After a life caught up in a “revolving door” of drugs and trouble, a 41-year-old Virginia inmate who found his calling working with retired racehorses at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, will exit prison this coming September and go straight to work at a well-known racehorse facility.
Jason Holland, a model inmate at the James River Work Center who is lauded as a talented individual who possesses a natural gift for handling difficult horses, will step out of prison and onto the green grass of Horseshoe Hill Farm in Virginia.
And just like that, a man who had previously worried about how he would convince a prospective employer to give him a chance after prison, and a farm proprietor in search of a competent horseman, cemented a win-win partnership suiting both their needs.
“I was pretty thrilled when I found out there was someone willing to take a chance on me,” Holland says. “It’s a great opportunity; I even have a few butterflies.”
Stephanie Nixon, owner of the Ashland, Va. farm that will employ Holland, says she decided to offer Holland a job after observing his relationship with horses. She has had many opportunities to watch him in her role of board president of the James River Second Chances program, which teaches inmates marketable horsemanship skills with the help of retired racehorses. Every time she happened upon Holland on the job, she was further impressed by his quiet confidence when dealing with horses, and with the increasing responsibilities he has shouldered.
“I’ve seen Jason quite a bit over the years, and one of the things that really impresses me is his patience. This is a trait that’s really important working with Yearlings,” Nixon says, noting that he has also become integral in the program itself, becoming a senior teaching assistant. “I knew I had to hire him. I really, really support this program, and what better way to support it than to help one of its graduates? They’ve already got all the skills for the work and Jason has the perfect laidback personality for the work.”
Before he was incarcerated at James River, Holland knew nothing about horses, but as a child used to dream of one day becoming a veterinarian, he says.
After a hard life leading to incarceration, there was no one more surprised than Holland when he discovered that boyhood love for animals, so many years past, was still close to his heart. “When I heard there was a program working with horses, I thought, sign me up,” he says. “Everything just fell into place after that. I got in relatively easily, and I watched and learned—I sucked it up like a sponge. And I guess people noticed.”
The whole experience of working with horses has been a blessing, he adds.
“It has just given me a whole new outlook on myself and what I can do. In the past I’ve struggled with confidence and believing in myself,” he says. “This program, and working with these horses, has really given me the confidence to do what I need to do. I feel that for once in my life I’m taking control of my life, and all I want now is to succeed.”
Barn manager Melissa Jensen has witnessed the transformation, which inspires her and gives her hope for her star pupil.
“If you ask him, he’ll talk about his struggles with addiction. He told me it’s like he’s been dragging a ball and chain around with him for 25 years,” Jensen says. “Now he’s ready to live his life. When he was living the addict’s life, he wasn’t exposed to all the good things that life has to offer us. But he’s proven to be a super guy. It takes a very special person like Jason to get the unanimous recommendation of everyone who has worked with him; he’s going to be a tremendous asset at Stephanie’s farm.”