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By Kelsey Riley

Six months ago, Robert Godfrey didn’t know much about horses. Actually, he admits, he was nervous of them.

None of that shows now.

Godfrey, an inmate at the Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, Kentucky, strokes Red, a strapping chestnut Thoroughbred gelding, slipping him treats over the fence while a handful of other ex-racehorses mill about in the background.

“Red has his own personality in this group. He’s outgoing and he likes to have fun,” Godfrey said. “He’s like the semi alpha in the group. But Red, he’s a good guy. A big, pretty horse, and I just like to work with him every day.”

Red is clearly smitten with Godfrey, too, and in fact, the pair have more in common than immediately meets the eye. Each of them arrived at Blackburn, a minimum security prison on the edge of Lexington, in need of a second chance.

Red, for one, found himself left behind in his first career-he raced twice, and trailed in last both times. A brief renaissance as a dressage horse bore similarly little fruit, but Red has now happily found his niche as a member of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances herd at Blackburn.

The Second Chances programs-of which there are nine across the country-give inmates at minimum security prisons the opportunity to work with off-track Thoroughbreds while serving their sentences. But the program isn’t just a way to pass the time; it is an intense educational course that spans all aspects of equine care from foaling straight through to tacking up; injuries and their treatment, pasture management and nutrition. At the end of the six months, the inmates must pass a 300-question exam to graduate.

Programs like Second Chances, which sends its participants back into society with new skill sets and new mind sets, highlight a huge opportunity for the American prison system. Over 2.3-million Americans-almost a quarter of the world’s entire imprisoned population-are currently behind bars in a system that costs roughly $80-billion a year to operate, and that is only direct spending, not factoring in the indirect costs of incarceration. That figure looks more like $1-trillion.

And after all that, rates of recidivism run disturbingly high. A study conducted on prisoners at state prisons (like Blackburn) that were released in 2005 revealed that 77% were re-arrested by 2010, with 43% returning to prison.

However, in 2013, the largest-ever analysis of correctional educational studies was published by RAND, and it revealed that prisons that run vocational programs like Second Chances, where inmates learn a skill, have recidivism rates 43% lower than prisons without vocational programs. Prisoners who received vocational training while incarcerated were deemed 28% more likely to find employment after release than those who didn’t receive training. The study also showed that while it costs $1400 to $1744 per inmates to run the programs, costs associated with recidivism run $8700 to $9700. Exact numbers for prisoners that partake in Second Chances are not readily available, but the nine prisons that run Second Chances programs (all minimum security prisons-no violent offenders) have experienced reduced recidivism rates.

Diana Pikulski, the TRF’s longtime executive director who recently retired after serving various roles within that organization, was involved in the development of Second Chances in the early 1980s and she said that while studies on recidivism are a more recent phenomenon, positive feedback after the first chapter of the program opened at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York was almost immediate. “What we were told early on was that the incidences of bad behavior in the facility were much, much lower, or non-existent, with men who were in the program,” Pikulski said.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Blackburn and meet the men in the Second Chances program. None of the four I sat down and spoke with had had experience with horses prior to entering the program. All of them said they wanted to continue their involvement with horses once they left.

Godfrey was one of them, and he admitted it took him some time to gain confidence around the animals. Red was one of those that helped him overcome his trepidation.

“He was one of the first horses that helped me get over my fear of horses, so I like to come down and feed him every day,” Godfrey said, still showering Red liberally with treats. “We come back here every day but I give Red a little special attention,” he added. “Some of them get jealous because Red gets fed the most, so I hope they don’t get mad at him.”

As Godfrey dotes on Red, one of his contemporaries, Joshua Hyatt, darts around among the herd of an adjacent paddock, keen to show us a few of the horses’ tricks. One smiles for him; another spins on command.

Hyatt revealed that he wants to take his two favorite horses from the program with him when he leaves the prison.

“I have a bit of land in Indiana and my family never really had horses, but now that I have this knowledge I’d like to adopt a couple horses,” he said. “I have two here that I was thinking if I could get them to agree to it, I’d take them with me.”

Devanei Miller is another inmate who admitted he knew nothing about horses before the program, but now that he has learned more about the Thoroughbred business, he is interested in getting involved.

“I would love to, honestly,” he said. “I didn’t know it was such a lucrative business. I’ve found out I was in the wrong business! Now that I know that I’d definitely like to figure out how to get inside the horse business.”

Of the horses at Blackburn, he said, “They’re more docile and calmer up close. When you see them from afar they kind of look tough and scary, but when you get close to them, not at all.”

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Linda Dyer runs the Second Chances program at Blackburn, and she said the positive effect of the horses on the inmates is evident pretty quickly.

“I have some of them start out that have never been around a horse before and they’re a little afraid of them,” she said. “It takes them a week or two usually and they get used to them. They start little bit by little bit. I have them learn to groom first and then pick their feet.”

“They tell me all the time the horses relax them. They can tell a horse anything they want and the horse keeps that secret, so they talk to the horses a lot, too. You see them hugging them all the time and they’ll tell you, ‘these horses are really good for me.’”

“They learn patience, they learn compassion, and the biggest thing they learn is responsibility,” Dyer said. “I had one guy that was working with a horse and you could see him getting frustrated because he wasn’t getting instant results. I said, ‘sometimes it takes a while and you have to have patience.’ It taught him patience. I said, ‘you’ll get your results but you may have to work at it a bit first.’ He did, and he got his results.”

Dyer said there is interest from the area’s Thoroughbred farms to take on the Second Chances graduates as staff. She describes one graduate that has gone on to a career in the Thoroughbred industry, and the TRF says graduates from across the country have gone on to be farriers, vet assistants and caretakers.

“I had one [inmate] that had an 8-year-old daughter that was horse crazy, and he wanted to be able to do something with her when he got out,” she said. “He learned everything he was supposed to learn and he had a knack with horses, he was good. He said he probably wouldn’t work on a farm because he had to pay child support and he couldn’t afford it, but he applied to a number of jobs when he got out and a horse farm was the only one that called him back. That was Fares Farm and they hired him and gave him his own barn and eight mares because they couldn’t believe how much he knew. They were able to give him some extra hours so he was able to keep working there and made enough money.”

The knowledge the inmates have gleaned is readily apparent.

“We do a lot of basic horse management,” said Hyatt after rasping one of the horse’s hooves. “We go out and check them for cuts or injuries. Being springtime there’s a lot of abscesses you have to deal with and wrap, and make sure they’re not overweight, which can cause founder. And being springtime we have a lot of dew poisoning to deal with.

For all the benefits for its human participants, the positive reverberations for their equine counterparts cannot be underestimated. The TRF has a total herd of about 700 horses spread across the country, with the vast majority having come off the track ‘pasture sound,’ meaning injuries and wear and tear associated with racing have left them physically unable to be ridden. We are accustomed to hearing fantastic stories about ex-racehorses going on to excel at all kinds of equine disciplines, from top-level eventing to barrel racing, but it is these horses that don’t have that opportunity that are likely to slip through the cracks. And they, for contributing to the livelihoods of those of us who work in racing, deserve a long and happy life just as much as the others.

Pikulski said when the TRF was founded some 35 years ago, programs for ex-racehorses did not exist, and thus Second Chances was very much a pioneering concept.

“It put the issue on the map and it showed right off the bat that these horses, even if they couldn’t go on to be a great Thoroughbred in the show world, they could live naturally, be turned out and be in a group and not be high maintenance, and be friendly, low key, personal and therapeutic,” Pikulski said. “It created this sanctuary, and I mean that in the big sense, not just in the physical sense.”

The herd at Blackburn, which currently numbers 49 off-track Thoroughbreds, is largely senior, and the facility is an important sanctuary for horses that came off the track not sound enough for an athletic second career, or those that need a retirement home later in life.

“The herd we have now is getting pretty old,” Dyer said. “I’ve been here 13 years and probably a third of them were here already. We have 49 horses right now, and 34 of them are over 20, and 10 of them are over 25. It’s a senior citizen farm, but it’s great because it really teaches [the inmates] compassion and they really go out of their way to take care of them.”

The result is a mutual respect, trust and understanding.

“One of the first guys in the program at Wallkill was a Vietnam vet who was very violent and very, very difficult to deal with in the prison,” Pikulski recalled. “It was a very short period of time before this guy did a 180-degree turnaround, and it was all because of the horses. The formula there–the intimidating, large horse who is a prey animal and needs to trust the person, and the person then needs to become trustworthy and worthy of that horse’s love and respect–is the symbiotic relationship of mutual respect and understanding that transforms the worst elements of [the inmates] into exactly what we want them to become: patient, understanding, trustworthy, kind and empathetic. Only horses can do that, and Thoroughbreds can do it better than any other horse.”

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