It seems fitting that the Abundant Life Chapel sits not far from the pastoral setting where inmates work in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's Second Chances Program at Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, Ky. The program is all about life, extending the lives of retired Thoroughbreds who might otherwise have met awful ends while restoring hope to men whose lives have gone horribly astray and showing them that they are capable of abundant good.
Everett Tucker looks forward to leaving his cell each morning to greet the 54 retirees in the men's care and to find “sweet peace.”
“I'm thankful to be here and be there. It's a blessing,” said Tucker, 33. “It's helped me get to the point where I am. I'm so much of a different person than I was before I got here. My mind was already set to change, but I came a long way.”
As Blackburn prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program with a horse show that will be open to the public on Nov. 6, it became clear that Second Chances is about far more than teaching grooming skills that can eventually lead to entry-level employment in the industry.
Of four inmates interviewed, three spoke of learning the importance of trust. That, after all, is at the core of building a relationship with a 1,100-pound Thoroughbred.
James Peters, 43, is serving a 10-year sentence for wanton endangerment, conduct that can lead to the death or grievous bodily harm to another person. He could not have been more direct in discussing the subject of trust.
“When I was on the street, a lot of people didn't trust me and I probably wasn't to be trusted,” he said. “To get a little trust back, even if it's from a horse or whatever, it kind of makes you realize that you still can be trusted. I don't know. It just makes you feel a little better about yourself.”
Inmates quickly learn that horses respond much better to a gentle touch than any suggestion of force.
“You don't want to be in a fenced-in area with a scared horse,” said Austin Moore, 21. “As long as you know how to be careful around them and you respect the horse, you are not really in much danger.”
Reid “Mac” McLellan has taught grooming skills at various correctional facilities since 2005. He has seen horses soften the most hardened of criminals.
“What they do in bringing peace and harmony to a horse, it brings peace and harmony to their lives, too,” McLellan said.
He spoke of a prisoner in Wateree, S.C., who told him he thought he was on a road to ruin before he met a mare named I Do Declare. His interaction with her was life-changing. “I know I will never come back,” the prisoner told McLellan.
The primary aim of Second Chances and other vocational programs is to reduce recidivism by helping inmates to lead productive lives.
“Teaching them job skills is one of the biggest factors in keeping them out,” said Amy Robey, Blackburn's warden. “Some never had jobs before, and they are 35 years old.”
The Blackburn program is one of seven sites operated under the auspices of the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which uses the powerful theme “Saving Horses and Saving Lives.” Second Chances, which relies solely on donations, was established in 1984 when the gelding Promised Road was sent to Wallkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York as his new home.
“It is a great program because it is helping the horses but it is also helping the offenders which, in turn, helps society,” Robey said.
She emphasized how much more is accomplished beyond vocational training. “They may not leave here being the best groom in the state. They may not leave here being a groom,” she said. “But they will leave here with something. They may leave here being a better parent because they learned patience and empathy. They will take some skill from this program, and it will change them emotionally.”
For many inmates, life before incarceration revolved around self-preservation in a world in which they did not quite seem to fit.
“Being aware of something other than yourself is a very important element of it,” McLellan said of prison aftercare. “They actually take ownership a lot of times of their horse. 'She's my horse.' 'That's my horse.' ”
If Tucker could have his way, he would keep Invincible Vince as part of his life following his release and take him home to his two sons, ages 7 and 2.
“He's a great horse. I've got him trained. I've been working with him a lot,” Tucker said. “When they first brought him to the barn, he was wild. He was kicking. But I think he was just scared.
“I think he's the nicest looking horse down there because I keep him cleaned up. His feet look good, and I keep him combed. He shines like a new penny.”
Tucker spoke longingly of the possibility of parole while keeping Invincible Vince as part of his life.
“Next year, if I could get out of here, I'd probably try to adopt him,” he said. “If I could do that, I would come back and get him.”
If an adoption cannot be arranged, perhaps Tucker can leave a changed man. Perhaps he has finally found “sweet peace” he can hold onto forever.
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