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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here's the story about government workers hired against their will and trained at taxpayer expense. And once they're on the job, these workers need to be reined in literally. NPR's Ted Robbins tells us about some of the border patrol's newest recruits, wild mustangs.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: It's all new for Achilles: his name, his horseshoes, the surroundings at his home near Nogales, Arizona.

LUIS NAVARRO: To break them from what they're focusing on, you want to turn them from one side to the next.

ROBBINS: Border Patrol agent Luis Navarro carefully leads Achilles into a round training arena.

He holds the horse by a short lead and teaches it commands to trot and to slow down.

NAVARRO: Up, up, up, there we go.

ROBBINS: Just a few months ago, this 5-year-old horse was roaming the northern Nevada desert in a herd of wild mustangs. Then he was captured by the BLM in a roundup. First, he went to a Nevada prison where inmates got him used to being around people. About a week ago, Achilles and three other mustangs arrived here. Border Patrol supervisor Chris Dubois says the horses get trained to obey commands, and they learn to stay calm in the field.

CHRIS DUBOIS: We're going to encounter groups of illegal aliens, narcotics smugglers, people hiking trails, you know, cars, trucks, water jugs, you know, all types of things when we're out on the trails.

ROBBINS: Horses are nothing new for the Border Patrol. When the agency was founded in the 1920s, agents were on horseback. They still allow agents to get into remote areas no vehicle can reach. In southern Arizona, the Border Patrol always bought quarter horses from ranchers. Then a year and a half ago, the agency and the BLM decided to try captured mustangs here.

DUBOIS: We look for horses with big bones, big hooves, large legs, stout bodies. That's kind of what we use here. I mean, if you can look around, it's all mountains where were at. It's all ridge lines. It's all rough, rough, rough country.

ROBBINS: Turns out, the mustangs are actually better suited physically than quarter horses. They're used to roaming harsh landscapes. The Border Patrol says no mustang has been injured on patrol since the program began.

DUBOIS: Likes the microphone.

ROBBINS: This care and gentleness might seem to ignore a larger controversy over wild mustangs. There's been a lot of criticism in the four decades they've been rounded up. The BLM says the land can't support some herds when they get too large. Mustang advocates say the horses are taken from their families and warehoused in feed lots. But even critics like what the Border Patrol is doing. Ginger Kathrens heads the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group.

GINGER KATHRENS: It utilizes the mustangs' brains and physical abilities, both of which are extensive, and it gives them a job. And it puts them in an environment in which they're very comfortable, and I think it's challenging for them.

NAVARRO: See, I don't even have to whip him.

ROBBINS: Achilles' trainer, agent Luis Navarro, says the horse seems to be getting the hang of his new job.

NAVARRO: Just by the way he's reacting to the verbal commands and the way he was paying attention to my hands and body language, I could see this horse will be ready in about a week or two.

ROBBINS: Then Achilles will patrol the border in southern Arizona for six or seven years before being retired or sold to the agent who's been riding him. In all, the Tucson Border Patrol sector has about 150 horses on patrol. Nearly half of them are now mustangs, and the agency expects that percentage to grow even more. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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