A former South Carolina inmate who learned horsemanship skills while in prison has so thoroughly turned his life around that he now holds an integral position at a major dressage and hunter/jumper barn in Atlanta.
Christopher Griffin says he owes his second chance at life to the horses who taught him to love and forgive himself, and the opportunities he gained while working with ex-racehorses at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Program at the Wateree River Correctional Institution. The national program, which teaches horsemanship skills to upstanding inmates, and in turn provides care to ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds, was a godsend for Griffin.
“When you go to prison you lose all your confidence and trust,” Griffin says. “And these animals speak our language. It’s like they know what you’re feeling and it’s incredible. My favorite horse was Reading Rose. And I worked with her in a round pen. When she finally joined up with me it was like she was telling me she trusted me, and it gave me my confidence back.”
With them, he learned the joy of connecting with a sentient being who exuded peace, and also felt the stab of heartache when an old retiree died of colic. “I spent the night in the barn watching over this one horse. We found him in the morning lying down in his paddock, and I got him up and walked him and walked him while we waited for the vet,” he says. “The vet told us he probably wouldn’t make it, but he gave him an IV and I stayed with him watching over him. His name was Finders Keepers. He wound up dying the next morning” in the company of the inmates who cared for and respected the old cribber with a crooked bottom tooth.
But saying goodbye to the old animal in the morning was bittersweet as Griffin simultaneously was saying goodbye to his old life. The former machine shop worker, who served a total of three years for second-degree burglary, felt the force of love coming from the horses he worked with, as a new purpose arose. Now he would look forward to simple pleasures like opening a barn door and inhaling that sweet, sweet smell, or just turning the ignition in the tractor and working the prison farm.
Over time, Griffin learned horsemanship from the ground up. A man with no previous experience with horses absorbed the new knowledge like a sponge. “I took a six month course, and I studied hard,” he says. “They gave me the keys to the barn, the tractor and the golf cart, and even during lockdowns, I worked.”
He was a model inmate and a natural horseman. He learned to trim hooves, groom, care and feed, and best of all, connect with the Thoroughbreds.
And he attained such a high level of trust at the prison that he had clearance to work unsupervised, on weekends, during lockdowns, and even during attempted prison breaks, says William Cox, chairman of the South Carolina Committee of the TRF’s Wateree River Second Chances Program (SCTRF).
“Chris is a guy who came in as a regular inmate and rose up to be the best and most successful inmate to go through our program,” Cox says. “He has the horsemanship skills, but he also has all the machinery skills, barn management, and even the skills to bandage and triage small injuries, and to recognize when something’s really wrong with a horse, and when it’s appropriate to call the vet.”
And for the past year, Griffin has achieved what a relatively small percentage of ex-inmates have: he has turned his life around.
For the past year he has worked full time at the Highpoint Farm in Atlanta, Ga., a full-service hunter/jumper and dressage barn. He helps manage the care of the multi-barn facility, and travels with the barn as a talented horse show groom.
His employer has been so thrilled with Griffin that he has put out a request for more guys like him, says Cox, who adds, “I’m thrilled to death that it has worked out for Chris. He’s such a good guy and so devoted to what he now knows. Eventually I’d like to bring him back here to talk to my guys, and give them hope.”
Though Griffin can’t say he’s happy he went to jail, he is deeply grateful for the experience, he says.
“I feel blessed,” he says. “I’m not glad I was in prison, but I’m a lot happier with my life. I have more peace and serenity. It’s crazy how horses can change you. They teach you how to love and forgive yourself.”