Inmates ace horsemanship class with OTTBs

Edsel Dugais was among the top-scoring class of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's Second Chances program.

Edsel Dugais was among the top-scoring class of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances program. He is pictured with Not with the Maid, who turns 30 in April.

Four inmates who grew up thinking they were no good at school, and who certainly never imagined gaining the trust of thousand-pound Thoroughbred racehorses, graduated last month from a horsemanship program, opening a door to a new world.

With a collective score so high, the group earned a spot as one of the highest-scoring classes to ever graduate the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Second Chances program at James River, according to Dr. Reid McLellan, founding program developer.

After six months of studying horsemanship from nose to tail, and learning to be both herd leader and horse whisperer, each graduated the James River Second Chances Feb. 26 with the hard skills to work in the horse industry, and the life lessons learned from opinionated racehorses who teach within the walls of the red brick and wooden structure known simply as Barn 4.

McLellan presents a diploma to a Second Chances horsemanship grad last month at James River.

McLellan presents a diploma.

During final exams just prior to graduation, Thoroughbreds hung their heads over stall doors and watched as the newly minted grads demonstrated their skills at bandaging, tacking up, and general horsemanship, before acing the written exam, and impressing the heck out of McLellan.

“I’ve been doing this at James River since 2005, and in my experience, this group took the initiative to learn even more than was required,” he says. “They really challenged themselves, and they moved through the program so well that when we did the final assessment, they turned out to have one of the highest group scores overall.”

He adds, “This group, every one of them, no matter what happened, didn’t lose their cool when something went awry. If a horse did something unexpected, they didn’t panic; they just took a deep breath and got it done.”

Seeing the inmates learn how to move a mountain of a horse through a trust-based relationship is something that never gets old, says McLellan, who recalls witnessing breakthrough moments that turn fear into joy.

Graduation day ceremonies took place at Barn 4 at James River.

Graduation day ceremonies took place at Barn 4 , the timeworn red structure where ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds receive care from inmates learning horsemanship skills.

“When visiting this group for their midterm in November … I was instructing them and glanced up in time to see this mare walk over to an inmate and put her head on his chest. He kind of opened his arms up a little to her and I saw it happen. It was one of those moments; the mare just gave herself to him and put her complete confidence and trust in him,” McLellan says. “When the guys see something like that, it has a real impact on them. I’ve seen men who witness an interaction like that, and I swear it looks like they’re walking a foot off the ground after!”

The TRF’s Second Chances program, which offers nonviolent offenders an opportunity to learn valuable work skills while caring for Thoroughbreds, operates in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.

And from Barn 4 at James River in Central Virginia, four new grads have been given a second chance to reenter society with marketable skills, says Melissa Jensen, program director and barn manager. “When we choose the men who participate in Second Chances, we are looking for certain indicators that demonstrate their love of animals, or compassion,” she says. “Once we select our class, we really encourage them and try to help them succeed while learning real skills that could prepare them for an equine-related career. They learn real horsemanship skills, much more than just how to give a horse hay and water.”

And they are better men for it, McLellan adds.

“In my experience, these are guys who’ve been told they’re bad students, or that they can’t learn. And then they take a written exam and come out with a score of 85 or 90 percent,” McLellan says. “This teaches them that they really can learn something they’ve never done before and do it at a level that will qualify them for a job.”

11 responses to “Inmates ace horsemanship class with OTTBs”

  1. LindaVA

    A great program and very near where I live. Need to get to an open house one of these days.

  2. Donna G. Portree

    A beautiful story…I love the part about the total trust of the mare…everybody wins with this type of program…

  3. Maw

    Fantastic program and story! But I wonder how many of these “ex~cons” find work in the horse industry after they’re released?

  4. Geri Hollander

    We have had a couple of grads from this program work at our barn. They are dedicated and skilled. Vets and farriers teach as well. Such a great opportunity for all.

  5. Jamie Bailey

    I think it is a actually rehabilitation for man and horses. Thank you. God will shine on this program.

  6. Michelle Y.

    I work in the prison industry and have seen firsthand how these programs change the inmates. In my state, inmates work with dogs from local shelters as well as training BLM mustangs for sale as riding horses.

  7. Patricia A. Vinson

    A wonderful program for both horses and people. Having a marketable skill, hopefully, will
    help these men find jobs. Good Luck, Guys!!

  8. Lorraine Clark

    Love this article. I hope this valuable program continues to grow.

  9. Charlotte

    Organizations like this and the people who commit their lives to making them work are an inspiration to all of us and a lifeline of second chances for both people and horses who have so much to give. Makes my heart feel good!

  10. Leeanne Meadows Ladin

    We are so proud of these men and appreciate all the good work that TRF at James River does!

  11. Patricia Diers

    This is so wonderful!

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