A woman who once galloped horses and groomed for legendary horsemen—Sir Henry Cecil, John Gosden and Henry Jones among them—now finds meaning and inspiration at the Vandalia Correctional Facility in Illinois.
In a careworn barn far from the glitz and glamor of her old stomping grounds at Royal Ascot, Nicki Wheeler, originally from Scotland, teaches inmates from Chicago how to care for and trust thousand-pound ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds.
Serving as the barn manager and equine instructor for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances program, Wheeler works with inmates, teaching them valuable horsemanship skills while they care for some of the 900 horses retired at the nation’s oldest and largest Thoroughbred charity.
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Wheeler discusses how the inmates learn to overcome their apprehensions around horses and learn to build trust and confidence.
Q: What was your most memorable experience teaching an inmate about horses?
That has to be this time we had a city boy working in the stall, learning how to put on a halter. The horse blew his nose and the guy screamed and ran off down the aisle!
Q: How do keep inmates calm?
I just give them Remember Cass, a 22-year-old gelding who is as slow as you can get. They get quite relaxed with him, to the point that they even complain after a while about how slow he is. They say he takes forever to walk in. But they also learn the horse is quite sneaky, and if they’re not ready, he can jump and kick as well as the others when it suits him.
Q: What do you think the biggest lessons are that horses have to teach inmates?
Patience and understanding. The guys soon learn that horses do have their own minds and will do what they want if they can get away with it.
Q: How have the horses helped them?
Several have remarked that the horses have really helped them get through their lockup experience and bring a calm to them. So, instead of getting frustrated with other inmates they come outside and take care of these beautiful animals, and get loved in return.
Q: How has working with inmates impacted your life?
It was a real eye-opener for me to see criminals of a low category, who’d been jailed and who came from all walks of life, really take to the horse program. It has really fulfilled my expectations to see these city type guys come out in all weather and tramp through mud or dust and actually be concerned about something other than themselves. And they actually listen to a small woman with a strange accent!
Q: What is your background, and why are you doing this work?
I’ve been in horse racing all my life. I’ve ridden some of the best-bred horses in the world and been fortunate to have ridden on the racetrack, which was not very easy work for a young woman.
I’ve never had a day when I was not involved with horses in some way, so when this job came up I thought it was just perfect because it allowed me to continue working with Thoroughbreds. But, there was no riding out on cold mornings and nonstop talk about them afterwards, which is very much a relief to my husband. By the time I get home from work, he knows I will not bore him with my horse stories.
Q: Who is your favorite OTTB and why?
My own OTTB, Silent Retreat. He ran at Fairmount Park and is fifth generation Secretariat, on both sides. But unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the speed. But he has the looks and we’re both learning a new sport together. We’ve have accomplished a LOT this year, winning lots of blue ribbons, and he has been tremendous fun. I just adore him.
Q: What are your goals for the Second Chances program?
I hope to keep rolling out Groom Elite/Second Chances (graduates) and getting them to where Reid McLellan (Groom Elite Director/Examiner) would like them to be. And hopefully we’ll continue to keep these unwanted racehorses coming through our program so we can refurbish them, and get them ready to go out to new homes. And for the ones who will never be re-homed, they’ll still be here getting LOTS of attention from our guys.
Q: How has this work changed you and your outlook?
I see these inmates differently, now that I’ve realized they are really not all hardened criminals. Mostly they’re young guys who took a wrong direction in life, and who now hope that their training here with horses will help them move forward into work that is more law-abiding.
And for myself, I feel gratified that I’m helping unwanted Thoroughbreds by giving them the love and care they deserve, and at the same time, pointing guys in the right direction so that they’re ready to make the right decisions when they get beyond the barbed wire.