this on him today – the saddle. But I’m not trying to put the saddle on the horse; I’m trying to get the horse to accept the saddle.”

Patience and tenderness are new traits for Tierce, who is 50 years old and serving the final months of a seven-year sentence at Arizona’s state prison complex in Florence for assaulting his ex-girlfriend while high on methamphetamine. “I’ve been in the system my whole life, you know. I was probably given up for incorrigible when I was about five.” At that age Tierce would sneak out of the window of his home in Phoenix to roam the streets with older friends, returning late at night. His father had walked out when he was young; his mom had polio and two other kids. “She was scared to death. She had to do something – she couldn’t control me,” he says flatly. He was placed in a group home for troubled youngsters, where he suffered physical and sexual abuse throughout his childhood. At 18, finally independent, he found meth, and spent 21 of the next 32 years in a jail cell, mostly on drug-related charges.

Tierce’s current sentence – his fifth – has been the most agreeable. In many states, including Arizona, all prisoners who are physically able to must work by law. While other inmates at the Florence complex toil in the prison slop hall, harvest tilapia on the prison fish farm or tinker with broken prison vehicles, Tierce is one of about 20 who spend their weekdays outside, training mustangs as part of the prison’s Wild Horse Inmate Programme (WHIP).

More here.