A unique endeavor at correctional facilities in six states provides people who are incarcerated with vocational training and an opportunity to participate in the daily care of retired racehorses. Created by the Saratoga Springs, NY-headquartered Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the TRF Second Chances Program teaches skills that will allow graduates to work as grooms, veterinarian assistants and farriers.
Participants, many of whom had never even seen a horse before, not only learn about the animals but develop new found confidence and compassion. And it’s a very popular offering.
Just ask Heidi Richards, a correctional officer who heads up the Equine Second Chance Program – part of the TRF Second Chances Program – at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Calif. Last semester 117 people applied for the 18 available spaces.
Richards became a correctional officer after ten years as a vet assistant working with horses at Harris Farms. She wanted a shorter work week so she could spend more time with her son, and Pleasant Valley State Prison offered the only 40-hour work week around.
“I planned to work here for five years and then go back to Harris, but I really liked it. The only thing missing was the horses. I got in touch with the TRF and was able to piggyback off of all the work that they had done in all the prisons back east,” she says. “But we’re the only one that has it in the prison yard and the only one that’s a college accredited class.”
Setting up the program
Although she got assistance from the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Richards donated 700 hours of her time over a five-year period to get her program up and running. She also applied for grants and was the recipient of two grants from the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation Innovative Programming Awards. The most recent one is for $210,000 and lasts until 2025. Richards still relies on grant money but hopes to convert it to a vocational program, so she doesn’t have to deal with fundraising.
The Equine Second Chance Program started with five horses and now has six. It is a partnership between several entities. “TRF provides all the horses and manages the grants. West Hills Community College provides all the academics. I work 40 hours as an officer and then teach at West Hills College in the evening,” Richards says.
“In the course they learn how to become grooms and could leave here and become one. They learn how to halter the horses, bathe the horses and wrap injuries, basic first aid on horses. The farrier class teaches them how to take the shoes off, trim the horses’ feet and put the shoes back on.” And farriers make good salaries, so it’s a good career option,” she adds.
The initial community college class is six weeks with a total of 90 hours. The second class is eight weeks and 127 hours. The farrier’s class, which just started last year and has had 12 students so far, last six weeks and totals 90 hours.
The curriculum is provided by Dr. Reid McLellan of The Elite Program, which also works with all of the other TRF Second Chances Program locations.
“He came out and certified me to teach the program under him,” Richard says. “They get a nationally recognized Groom Elite certificate that allows them to work in all 50 states and some foreign countries.”
Students sign up for the course. They can’t get in if they’ve been written up or if they have a history of animal cruelty or are convicted sex offenders, but there are currently none of these at Pleasant Valley.
Working with animals reduces recidivism
Beyond the course work, “Two of my students are assigned to work eight hours a day five days a week with the horses. They feed them, clean the pens, and turn them out into the arena every day. They brush the horses, everything you would do as a groom they do here. If the horses need any extra bedding, they take care of that,” says Richards. “They have four companion goats for the horses. Sometimes at the race track the horses need a buddy, so they will have a goat in the hallway or in the stall. Having a goat helps calm the horses down. The goats wander around the yard during the day and are part of the yard.”
Although Richards has seen people come back to prison over and over again, that hasn’t been the case with participants in the equine program. “The ones that are the more interested in the class. The ones who took the time to really get involved with the program. They are the ones that are staying out.”
And many of them want to work on a farm. “’If we go on a farm we’re not going to bump into anyone who helped us come to prison,’ someone told me,” she says. “’I can go work in the horse industry because I’m not worried about bumping into somebody that I used to gang bang with. Nobody’s going to know me.’ Also, horses don’t make any judgement.”
Expanding the program
Encouraged by her success at Pleasant Valley State Prison, Richards is working on expanding with a program at the CIW (California Institution for Women) in Corona, Calif. She’s hopes to get it up and running next summer and is searching for grant money to help build the facility.
In the meantime, she’s putting together an auction of artwork created by people who are incarcerated at her facility. About 40 pieces of art will be auctioned off in January to help raise money for the new program at Corona.
Other TRF Second Chances Program locations
Besides Pleasant Valley State Prison, the TRF Second Chances Program takes place at eight locations in six states. These are:
Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, Ky., with 49 horses.
Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville, Md., with six horses.
Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla., with 44 horses.
Wateree River Correctional Institution in Rembert, SC., with 21 horses.
Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, N.Y., with 38 horses.
Juvenile program at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla., with three horses.
Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., with four horses
Editor’s Note: The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, founded in 1983, is the largest thoroughbred rescue organization in the U.S. Its farms provide care to rescued and retired racehorses who can no longer compete.
Photo credit: Dennis Gallegos