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National Perspective | REHABILITATION

Program Mends the Spirits of Broken Men, Broken Horses

Hope is in abundance in prison barn. Inmates get the opportunity to 'make a difference' with thoroughbreds saved from the slaughterhouse.

February 20, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The prison barn offers a second chance.

A second chance for thoroughbred racehorses with bad knees or fractured fetlocks--injuries that would normally doom them to the slaughterhouse.

A second chance, too, for dope dealers, burglars, assailants--men who have messed up their lives and want now to make good.

In the prison barn, there is hope.

The barn smells of manure and hay, and 15 inmates in grungy work clothes spend all day, every day there, caring for 62 horses. The convicts groom and exercise the horses. Grow alfalfa to feed them. Muck out their stalls, tend their injuries, and, unabashed, nuzzle them nose to nose.

The men are prisoners at the Blackburn Correctional Complex. The horses, wards of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving racehorses from slaughter. It's an arrangement that seems to suit all parties:

The prison gets a job-training program.

The foundation gets free land and free labor.

The horses get devoted care.

And the men get a chance to feel good about themselves.

"It gives you a sense of purpose," said Josh Wyatt, a 20-year-old from northern Kentucky serving 10 years for arson and burglary.

Wyatt rubbed the ears of a fuzzy, crooked-leg colt. He walked down the barn, pointing out this horse with a swollen ankle, that horse with an infected shoulder, this one with degenerative nerve disease. He paused at one stall. "The guy who takes care of this one pampers . . . him," he said. It was clear he thoroughly approved.

"The horses," Wyatt said, "they depend on you."

About 7,000 thoroughbreds, some of them champion racers, end up in the slaughterhouse each year, hung by one leg and slit open. They are too old or too broken to race. They are not in demand as studs. And feeding them is expensive. So their owners sell them for a few hundred dollars for human consumption abroad. Perhaps the classic example is the racehorse Exceller, who won $1.7 million during his career in the 1970s but ended up sold by the pound to the slaughterhouse.

A Protecting Hand for Thoroughbreds

The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation has spent nearly 20 years trying to save these horses from slaughter. With a $1-million annual budget--cobbled together entirely from donations--the foundation buys washed-up thoroughbreds at meat auctions, rehabilitates them and seeks loving owners to adopt them.

Although thoroughbreds account for just 10% of the horses slaughtered in the United States each year, the organization focuses on them exclusively. It is sheltering 335 horses, including 134 on prison farms that are being looked after by about five dozen inmates.

"It's easier to try to come up with a solution when you're dealing with a smaller number of animals," said the organization's executive director, Diana Pikulski. "Once we solve the problem for thoroughbreds, we can move on to other horses."

That remains a far-off goal. Only 40% of the horses that the organization takes in find adoptive homes. The rest remain on the group's retirement farms for life--more than two decades, in some cases. Meanwhile, new animals keep coming in.

Prison programs represent an inexpensive way for the foundation to expand. The foundation has run a farm at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York since 1984. It also has a program at a juvenile detention center in Maryland and just opened one last month at a prison in central Florida, which will take in about 55 horses when the program gets up and running. The Blackburn farm has been operating since the fall of 1999, on 100 acres of bluegrass next to the prison, donated by the state of Kentucky.

Silent Deputy is here. So are Logan's Blush and Gentle Giant and a horse the men call Bob. They're not famous racers. But the inmates know their pedigrees by heart: This one is the half-brother of the filly that ran the Belmont Stakes. This, the son of a Kentucky Derby champ. One old horse, dubbed Grandpa, has 100 small-time racing victories to his name.

Every time Warden Steve Haney stops by the barn, the inmates pull him aside to tell him about the horses, pointing out those they have nursed to health. "They always take a lot of pride," Haney said. The program is so popular, there's a waiting list to join.

It's easy to see the appeal.

Blackburn is a minimum-security prison, with barracks-style bunkhouses rather than individual cells. There are no window bars and no barbed-wire fences. In fact, the place looks like an elite boarding school, with red brick buildings on a grassy campus. All 394 inmates have jobs: They mow lawns or serve lunch, learn carpentry or welding, pick up trash along state highways.

Even in this relaxed environment, however, the inmates on the horse farm enjoy extraordinary freedom. "I don't stand over their shoulders and watch them work," said Jeff Oliver, a corrections official who works full time as the farm manager.

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