In the quarter-century that Randy Helm has broken and trained mustangs, the ordained Assemblies of God minister had long since discovered that his work with horses is a lot like how God works with people.
As supervisor of the Wild Horse Inmate Program at Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, a mainstream plan to address recidivism by instilling responsibility and life skills in the offenders, Helm finds that the program’s nonspiritual focus doesn't thwart the Lord from transforming the hearts of participants.
Such inmate training programs also exist in other states. One in Carson City, Nevada, is the subject of a feature film released March 15 called The Mustang. The film, produced by Oscar-winning director and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford, is generating worldwide press interest in Helm’s program.
Helm, 64, recently released a devotional book, Lessons From Horses, which draws upon his experiences as a pastor and horse trainer.
Overall, within five years, more than three-quarters of released offenders end up right back in prison. In contrast, only one of the 75 inmates who have graduated from the program has returned to prison.
The wild horse instruction is a win-win for all. Those who learn responsibility and life skills through preparing animals captured for adoption by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will readjust better to society and be less likely to end up reincarcerated. The BLM removes excess horse and burro populations from public lands unable to support them.
Helm’s hard-knocks childhood and adolescence bore the all-too-common thread found in the stories of inmates in his program: poverty, wayward parents, foster care, drug- and alcohol-addicted siblings, and an older brother who himself served time at the Florence unit. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm, which included horses, but he ran away at age 14.
At 18, Helm came to faith in Christ. After serving four years in the Air Force, he began his studies at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas. Along the way, he’s served as a “cowboy who pastors” on church pastoral staff, and on the Arlington, Texas, police force.
His horse and peace-officer background prompted the penitentiary to tap Helm in 2012 to lead its Wild Horse Inmate Program. He oversees five employees from the Department of Corrections and around 25 inmates. In a year, 50 horses and burros are trained. The animals not bought by the mounted Border Patrol and police departments are sold to the public.
While the program doesn’t include a spiritual component, Helm has found that while he believes true change has a spiritual base to it, his own interactions with prisoners have proven to be the loudest sermon.
“It took me awhile to realize just how much the inmates watch me,” he says. “They know what I'm saying when I talk about spirituality. The message gets out.”
Apart from Helm’s leadership of the Wild Horse Inmate Program, four or five times each year a prison chaplain invites him to conduct a “full blown” cowboy church, in which he brings a horse on the prison yard for an outdoor service.
“That’s where I can totally not have to worry about separation of church and state, and can get in there and talk about Christ,” he says. “When I’m preaching there, I can put Scripture with it. They can connect the dots.”
One who connected is Justino Balderrama, 40, who grew up poor on an Akimel O’odham Pima Indian reservation in Arizona. A self-described ex-gangster, his life of crime began with stealing food at age 11. He’s been in and out of prison multiple times. In 2007 an aggravated driving under the influence conviction landed him in county jail, where he had a Holy Spirit encounter at a church service and came to faith in Christ.
While there, Balderrama saw a notice about the Wild Horse Inmate Program seeking prisoners to work with the mustangs. Helm chose him as one of 15. Officials transferred Balderrama to Florence.
“It’s an awesome program; it changed my life,” says Balderrama, who credits it for instilling a work ethic. “Taking care of the horses made me take care of myself. It put me in a leadership position where they’re looking to me for guidance.”
Now Balderrama lives in a Christian halfway house in Phoenix along with two other men from the Wild Horse Inmate Program who also converted to Christianity. He’s landed a job installing air conditioners while helping Helm conduct horse training clinics and exhibitions. Balderrama aspires to launch an equine therapy program on his reservation to help youth without mentors.
“A lot of kids on the reservation are going through hard times,” he says. “There’s no alpha in their life who could teach them. I lived that lifestyle. They threw the book at me. It was the best thing that could have happened.”
In 2013, prison officials asked Helm to write devotionals for inmates in solitary confinement. He opted to keep penning Christ-centered messages aimed at the cowboy community.
“The big encouraging thing is that it’s reaching people who have an interest in horses, but marginal interest in faith,” he says.
Because national and international media have publicized the program, and with the release of Redford’s feature film, its promotion has brought widespread attention to Lessons From Horses. With chapters titled “Training the horse you have” and “The edge of a precipice,” its message has resonated far beyond cowboy circles into the general public.
In the book, just as in his sermons, Helm links foundational Scripture to his horse-training methods, providing a platform to explain points that his prison job doesn't allow him liberty to elaborate upon. In the process, something unexpected has happened: relatives are sending the book to inmates.
As a result, “Inmates are coming up to me asking questions,” he says. These inquiries Helm is free to answer.