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Old Racehorses Give Prisoners Second Chance

  • Sahar Sarshar

GOOCHLAND COUNTY, Virginia — At the James River Work Center, a prison in the central part of the state of Virginia, inmates are taught to care for retired racehorses.

It’s a second chance for all involved. The non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation saves former race horses from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. At the same time, the horses prepare prison inmates for life after incarceration.

“When they asked me if I was interested in this program, I jumped on the opportunity," says one inmate, "because how could you not love these creatures?”

In the course of the six-month program, the men learn about horse behavior, grooming, anatomy, health and horse care. They also become very fond of their charges.

“This is my horse Covert Action," says an inmate named Elliot. "This is the grandson of Secretariat. He's a good horse. If you remember Secretariat, that's the horse that won the race in the Belmont.”

Inmate Ryan says there are signs the animal he cares for was a racehorse. “I think he had a typical race track life. He showed signs of steroid injections, side effects of that is biting, nipping, you can feel scar tissue from the injections.”

The horses are fed twice a day, groomed and checked for injuries or health concerns. Some are ridden to prepare them for adoption as riding and companion horses.

While the inmates’ training program also includes classroom work, instructor Reid McLellan says the hands-on experience is the important thing.

“It's that spending every day in the stall with those horses… and horses don't put up with the kind of false bravado," McLellan says. "They recognize false bravado right away. And they'll teach them a lesson that that's not the way to be in harmony with this big 1,000-pound [453.5 kilograms] animal in that stall.”

Will, an inmate and graduate of the program, is now a teaching assistant. He'll finish serving his prison term in September and already has a job lined up.

His horse, Happy, is also starting a new life, and has already been adopted.

"Happy was the first horse I'd been around. She suffered an injury in the field. She was a needless to say, a cantankerous thing," Will says. "I guess something changed in her. She's very likable now. Loves attention.”

It was not just Happy who changed. Ann Ticker, of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, says Will also had some behavior issues at first.

“Will came into the program a very insecure young man from a troubled background," she says. "He had no idea what he wanted to do...Will is now a confident young man. We have a wonderful job for him and a place to live.”

With an opportunity awaiting him when he's released, Will is confident that he can turn his life around.

“I don't ever want to go back to the person that I was, or come back to here," he says.

The odds are in Will's favor. According to program organizers, few of the inmates who complete the program return to prison. Both animals and inmates alike seem to be taking advantage of this second chance.

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