Out under a 90-degree sun, beyond spirals of razor wire and fences, they stood face to face. A horse and a man, both breathing hard, both taut.

"Get him to relax," called out an observer.

The man, Bruce McGraw, slowly moved closer, murmuring, "What's the matter, boy?"

Closer, closer until he could touch the horse's sweaty, quivering neck. The horse didn't move.

Later, McGraw was worn, but grinning.

"I'm a biker, boss--I don't know about these ponies," he said.

But he's learning.

Both the man and the horse are doing time in a program that began in 1986 as an effort between the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Bureau of Land Management.

The Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program serves a dual purpose: to take "the wild" out of both the horses and the men.

It's a process of calming and teaching the horses, allowing them to enter the BLM's adopt-a-horse program. The same process helps the inmates reenter society.

"These guys learn how to survive in the streets and these horses know how to survive in the wild," said Brian Hardin, the supervisor of the program.

Both the horses and the inmates must change their ways; both lost their freedom; both have to adjust to new lives.

"I think everybody makes a choice in life--in training you have a choice to do it the right way or the wrong way," said Hardin.

Most of the horses come from the mountains of western Nevada. Each year about 300 horses are adopted--what Hardin calls "going home."

The program uses 22 inmates, in four teams, to train 80 horses at a time.

Sometimes it's the classic Western image of bronco-busting. One inmate recently spent hours "water-skiing in the dirt" in duct-taped boots as a horse bolted around a corral.

But it's more about learning to communicate with the animals.

For Lonnie Aragon, working with horses has given him a vision of the future beyond the watchtowers and wires that now surround his world.

He wants to work with horses when he gets out.

"To be honest with you, it's the only thing I really know how to do," said Aragon.

Aragon's been in the program for about two years now and is a team leader.

On a recent Thursday he worked in a 40-foot corral with a man who had never saddle-broken a horse and with a horse that had never been ridden.

"Come back to me--left--don't overdo your legs, just apply a little bit of pressure. Don't power her, just stroke her," Aragon called out to his fellow inmate who was atop the compact, tough horse.

Aragon lived in Colorado Springs before he was arrested at 15 for being involved in an aggravated armed robbery. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison when he was 17.

Now 22, Aragon looks like a cowboy--slim, certain with the horses and a bit shy behind a trim mustache.

But the small yellow tag listing his last name first, DOC and laundry number on his white T-shirt serves as a reminder Aragon grew from teenager to man on the inside of prison.

What he has learned here, he said, he could apply not only to horses, but to other work, to relationships, to life.

"These horses are kind of like people," Aragon said. "If you treat them bad, they're going to treat you bad.

"It's taught me that I've got to go through life with a different outlook. I've learned that if problems arise--sit back, take a breath and think."

Inmate Pete Costilla said he is learning patience, how to listen to the horses' language, how they tell you when you're going too fast, and when you've made it through their fear and gained their trust.

"Their eyes get soft. They're no longer wild and hard," he said.

At the end of the day that started at 7 a.m., the men unsaddled the horses, wiped them down and returned them to their corrals.

Then the inmates were taken back up the hill, behind the high walls beneath the watchtower.

Aragon was among them. He'll be back again tomorrow and each day to work with the wild horses until he, too, finds himself "going home."

{C} The Gazette (Colorado Springs)