For four hours a day, five days a week, some silent form of redemption and rehabilitation plays out at Pleasant Valley State Prison. In the training facility they built with their own hands, 15 men run horses through exercises: they walk them under tarps, cheer them on as they step over fences, and work on getting them resaddled. They have a special bond, the men and horses.
“Every moment of your life is a second chance.”- Rick Price
The men are inmates, locked before prison into a certain way of life. The horses are former racehorses, born only to run. Neither, to some degree, know anything else. Now, thanks to the Pleasant Valley State Prison Equine Care Program, both are getting a second chance.
The Prison Equine Care Program pairs inmates with racehorses, who often need rehabilitation after their racing career. The inmates learn how to work with and rehabilitate the horses, who later go on to new jobs as trail horses, therapy horses and more. Inmates who complete the 18-week program earn 6 units of college credit through West Hills College Coalinga as well as a third party certificate from Groom Elite. The inmates gain the practical experience necessary to secure jobs in equine care after they are released. “This is a great program to rehabilitate both the inmates and the horses,” said PVSP Officer Heidi Richards, who oversees and conceived the initial idea for the program. “It gives the inmates hands on training they can later use to get a rewarding career.”
The program is the only one of its kind currently operating in California and is also an excellent example of private-public partnership.
West Hills Community College District helped to secure the grant funding for the program, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation grant under the Innovative Programming Grants in California Prisons program. The
$300,776 grant will fund the program until 2022.
The program has also received support from Harris Farms, who donated two of the horses being rehabilitated and helped with landscaping and veterinary care, and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chance Program, which has lent support and curriculum development help based on their presence in other prisons. As part of the program, Richards—an alumni of West Hills College Coalinga’s former Equine Science program— and 15 inmates built a new equine care facility at the prison, including five stalls, a training arena, and a pen. The inmates work daily with the horses.
“Racehorses are a lot like inmates in that they often only really know how to do one thing and don’t have the skills they need to move on to something else,” said Richards.
“Our goal is to work with both the inmates and horses to gain those additional skills.”
The program is also just one of many ways that West Hills College Coalinga is involved in inmate education. WHCC is currently facilitating degree programs at Avenal State Prison and Pleasant Valley State Prison for over 300 inmates.
“All of these students have the potential to be our neighbors,” said Sarah Shephard, West Hills College Coalinga Faculty Inmate Education Coordinator. “We have a strong commitment to serving our entire community, including those who are incarcerated. We hope to contribute to lowering the recidivism rate and hone the skills and preparation needed for them to have a successful transition upon release.”
For Terry Brase, Director of the West Hills College Coalinga Farm of the Future, the Equine Care program is a unique example of this kind of outreach.
“Students who have served time are in many cases our most motivated students, so we see value in assisting in their rehabilitation,” said Brase. “Our original plan was something with plants or crop science, but the equine program teaches the inmates something that dealing with plants can’t.”
The Equine Care program is currently rehabilitating four horses, with plans to secure a fifth. The horses were provided by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chance Program and Harris Farms.
During the first few weeks of class—which began on August 16— the inmates learn to handle the horses, including walking them regularly. During the next few weeks after that, they take them through obstacle courses and desensitizing training. The inmates help develop a game plan for the horse, including narrowing down what job the horse might be suited for after retraining.
“The biggest thing we hear across the program is that inmates find the whole experience grounding,” said Chelsea O’Reilly, Program Development Manager for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chance Program. “Once you start working with an animal, you need to learn to listen to it. You’re also not going to be able to bully that animal, but it’s also not going to judge you. It tears everything down to very simple basics.” Similar programs exist in eight other prisons across the country and, in general, have proven to help lower the recidivism rates for inmates involved.
According to Lisa Torres, Assistant Trainer at Harris Farms Horse Division, it gives inmates something to strive toward.
“Can you put a value on someone starting a new life and a horse getting a new life?”, said Torres.
“There is no value on it. If we can change just one person’s life and these guys can attribute that to the horse it’s an awesome feeling. It’s a win-win situation for both.”