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.
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.
“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.”