Second Chances at Wateree

Published 4:57 pm Monday, October 5, 2015

Wateree Pasture

Wateree Pasture

Life In Our Foothills October 2015
By Judy Heinrich

The second stop on our trip to Camden horse country was Wateree River Correctional Institution. The thought of a prison might not conjure up pastoral scenes, but those are exactly what we found.

Wateree is set on 7,000 acres that provide space for a variety of agricultural and vocational programs in which inmates can participate. For the past 12 years, one of those programs has been Second Chances, created and run by the South Carolina Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation in partnership with the national Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

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Second Chances has two objectives: the first is to provide a sanctuary for Thoroughbred horses who are no longer able to compete on the racetrack, thus saving them from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. The second objective is to provide a vocational training program in which non-violent offenders are paired with horses to develop skills that can help them find jobs within the equine industry upon their release.

At the core of the training is the Groom Elite Program – the same program offered at Isothermal Community College’s Polk County campus. Groom Elite was developed in 2001 in Texas, initially to provide additional education to people already working in the stable areas of racetracks there. The program spread to tracks outside of Texas and expanded from a handful of seminars to a full class curriculum culminating in written tests and live skills assessments, through which students can earn Groom Elite certifications.

Wateree began its Groom Elite training in conjunction with its Second Chances program in 2003. Groom Elite at Wateree has been taught by C. Reid McClellan, Ph.D., who has served as executive director of the national Groom Elite program since 2005. McClellan comes to Wateree to work with the program participants for three days at a time, teaching them new skills and giving them new things to study and practice that they’ll be tested on during his next visit.

The first course is 40 hours, with classroom sessions and practical hands-on work with the horses. The inmates work through three levels of Groom Elite training and, at the end of the program, will be able to identify minor health issues or injuries; learn how those can be prevented, treated and managed; and recognize when it’s necessary to call in a vet.

Both elements of the Wateree program – Thoroughbred Retirement and Groom Elite – are overseen by William Cox Jr., chairman of the South Carolina Commission of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

“The Groom Elite program teaches the inmates everything from grooming to conformation to wrapping legs and managing medications. It is pretty close to the US Pony Club grooming program,” Cox says. “And the program impacts participants beyond the skills they learn.

“Working with the horses has a major positive effect on the inmate’s personalities. Many of them have come from a life of crime, drugs, threats, intimidation and force. None of those things work with horses, so the inmates have to learn a new way of relating and dealing with another being.

“Now they come in and love on a horse, attach themselves to a horse, and the horse relies on them. It makes the men calmer, makes them trust. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the retired Thoroughbreds and the inmates, a Second Chance for both, which changes all of their lives for the better.”

While in the program the participants are allowed to come to the barn whenever staff are onsite, to do barn work, learn tractor and pasture management skills, and work with the horses. Five to eight horses are brought in every day to be looked over and given an assessment. The horses are constantly being attended to and reviewed by the men, who also bathe them, do basic grooming, and practice putting bandages on them.

“The inmates benefit from being in that calming environment, doing work outside, and having that diversion,” Cox said. The men at Wateree do ground work with the horses but don’t ride, although some of the inmates we met said they’d like to learn how when they are back outside. Most we talked to had never been around horses previously and were initially amazed that an animal of such size and power would respond to gentle direction from a person.

Full-time staffing for “Seabiscuit Stables,” as the Wateree barn is known, consists of one full-time Department of Corrections officer and four inmates who have completed the Groom Elite program and have been chosen to work at the barn full time. The head inmate is trained to manage the barn and the other inmates take direction from him. The goal is for any of those men to be able to run the whole thing, according to Cox.

Graduates of the program are qualified to pursue careers in the equine industry upon release. And while the department of corrections does not track their progress because of privacy issues, they know that some former inmates have begun working with the Thoroughbred Retirement Program. One of their biggest success stories is a man who now manages a show barn outside Atlanta, with six or seven people working for him.

“We do know that the recidivism rate (return to incarceration) for graduates of the Second Chances program is about 12 percent, compared to the 40-50 percent general recidivism rate tracked nationally by the Department of Corrections,” Cox reported.

An important element of Wateree’s Second Chances program is the groundwork that the inmates do with the horses, helping make them equine good citizens who are suitable for adoption and second careers once their racing days are over. “The program has been very successful in adopting horses out locally and even shipping some out to be cow horses in Colorado,” according to Cox. (See sidebar for adoption details.)

If you’d like to help this worthwhile organization, which relies entirely on philanthropic support, you can choose to make a one-time donation, adopt a horse, sponsor a horse by helping pay its expenses, foster a horse, volunteer, or donate products or services. The SC TRF is a 501(c)(3) organization, so any donations are tax deductible.

Is Your Next Horse in Prison?

Wateree typically has at least 25 TRF horses on site; some are permanent residents because age or physical condition makes them unsuitable for outside careers. But many are young enough and in great condition for second riding careers for individuals or therapy programs, or as companions.

Wateree is open to potential adopters year-round. Call William Cox with the SC Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at 803-243-0034; he will get you in touch with the prison farm manager to arrange for a time to visit.

“You’ll be welcome to get in the truck and ride through the pastures to see the horses, or you can let them know in advance what you’re looking for so they can pre-select candidates that seem to fit your needs,” Cox says. “You will also be welcome to ride in a round pen or small paddock, but will have to bring your own saddle, bridle, etc.”

Once you are approved for adoption – which can be done in advance of your visit – your adoption fee will be waived. If the horse you choose doesn’t work out for any reason, you can bring it back and try another. The TRF guarantees permanent sanctuary for their horses so you will know they can be returned to the facility at any time, where they will continue to be cared for rather than face an uncertain future. (229 words)