On the right track prisoners and horses working together to heal


For many people, summer in the Capital Region means frequent trips to the Saratoga Racecourse to cheer on favored thoroughbreds in the hopes of winning a few dollars.

Few people give thought to what becomes of those horses once they are no longer able to race. After all, the average thoroughbred retires from racing by the time he or she is nine-years old, but horses may live to be 30.  Where do they go?

Well, the lucky ones end up in prison.

That is, they become part of the Second Chances program operated by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Saratoga Springs.

Founded in 1983, the TRF is the oldest and largest equine sanctuary in the world.  Over the past three decades, it has saved about 4,000 former racehorses from neglect, abuse or slaughter.  At the moment, it is caring for nearly 1,000 thoroughbreds at 10 correctional facilities and 15 private farms across the country.

Through Second Chances, inmates at the 10 prisons, including Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County, learn to care for horses by taking part in the Groom Elite vocational training program.  In the process, the lives of both the horses and the inmates are forever changed.

“It is just an awesome thing to watch,” said Jim Tremper, farm manager and vocational instructor at Wallkill. “There are absolutely benefits on both sides. Even the guys who don’t think they’ve been changed by this program—I’ve seen a change in them.”

Tremper has been with Second Chances since the program started, at Wallkill, 30 years ago.  In that time, he has seen more than 600 inmates care for nearly 400 horses.

Among them was Dax Rodriquez, who in 1991, was convicted of attempted murder stemming from a drug deal gone wrong.  He arrived at Wallkill in the spring of 2005, and soon after began working on the horse farm.  He was released in 2008, and today, the 43-year-old Rodriquez is a newlywed with an infant son and a position working with pregnant mares and foals at Stone Bridge Farm in Saratoga County.

“The program didn’t give me a job, it gave me a career,” he said.

Diane Pikulski, vice president of External Affairs for the TRF, said the organization did not start out with the goal of helping inmates. It just happened that way.

It all began in the 1970s, when an ad executive named Monique Koehler read a newspaper column about the plight of retired thoroughbreds. She met with the trainer featured in the story, and the idea for the TRF was born.

But Koehler knew nothing about horses, so she began frequenting the stable where Pikulski, then in high school, was working as an instructor.  At the same time, Koehler was calling people in the racing industry—none of whom she had ever met—to drum up support for her cause. 

Years passed. Pikulski attended law school, but worked for Koehler during the summers.  They were looking for a farm to keep horses on when former New York Senator Howard Nolan, a member of the TRF board of directors, suggested the former dairy farm at Wallkill.

Once the farm was built and operating, it became apparent that the inmates would also benefit.

“We started using the phrase, which is somewhat cliché, ‘The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,’” said Pikulski, who became a full-time employee of the TRF in 1997.

Since the Wallkill farm opened in 1984, the Second Chance program has expanded to correctional facilities in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Virginia.

Most horses come to the TRF through owners, trainers and others who want to see them well cared for. Others are found abandoned at livestock auctions. Pikulski said that while many in the racing and breeding industries have come to understand the need to care for retired thoroughbreds, financial pressures make it difficult for them to do it themselves.

The TRF can only take on as many horses as it can afford to feed.  It is responsible for all costs of caring for the horses at the prisons.  The 15 private farm owners who have taken in horses are paid a daily stipend.

The organization operates on a budget of about $2.7 million a year.  In 2001, it received an $8 million endowment from the estate of Paul Mellon, a breeder and philanthropist.  It can use five percent of the market value of the endowment each year. 

“So that is about $400,000,” Pikulski said. “The rest of it has to be raised. We are reliant on donations.”

Thoroughbreds tend to live longer under the care of the TRF than they otherwise would.  The oldest horse at Wallkill is 34.

“The secret is we give them a more natural environment,” Tremper said.  ”Putting them in stalls and isolating them in a small area, when they are claustrophobic to begin with, doesn’t really make for a long and happy life.  So we put them in herds, in sheds. They get to be horses.  They like that. They live longer.”

At the moment, Wallkill inmates are caring for 45 retired racehorses.

In order to be part of the program, inmates must be at a point in their sentence where they are allowed outside the prison fence, although there is always a security guard at the farm.  Many started out in high custody.

“We’ve had guys with manslaughters, murders, drug sales, possessions, weapons charges, you name it,” Tremper said.  “Everything but the sex crimes.”

He said some inmates only last a week in the program, while others stay for several months or even years.

Rodriquez was in Second Chances for about two-and-a-half years. He said that for the first few months he was just “going through the motions.”  But as time went on, he realized his days were flying by and he enjoyed the work, and he focused on getting the Groom Elite certification.

Tremper said he has seen the biggest changes in the most violent offenders.  They quickly learn that the horses do not tolerate aggression, and adopt a more gentle hand that carries over into their interactions with people.

Pikulski explained that the theory behind equine-assisted psychotherapy is that, because of the manner in which horses process human actions, the horse ends up “standing in” for the closest people in the person’s life.

“So if a guy has issues with his family members, working with horses helps him be more successful in those relationships when he gets out,” she said.
The inmates also gain job skills, including a valuable sense of accountability.

“One thing that is important is getting up every day and having the responsibility to take care of a life,” Tremper said. “I’ve seen guys who have had jobs before and they fell off those habits, and they get back into those habits. That’s a good thing. Other guys never had a job, so they start the practice of getting up at a regular time and getting to work.”

Some inmates who leave the program end up working with horses, like Rodriquez, who found his job at Stone Bridge with Pikulski’s help.  Many take their new skills to other professions.

“I’ve seen guys who had a life of crime, been violent and had all kinds of problems with socialization and working with other people turn their lives around and become counselors or teachers and things like that,” Tremper said. “That is the neatest thing to watch.”

Some of the thoroughbreds also find new careers, usually as riding horses.  But most live out their days happy on the farm, having gone through much the same transformation as the inmates.

“The horses—when you see them on the racetrack, that is like an alien beast compared to what they are like when they retire,” Pikulski said. “They settle down and become easy to be around. They gain a lot of weight. They just really relax.”

For more information visit www.trfinc.org

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation events

July 21 – Hay, Oats, and Spaghetti – A great night of wonderful Italian food, music, and small silent auction at Mama Mia Restaurant in Saratoga. www.trfinc.org/c191/Hay-Oats-Spaghetti-c168.html

August 3 – Bow Ties and Bourbon – Signature fundraising event. Enjoy Hatties Southern Food and kicking up your heels for the horses. 6pm-10pm. Canfield Casino, Saratoga Springs.

September 6 – Annual 5K run. http://www.trfinc.org/c191/2014-Run-for-the-Horses-5K-c119.html


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