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Horses are for healing

Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns and Carrie Stadheim
for Tri-State Livestock News

Winston Satran organized and managed the ND Prison rodeo for 12 of the 14 years it existed, taught troubled children to ride horses, managed millions of wagered dollars over the internet by horse-race gamblers, and was once featured in France’s Life magazine counterpart.

Nearly all of his favorite memories involve horses and the sport of rodeo.

Satran grew up in Tolley, North Dakota, without an equine in the picture. After his father died when Satran was 12, the family moved to Mohall, North Dakota.

“We didn’t have much money. My mother told my brother and I that we had to work every chance we got including jobs all summer long.” So, work they did. Winston got jobs on local farms, working construction, then when Friday night came, he would travel to his uncle’s farm near Sherwood, North Dakota to work during harvest or work needed around the farmyard.

While attending Minot State University, the young man took a job with Dakota Boys Ranch. “That started my love affair with horses,” he recalls. He led the troubled kids on rides and even set horse races for the residences.

The observer

“For some unknown reason, I always have been a keen observer,” said Satran. “Events small or large fascinated me. Why, I do not know. It opened the world to me. One summer afternoon I was riding alone on my horse in the Badlands when I topped a high ridge and noticed a golden eagle high in the sky. She folded her wings and dove straight downward into the valley, like she had been shot out of the sky. What on earth?” He pondered. She hit the valley floor at the end of her dive, immediately beating her wings hard to soar upward again, carrying something.

A bull snake. “I watched the eagle, she caught the wind currents, circled higher and higher with a large snake writhing in her claws.” At the height of her climb Winston saw the eagle relax her talons, and watched the snake fall like a rock onto the valley floor as she folded her wings and glided down. “Ah, dinner for her eaglets in their thatched nest,” he realized. “The power of observation opens the wonders of nature!”

Later, visiting New York City, Winston saw a startling contrast: crowds “striding purposefully straight ahead, not glancing right or left. No eye contact, no smiles, greetings, or the slightest recognition of their fellow man. The same stern mask on their faces ‘please do not interrupt my life.’

“The vast prairies have given me a deep appreciation and understanding of the gift of observation. The night stars, the deep blue sky, endless horizons, the raging summer storms, high arching rainbows and the sudden appearance of wildlife has been a gift to me. The key to this beauty is to be outdoors, observing and living within this miraculous life.”

“Horses” he says, “gave me the opportunity to spend time in rolling hills, rugged Badlands, seeing interaction between humans and animal, and learning not everyone is able to be cognizant of the world around them.”

The student

A few years after his Boys Ranch employment, Satran graduated from the University of Minnesota with a sociology degree and landed a job as a pre-release counselor at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, a position he held for three years. Then the warden and deputy warden left and he found himself in a new role. “I was appointed deputy warden not really knowing anything about prison management,” he said. Then things got interesting. The new warden, a retired US Army Colonel from New York state agreed to prisoners’ request to hold a prison rodeo with the inmates as participants. And who better to oversee the new project, than Satran.

At that time, prisons in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Utah were hosting inmate rodeos.

“I told the Warden, “I don’t know a thing about rodeo, nor do you.” But learn he did, and soon Satran and Gordon Quill, a friend he had met at the local livestock sale barn, organized six weeks of practices to prepare the inmates for rodeo competition.

J.C. Stevenson, a Carson contractor became a mentor and friend to Satran, and provided some of the stock for the rodeos.

During practice, Quill and Satran would buck rough stock horses and the inmates would take their turns trying to make the eight second whistle.

Rather than the standard calf-roping event, a rider on a horse would stand in the arena with a calf roped and tied on. The competitor would run out and throw the calf down and try and tie the calf. This turned into a hilarious event for men raised in the city who had never touched a calf. Rather than regular steer wrestling, the inmates would chute dog the steers.

The rodeo created a new atmosphere inside the prison. Inmates would remain on good behavior to ensure they would be eligible to participate or sit in the inmate seating section with their families. The rodeo created trust between the inmate population and the staff.

“The inmates appreciated it so much,” he said. He recalls one year when he got word that there was to be a “disturbance” at the rodeo. He asked the contestants about it and they promised they would take care of it.

And there was no trouble that year, or any other year, said Satran. “That’s the kind of behavioral atmosphere that became part of the prison.” The rodeo was always the last weekend in July. “The inmates went into the fall with a better attitude because of it,” he said. They were ready to get started with education and therapy programs.

Satran loved the practices and would take part in them, along with about 100 inmates who volunteered to compete in the rodeo. He also did as much riding as possible after hours. “During those years, every chance I got, I went and worked at local brandings and helped people move and gather cattle,” he said.

The penitentiary owned horses to work the herd of beef cattle they owned, so Satran would also help with calving, branding and moving those cattle any chance he could.

Work was the main focus of the prison day. The dairy and beef herds were prime jobs, said Satran.

The first rodeo contractor, J.C. Stevenson, thought it would be good for the inmates to see Satran ride a bull. “I was 32 years old, 6’ tall, 194 pounds, never ridden a bull. But it sounded good to me. In the next 10 years I got on 34 bulls. Got on, I didn’t say I rode for eight seconds. I got to see the underside of some as they spun over top of me. Thrilling, until I got stepped on a couple of times.”

Then he also tried bareback riding. He found it “a little more successful.” As he began to gain confidence, Winston told J.C. he thought he’d ride a famous North Dakota big gray bronc named Pump Handle Pete for the next prison event.

“J.C said ‘Pump Handle has been to a hell of a lot more rodeos than you have and this is what is going to happen.When you get on him he’s going to mash your leg, then turn around and bite your other leg. When they open the gate he’s going to buck you off, kick you on your way down, turn around and run over you. But you do what you want.’” Satran suggested, “why don’t we pick another horse?”

As the rodeo grew in popularity, 7,000 people bought tickets for the two-day event to watch the entertainment, which provided the extra excitement of being allowed inside prison walls. “We built the rodeo grounds ourselves, inside the prison. It was the only time people could enter and feel those big prison walls.”

In 1985, the event even caught the attention of a French magazine, VSD, that Satran said is similar to the former Life Magazine. “They wrote a five-page article with pictures. It was widely read in France and got picked up by 40 other news agencies around Europe.” The next year a French movie company put together a video of the excitement and thrills to play on world-wide television networks.

The final year of the rodeo for Warden Satran arrived, and his emotions ran high.

The inmate rodeo committee asked Winston to stand in front of the chutes “for a presentation.” He says, “As I waited, I wondered what the plaque would say about my tenure as manager of one of the wildest events ever held in a rodeo arena. The gate opened and in rode Gary, a grizzled convict who spent most of his adult life in prison mounted on one of the prison rodeo horses.” He was leading a three-year-old large bay with long, thick black mane and tail, and a spirited disposition.

Finally, Winston realized the inmates were presenting the equine athlete to him.

“Gary handed me the reins to the bay. Then lifted his head and tears were streaming down his cheeks,” Satran remembers.

Winston named the gift ‘Dakota’, taking him into his next job – Home on the Range, a working ranch facility founded in 1949 to provide education, therapy, spiritual guidance, recreational and work activities for up to 79 boys and girls from age 9-19, with 29 horses on the staff.

Educational Director Heidi Petermann and Satran together figured out the psychology of the resident, matching them with the horse that just might help improve their psyche.

Peterman recalls Satran’s positive and insightful attitude, even when he found himself face down in a rain-slopped branding pen!

“Winston reacted pretty consistently, always teaching you to look ahead five or ten years,” she says. “Be thoughtful when you meet someone, analyze how they think, how that association may affect your life.”

Satran recalls the soothing affect horses had on many of the Home on the Range kids. Together Satran and Petermann would teach the kids to ride, starting them off slowly, then eventually giving them tips as the kids gained experience. “We would ride along the Little Missouri River, there was a long sandy stretch where we would teach the kids to lope and control their horses.” Satran would often give advice like “put your stirrups in front of you,” “sit back,” or “pull the reins up a bit.”

Satran watched a young girl who had witnessed a horrifying family tragedy, ride one of the ranch’s horses. “I rode next to her and was about to give her a suggestion, but when I looked at her, she had the biggest smile I’d seen on her face. She was glowing. I decided, I’m not going to say a word to her, this might be the happiest day she’s had in the last seven or eight years of her life.”

Although the staff wasn’t able to follow up long-term with the youth, they were given information for a year after the kids were released, and Satran says about 80 percent of the kids stayed out of trouble that first year.

The ranch had some top quality mares and introduced a breeding program that produced some fine horses.

Among his duties at HOTR was organizing the Champions Ride Bronc match – a popular event that draws the world’s best saddle bronc riders each summer.

It was through this duty that Satran made friends with Winston Bruce, a former world champion, ten-time National Finals Rodeo competitor and former Canadian Rodeo Association saddle bronc riding champion. Bruce eventually went to work for the Calgary Stampede, which is how the two met and made fast friends. He provided Satran the opportunity to take part in a number of the three-day Calgary Stampede Roundups. “It was the joy of my life. It was more than I could ever have imagined,” recalls Satran.

In 2017, Satran was honored to provide the eulogy for Bruce’s funeral which was attended by 23 former world champions and 1,500 other attendees.

After 11 years as the HOTR director Satran accepted an offer made by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. There he grew the trail ride remuda of 30 horses to 54. “These new horses insured we didn’t wear the horses out over the summer,”

In this role, Satran also helped oversee the horseback-riding portion of the Medora Musical, as well as the teams that pulled buggies throughout the old-west tourist town during the summer.

Satran particularly enjoyed riding the trail horses in the spring to prepare them for the summer tourists.

“And then I retired, and got appointed as the Director of North Dakota Horse Racing commission,”

Satran said that because of a unique North Dakota law allowing online horse race betting, gamblers from around the world set their sights on getting licensed through North Dakota. One year gamblers put up $503,000,000 bets on horse racing. The State taxed the total handle one percent. One quarter of one percent of that went to the state and three quarters of a percent went back into the horse racing industry.

One Australian bettor wagered $100 million a year on horse racing. “When someone like you or I get to a horse race and we bet and we lose, those guys are collecting,” he explains.

Satran doesn’t have horses anymore. “I did a dumb thing,” he says, telling of being dumped in a hard arena a few years back. “I moaned and moaned. I said to myself, ‘stop moaning,’ and I couldn’t. I haven’t been on a horse for a number of years, but I’d like to. I’m getting old,” he said.

Still, he recalls vividly, a race he witnessed as the racing director recently:

“The sixth race one Saturday included 12-yr-old TB mare Moody Blues “as relaxed as any pro, aging boxer.” Cruising at the back of the pack out of the gate may have disappointed her bettors, but Winston says, “on the back stretch a miracle started to happen. Passing one horse after another she gained on the lead. Not providing any extra effort, she was lengthening her stride, relaxed as could be. She nosed into first place at the finish line! Who said seniors can’t win by using experience and knowledge?

Married to is wife Barbara for 51 years, Satran has two daughters, Julie, married to Darwin Schaff, three sons. Live in Billings, Mt. Shelly, married to Kent Annan, two children a daughter and son. Live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.


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