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The Horse Whisperer and the Inmates

March 22, 2021

I wrote an article in 2012 in this column about a pastor friend of mine who has impacted the prison at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona. He has worked at the Florence prison since 2012. Recently, I phoned him for an update. I will start with my article in 2012. I will finish with the update. Read on. 

“I want to introduce you to a pastor who recently gave up the church he pastored for 19 years to become the Wild Horse and Burro Supervisor at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

A few years ago, Pastor Randy Helm of Hope Chapel in Glendale, Arizona, discovered something about himself that took years to find. Randy can do things with wild or abused horses and burros that very few people in the world can do. Put a wild horse right off the range from Nevada in a circular horse pen with him, and in 30 minutes, the horse is well on the way to being saddle broken.

Randy is a horse whisperer. Horses and burros, domestic, abused, or wild, trust him. Wanting to become even more proficient with his gift, he became a certified trainer at the Lyons Legacy horse training center in Tennessee.

As a pastor, Randy was familiar with counseling and helping untamed, abused, or hurt people. But he began to see a correlation between healing horses and healing human beings. He discovered he could minister to hurt or fearful people by showing them how to heal and restore abused horses.

He began to conduct horse clinics at abused women’s homes and women's ministries in other churches - the women connected with Randy's gentle way of initiating healing to fearful, abused horses. The women began to understand their issues by observing the horse’s issues. They could see themselves in the abused horses.

I went to one of Randy’s clinics. First, he begins to work with a wild or hurt horse, explaining how it became the way it is to the audience. The horse is resistant, not wanting to be hurt again. Randy calmly talks to the horse and showing the horse that he doesn't want to hurt it. The horse wants to trust but needs to see first if Randy is trustworthy. After a few minutes, Randy earns the horses’ trust, and the horse begins to walk with him. Then after a short time, Randy was riding on the horse.

Randy discovered something else. Many prison inmates have some of the same issues as wild horses. So, when 'wild' inmates learn how to deal with and train the wild horses, they receive understanding about themselves in the process. The inmates learn about anger and abuse control, delayed gratification issues, and a host of other problems. In essence, the inmates doing the training are training themselves. Excellent stuff, huh?

The outcome of all of this is Pastor Randy has accepted a position with the Arizona State Department of Corrections in Florence, Arizona, to be the Wild Horse and Burro Supervisor. He has a staff of 25 inmates who will work in the program to do everything from cleaning the stalls to training horses. Randy has moved from pastoring a church to ‘pastoring’ wild and abused horses – even healing wounded and inmates in the process. And the world will be better for it!”    

Fast forward to March 2021 and my update. Randy's pioneering ministry in the Florence Prison has proliferated. Today, he has 25 inmates who train the wild horses and burros. Ten more inmates work in the holding area, taking care of the animals. The Department of Correction’s horse and burro facility holds up to 1,500 horses and burros. The highest count of wild horses is 998 onsite.

Currently, there are 500 wild burros and 200 wild horses onsite. The donkeys come from Arizona. The wild horses come from Nevada, Wyoming, and California. After the animals have been tamed and trained, they are sold to trail riding ranches, hunting outfitters, and the US Border Patrol. The Border Patrol uses the horses in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

The inmates participating in this program are being transformed. Only 10-15% who are released from prison return to prison. The inmate trainers and workers have 'found their place' by finding a career in the horse industry. The inmates' spouses and their families joyously testify of the inmates' real, tangible, and lasting transformation. Takeaway: When you ‘find your place,’ you find your future. 

The news of what is happening in Florence has reached the world. Randy, his horse Starbuck, and this excellent state program have been reported in USA Today, Reuters, Associated Press, NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and The Animal Planet. You can look at the documentaries on YouTube. This Department of Corrections program has been reported about in France, England, Australia, and Mexico. Randy is speaking in Denmark, Iceland, and Australia this year about mustangs, inmates, and horse whispering.

A few years ago, nine people started Florence Cowboy Church with Randy as the pastor. The church has grown from nine people to 800 people. The presentation is unique; 95% of his speaking is on horseback. Randy conducts services at “Country Thunder” and “Texas Thunder” country music concerts with up to 30,000 attendees. Randy has written a book, Lessons from Horses, available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle.

Here is Randy's, the inmates', and the former wild horses' takeaway for us. When you're finally saddle broken, find a new herd to be a part of; otherwise, you will return to your old behavior. And, use your horse sense. It leads to stable thinking. 

For more information on Arizona Cowboy Ministries, contact helmhorsemanship@gmail.com.

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Ed Delph is a leader in church-community connections.
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