REMBERT, S.C. – Some residents of South Caroilna’s Wateree River Correctional Institute have names that wouldn’t surprise the average citizen because they sound right at home with a street gang. Among the handles: Baby M, Capac, Pew for Gold and Tryumphant.
But these names don’t belong to gangsters serving time.
They’re the names of some of the retired thoroughbreds who live there, and they’re quite spoiled by prison standards.
The horses are under the care of a small population of 18 or so nonviolent offenders. It’s a good match, say prison officials. All involved are in need of a second chance, and this pairing offers just that.
The horses, most of whom were retired from the racing business because of injury or underperformance, receive the kind the regular attention and grooming they’ve come to know and will need to attract attention on the adoption market. And the inmates learn real skills during a six-month course that could lead to jobs at racetracks and farms after they finish their time.
Petting 10-year-old Baby M in her pen in Seabiscuit Stables, inmate Michael Ingle Jr. said bonding and learning with the horse is what makes the course so rewarding.
“Bonding together and getting comfortable with them gives you satisfaction because you realize what you learn when you are actually comfortable around them,” Ingle said. “You can get them to actually do stuff without them freaking out or you freaking out. You realize how far you've come with them.”
Outside of the razor wire of the main prison building, tucked in the rolling countryside of Camden horse country, sits Seabiscuit Stables. For seven years the Second Chances program, a partnership between South Carolina Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the South Carolina Department of Corrections, has operated on the 110 acres of land where the inmates work. It is charitable work of sorts, said instructor Reid McLellan, but it’s useful work for the horse industry, too. Good grooms are in demand.
“We needed something where these guys can get out and get a job and we need the help in our industry,” said McLellan, who travels across the country teaching. “We teach grooms why they’re doing the things they do and here we’ve added the element of the farm aspect of it, so they have more to do, actually, than grooms at a racetrack have to do. That impresses me the most.”
Inmates spend five days a week with the horses from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. grooming them, taking care of stalls, learning maneuvers and taking tests every two weeks. The classes are staggered with three groups of roughly six inmates starting every two month. Some talented and passionate graduates stick around as student-teachers. Upon completion graduates have certificates and references to back them up in the tight-knit equine industry.
As for the retired horses, they’re on a path to a new life, too.
Many of the horses have nowhere else to go and are donated to prisons across the country. Currently, there are eight such programs nationwide.
Lisa Craig, national fund director for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), says that over the past 30 years, 4,000 horses have been rescued. At Wateree, one of the TRF’s best facilities, 19 have been adopted in the past year.
“Through working with the men and women that participate in the Second Chances program, just by being horses and their daily needs, they are helping human beings,” Craig said. “This is truly a case of horses helping people and people helping horses.”
This isn’t a state-funded program. It relies instead on donations from donors, adoptive owners and sponsors. The prison only provides the land and hay it grows. The TRF and its friends provides additional feed, funding for services and other costs.
On Halloween last year, Sean Mitchell and his daughter, Victoria, adopted their first and only horse, so far, 10-year-old Brianna, who has plenty of kick left in her and an alpha-mare attitude to boot.
“This has turned out better for us and giving her a second chance to do something other than hanging out in the pasture with other horses doing nothing,” Sean Mitchell said. “So this has been good; we've really enjoyed it.”
Victoria has showed Brianna in the state about five times and has won several first place ribbons and an overall champion award.
“It’s been good. [Brianna] has been really good at the shows,” Victoria said. The duo are still working with a trainer. Brianna, said Victoria, has plenty of life left in her second life.
During a state-sponsored tour last week, Ingle and several other inmates who were on hand were taken by surprise when instructors handed out certificates of completion, based on their skill levels, in front of the crowd of 60 horse industry folks. Prepared to name every bone in a horse’s leg, which he did correctly on his test, Ingle says the experience is a rewarding one. He plans to pursue a more, well, stable life, when he is discharged, but for now he’s enjoying it.
“If you like animals, this is the best job to have,” Ingle said. “I think this is about the best job out here.”