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“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” ~ Winston Churchill
by Megan Arszman
Even when we’re at our worst, horses somehow manage to bring out our best. Even if a horse might be down and out, because it didn’t make much of a living on the racetrack or just aged out of use, he looks for and brings out the positive in the humans that provide him care. The horses that are part of the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) Second Chances inmate program are looking to be rehabilitated, while, at the same time, helping to rehabilitate men and women who have been incarcerated.
Dairy Humble Beginnings
Thirty-one years ago, State Senator Howard Nolan, a founding board member of the TRF, was driving by the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York when he spotted an abandoned dairy barn at the prison farm. Knowing the TRF was looking for a place they could afford to board and work with retired Thoroughbreds, he and TRF founder Monique Koehler worked out a deal with the New York Department of Correctional Services so the foundation could keep horses there, while inmates were trained to care for the animals. It was a win-win for both parties. Inmates helped convert the dairy barn into a horse barn; they replaced the fencing and cleaned up the surrounding area. Then, they went to work with the horses, launching the Second Chances program.
Since then, the TRF has saved more than 4,000 Thoroughbreds from neglect, abuse, and slaughter. There are now nine TRF Second Chances facilities located in nine states—California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, and Virginia. There are plans to expand more in Massachusetts and hopefully Delaware and Louisiana in the near future. To date, there are more than 950 horses in the TRF program.
To be eligible for the program, inmates have to be within a certain time period of the possibility of obtaining parole and be eligible to work outside the prison. Any inmate that meets this qualification can apply for the program. Certain inmates are never eligible, such as sex offenders.
“[Retired racehorses] have a unique way about them because of what their life has been like on the track,” explains TRF Vice President Diana Pikulski. “That gives them certain qualities and issues that make them particularly good at being therapy horses.
“Men and women in prison can relate to a lot of what these retired Thoroughbreds have gone through. That really allows the men and women to tap into their empathy in a way they didn’t before. Plus, horses can be intimidating to people. The inmates must tackle their fears and then become leaders by using only kindness and trust. Thoroughbreds, in particular, need you to be confident and kind. To be successful, the inmates need to really connect with themselves.”
About 200-300 inmates work with the program each year, and they can stay within the program for an indefinite amount of time. A participant will go through many levels, which can take nine months to even three years to finish. Then, they can choose to stay in the program and continue to work with the horses and help others in the program. Horses that go through the program can be adopted out if they are sound and able to be ridden or adopted as pasture pets. Pikulski points out that most of the unsound horses stay within the program.
When inmates are released from prison, many of them take advantage of their experience with Second Chances and will use placement assistance from the program to start a new life. In just about every state, the racing commissions have agreed to grant licenses to the graduates if they prove they are serious about staying straight. Some graduates of the program go on to work for sales companies, horse trainers, veterinarians, or breeding farms.
“They’ve gone into all parts of the horse industry,” Pikulski says. “In some cases, they may not go on within the horse industry. They may go on and do something else, but they always credit what they learned in the horse program and how it helped them deal with life and people in general, because [the program] changes their core values and how they feel about themselves.”
Coming Out of the Dark…
Growing up with a self-described “diverse” upbringing in Florida, Evelyn Spillman was incarcerated at age 16 for assault and battery with a deadly weapon. Using a pocketknife, she defended herself when three men and one girl jumped her. When the girl went to the hospital, Spillman went to jail.
“It was a very bad deal,” she recalls. “A lot of people say it was unfair, and I would have to agree. But, in the end, I guess all things work out because it ended up changing my life. I try not to regret it or dwell on it too much. I made it out and have done much better than most people in my circumstances.”
As a youth offender, Spillman did three-and-a-half years at the Lowell Correctional Facility in a military-based program. She was then reclassified and sent to spend her last two-and-a-half years in a work camp. During her first week in prison, she heard about the Second Chances program, but she couldn’t be accepted because she was a youth offender. Instead of letting the disappointment of rejection get the best of her, she spent those three-and-a-half years buckled down and figured out what she wanted to do with her life. She finished her GED and graduated with honors, became a squad leader and counselor, and did a lot of extra vocational activities. The first chance she could, she applied again for the program. This time, she was accepted.
“To work with the horses… I can’t say enough about it,” she says. “I absolutely love the program and everything that it stands for.”
She credits John Evans, a former horse trainer and member of The Jockey Club, for being her biggest inspiration and cheerleader while she was working in the Florida program. “He changed my life,” she says. “He pushed me to the point where I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, and he’d continue to push. He told me later that he did so because he saw the potential in me. I thank him over and over for all the times he made me cry, doubt, and question myself, but he always saw the good in me—the good in all of us girls. I’m so fortunate to have met him and got to study under him. I’ve learned so much.”
One of Spillman’s biggest moments in the program was when Evans assigned her to care for and work with the Thoroughbred, Shake You Down, a now 16-year-old gelding with 22 wins in 65 starts and career earnings of more than $1.4 million, and the “top dog” of the farm. Using her previous knowledge growing up with horses and trail riding with her family on the Suwanee River, as well as the knowledge she gained from Evans, Spillman worked with the tough horse to get him to focus and calm down. Slowly he stopped biting, kicking, and thrashing out at Spillman and others. “Seeing the change in him is when I would recall seeing a change in me; I know that now,” she says.
“You really do form a connection with them. You work with them every day, and it’s a job,” she continues. “It’s not just a class or school; it’s a job. You get that relationship and that bond with them. That’s something I’ll never forget or let go of. I think Shake had the biggest impact on me; I say that because of how much I was able to learn about myself through him. All of the horses there, they change you—they all have their own personalities. They just need love, and so do the inmates. That’s all we need—we need love, too.”
Spillman recalls how she felt while incarcerated before joining the program. “It’s really hard for us, because you’re completely stripped of all of your dignity and all your self-worth; you’re nothing. You can’t do that to a human being and expect them to flourish. I can understand you want to break [a person] from every bad habit they’ve had, but at some point you’ve got to be able to build a person back up. If I hadn’t gotten on that farm, I would’ve never experienced that, and I never would’ve gotten built back up. That’s everything that it’s done for me.”
Former jockey and current exercise rider Bryan Beccia agrees with Spillman. While battling addiction and substance abuse, Beccia was arrested and sent to the Blackburn Correctional Facility in Lexington, Kentucky, after completing a substance abuse program. He spent three years in the program, helping the other inmates learn to care for the horses and assisting wherever the director needed him, capitalizing on his lifelong experience on the track.
“At the time I was incarcerated, I was in a bad place. I didn’t want to see other people; I didn’t want to be around the horses,” he recalls. “I did the substance abuse program and got to Blackburn and around the horses and I realized that’s where I was meant to be. I was just wasting my talent, and this was my passion.”
Beccia also praises the program for giving graduates a head start to a new life. “The program itself is probably the best thing the Department of Corrections could ever put out there. It gives people a second chance to where they don’t have to go back out and back to the same thing that got them jailed. It gives them an opportunity, that when they get out, they can go to a farm. The people in the Thoroughbred industry are willing to give people a job. They don’t look down upon you because you’re a convicted felon. If you have a little bit of horse experience, you’re willing to learn, and you’re willing to show up at the farm six or seven days a week, they will give you that opportunity. It’s up to you to make the best of that opportunity. You don’t have to go back and do the same thing you were doing [before].”
On to a New Life…
Upon completion of the program three years ago, Spillman has returned to a new normal. Now, she is the stay-at-home mother of a 3-month-old and is studying through the University of Phoenix to be a human resources coordinator. Ironically, her husband’s mother is an exercise rider for Tim Donahue, the same man who trained Spillman’s beloved Shake You Down.
“If you would’ve asked me three years ago, before I got out of prison, where I was going to be in three years, I definitely would not have said that I’d be in college and a stay-at-home mom. I never would’ve seen that in my future,” she says. “But, I’m very happy with where I’m at now, and I’m very proud of myself.”
Beccia was released from Blackburn in 2011 and had his racing commission license reinstated in 2012. A phone call from an old friend sent him down the path for the Triple Crown in 2014, as the exercise rider for the colt Ride On Curlin. “I had always been known as someone who handles the most difficult horses on the racetrack— so he said he really needed me to get on this horse because he was a handful,” Beccia recalls.
His time in the saddle was successful. The pair enjoyed a trip from Kentucky to Maryland and then New York on the Triple Crown Trail, where Ride On Curlin finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Preakness to California Chrome. Now, they’re preparing for the horse’s 4-year-old campaign and Beccia is excited for the future—both his and Ride On Curlin’s.
“I hope the program continues to grow, because it gives people so many opportunities to learn and grow, not just with horses and in the horse industry,” Spillman says. “I stress that as much as I can, because it’s not just about getting out and being an exercise rider or being a blacksmith. It’s about getting out and knowing yourself and knowing who you are as a woman.”
“Women, in general, are self-conscious and have low self-esteem. We doubt and question ourselves and seek validation. The program teaches you how not to be just a woman but also an individual. That’s the most important role I think it plays, because I really think it changes our lives. It has the ability to change our lives—I don’t want to say it does, because there are some people who get out and, of course, it doesn’t change everyone. But, we have a 98 percent success rate on our farm, and we are the only women’s Second Chance program. I think maybe one in every 30 is re-incarcerated, but that’s one out of 30, and that’s pretty good. No other program can say that.”