Todd Pierce cautiously climbed over the railing of a pen surrounded by curious prison inmates and came face to face with a rambunctious Arabian gelding named D.B. Cooper.
The pair stared each other down and attempted to get acquainted.
Pierce twirled a thick rope in the air and directed the 5-year-old rescue horse in circles around the ring. It was the first step in their newfound friendship and the beginning of the former professional-bareback-rider-turned-pastor’s message about rehabilitation.
The trip to Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla on Tuesday afternoon was one of several stops on a prison tour for Pierce and his Riding High Ministries. Pierce was accompanied by a band, The Brown Family, from South Carolina.
The event was a unique way to deliver a positive message and the imagery of the offenders being the wild horse resonated with a lot of people in the crowd, said inmate Johnathan Calderon, 25, who has been locked up for five years for burglary and other convictions.
“(Pierce) was truly amazing. I lived on a horse ranch for 13 years and I have never seen anything like that,” he said.
The minimum-security inmates were fixated on Pierce as he eased closer and closer to Cooper, a strategy to become the first person to mount the beast.
As trust between the two began to grow, Pierce gently slipped a lead onto Cooper’s head. While guiding the horse around the ring, Pierce explained Cooper represented the inmates and their struggle to become productive members of society.
They too were locked up in a pen, in need of guidance, a support system and the right attitude to start a new life, Pierce told the inmates. And one day, like Cooper, they will have the chance to run free.
“You weren’t created to be in a pen,” Pierce said. “This isn’t your destiny.”
About 20 minutes after Pierce entered the ring, he swung his legs over the back of Cooper and held on for a ride. Some inmates inched closer to the pen while others cheered in excitement.
Pierce then brought a saddle into the ring and after some coaxing was able to slide it onto Cooper’s back. A short while into a ride, Cooper became angry and Pierce jumped to the ground. The horse kicked and bucked, throwing dirt into the air and rattling the sides of the pen.
A few kicks barely missed Pierce’s ribs and inmates stepped back to wipe dust from their sweaty heads.
Pierce used the outburst as a teaching moment. He told the inmates that they too have made mistakes — or relapses as Pierce called it — and they needed to own them to change.
At the end of the demonstration, after Pierce had successfully rode Cooper around without falling, the pastor explained that with a little direction and effort Cooper now had hope for a life beyond eating grass and dying.
“Now (Cooper is) capable of who knows what,” said Pierce, who is from Idaho. “This is an Arabian. I could run (him) from here to my house.”
Eddie Cortez, 43, who has been at the prison for five years on kidnapping and assault convictions, related to the struggle Cooper went through to allow Pierce on him with the struggle inmates go through on daily basis behind bars, he said.
“That horse is locked up and he didn’t know his potential until God came into his life,” Cortez said. “It spoke to a lot of people’s hearts. It moved me.”
Prison Chaplain Jaime Cardona told the Herald that Pierce’s message and ability to ride Cooper showed inmates they need to learn obedience, gain confidence and earn trust to truly make a change.
“Those are the tools we need to teach these men in their rehabilitation,” he said.
Pierce — pastor for the Professional Bull Riders tour — focuses his ministry on men, though he hasn’t started preaching in correctional facilities until recently, he said. He has enjoyed going into prisons because it has allowed him to help inmates shake stereotypes of themselves from the outside world
Pierce told the Herald about a conversation that he had with an inmate Tuesday that perfectly described how Cooper’s rehabilitation gave hope to others.
“He said until you walked into that pen, that horse literally wore himself out fighting against the system,” Pierce said. “When you entered the pen, although it was still hard, his life instantly had direction. Through that direction, he was finally ready to listen.”