The following appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch at www.richmond.com on February 18th and was written by Sean Gorman.
Scott Frankel said that when he was first brought to the State Farm Work Center, he looked out of the bars of the prison transport van and saw other inmates tending horses in the fields of the state correctional facility off Route 6 in Goochland County.
“I got this immediate calm that came over me,” Frankel said last week during an interview at a horse barn at the facility.
Eventually, it was Frankel’s turn to help take care of the horses housed at the roughly 1,200-acre inmate work center that has rolling hills, fields and barns.
In the summer of 2017, Frankel went through Second Chances, the horse care program at the facility. Now, he’s a teaching assistant in the program, which is a partnership between the Virginia Department of Corrections and the nonprofit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation that provides job training to inmates and a home for former racing thoroughbreds to live out their lives.
“It’s a school rolled in with a job altogether,” said Frankel, who is about a month away from finishing his sentence from an embezzlement case. “[You] completely forget about being incarcerated when you’re working with these animals.”
Anne Tucker, a founder and past president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation chapter at the State Farm Work Center, said 85 inmates have graduated from the six-month basic horse care program since it began in 2007. The chapter has also adopted out 46 horses that have been kept at its Goochland facility. “These horses have a purpose here. That’s the nice thing,” Tucker said. “It’s not just that the guys are taking care of them, but the horses are teaching them so much.” Inmates learn more than just grooming skills but also “about life, about patience, and discipline and responsibility and caring,” she said.
The TRF chapter at the State Farm facility is part of the national Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a nonprofit that says it began in 1983 to provide former racing horses with sanctuaries to live out their golden years rather than being neglected or sent to the slaughterhouse.
In addition to Second Chances at the State Farm Work Center, there are similar programs at correctional facilities in seven other states, Tucker said. The Goochland facility, formerly called the James River Work Center, currently has a herd of 29 thoroughbreds, most of which were former racing horses.
The program provides offenders with a chance to learn some basic horse care skills, which the inmates can then use to get further training toward a job in the equestrian field, said CJ Weldon, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation barn manager at the Goochland facility. That could be as a groomer or as a farrier who puts shoes on horses and tends to their hooves.
“We are providing them the springboard towards those jobs,” Weldon said.
While in the program, the inmates groom the animals, check them over for injuries and illnesses, and help keep the horses’ stalls clean. They also learn a lot about anatomy and the bone structure of horses, she said.
But before they can reach that point, some inmates have to get over their fear of working with such large animals. Most inmates come into the program with little if any experience in dealing with horses, Weldon said.
“I’ve had offenders who have literally never been within 10 feet of a horse,” she said. “The first day they’re here, we’re like ‘go in this little 12 by 12 [foot] space with that animal’ … The horse twitches and the next thing, the offender is up the corner [of the stall] hanging on the bars.”
David Estes, a 44-year-old inmate serving time for grand larceny and breaking and entering, said working with an animal as large as a horse can be intimidating at first.
“But then once you get to see their gentle side — which they are 90 percent of the time, they are very gentle animals — then it becomes almost soothing to work with them,” Estes said.
Fernando Hicks, 44, another inmate who is a teaching assistant in the program, said he’s gotten kicked a couple of times by the horses. “I know they don’t mean it,” Hicks said. “Sometimes they kick out because they’re afraid just as much as we are.” Hicks said he would like to keep working with horses after he’s released. Even if it’s not a full-time job, he said he’d like to do something on the weekends or on a volunteer basis. “This is like a sense of responsibility that I can do something other than what I was doing on the street,” said Hicks, who is incarcerated on drug convictions, of taking part in the program.
Brian Waldron, an inmate who is part of a horse care class that’s expected to graduate next month, said working with horses teaches patience. “A horse can be trying,” said Waldron, a 65-year-old Arlington man serving time for a burglary conviction. “Believe me, they can be trying because they’re high-strung and sometimes they want something their way, and you have to say, ‘it’s going to be this way.’”
Weldon, the barn manager, recalled how Waldron works to calm the trickier personalities among the center’s 29 horses. “Mr. Waldron is really good about maintaining his calm with these horses as aggressive as they’re being, standing there saying, ‘now, now,’” she said.
There are about 200 inmates housed at the State Farm Work Center, which is a minimum-security facility, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
“Community partners play a significant role in our efforts to help offenders prepare for a successful return to society,” said Greg Carter, a Department of Corrections spokesman, in an email. “The partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is a great example.”
Last week, Waldron was feeding cookies to Jonathan’s Gal, one of the thoroughbreds who was inside the barn on a cold, wet Tuesday. Other inmates were petting the horses, looking them over or cleaning out a stall.
In addition to Jonathan’s Gal, there were other horses named Four Wheel Drive, Sandy and Patti’s Storm in the stalls. Among the horses kept at State Farm is Covert Action, the grandson of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner.
At one point during a press visit to the barn last week, Jonathan’s Gal lifted up one of her hind legs, a move that caught the attention of Marcus Carlin, a 34-year-old inmate who is part of the class that’s expected to graduate next month. Carlin conferred with Weldon about what might be going on with the horse. The barn manager suggested perhaps the horse simply had an itch.
“We learned how to watch horses, because the horses can’t talk, but when they do certain body movements, you know what’s wrong with them,” said Carlin, who is incarcerated on possession of stolen property and grand larceny convictions. “If their leg is kind of cocked up, that means they’re relaxed, but sometimes if the horse is trying to bite its stomach, it could be an illness or colic.”
Inmates interviewed at the Goochland facility last week said they wanted to keep working with horses in some capacity after their release. Frankel, 39, said he would like to manage a horse barn after he gets out in less than a month. “I just knew I didn’t want to sit around in prison,” Frankel said of going through the program. “Having made a mistake, you want to make some use of the time. You might as well grow.”
More information about the program can be found at www.trfatjamesriver.com.