Across the nation, equestrian programs built around everything from rodeos to rehoming Thoroughbreds to training wild mustangs are helping rehabilitate the incarcerated.
When Tamio Holmes was sentenced to prison on drug dealing charges in 2003, he hit rock bottom. He’d already spent more than two years behind bars starting in 1998, and now he was facing another eight.
“I felt like, ‘Screw you,’ ” Holmes says of the day the judge sentenced him.
That moment of raw anger peppered with indifference eventually turned to numbness as prison life became his everyday reality. Days slipped into months, and more than five years passed. But finally Holmes got a break that would ultimately reverse the negative trajectory of his life.
It came, poetically enough, because of others who also needed a hand: Thoroughbred horses. Holmes would find his rehabilitation—and eventually a career as a farrier—in helping to prepare the horses for new lives. The long days of feeding, grooming, exercising the horses and taking classes on their care gave Holmes a renewed sense of purpose.
“It was exhausting, but I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning every day and get back out,” Holmes says. “I was helping them, and they were helping me feel better about myself.”
Holmes is one of 50 inmates to graduate since the Second Chances program at the James River Correctional Center near Richmond, Va., was created in 2007. Run in cooperation with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the program saves former race horses from possible abuse and slaughter. It’s just one of several inmate-horse rehabilitation programs run by the foundation and other entities around the nation.
Anne Tucker, board president of the foundation’s James River chapter, observes the transformation of Holmes and many other inmates. She says the bonds between the inmates and the horses create a sense of self-worth.
“The inmates come in and work with the horses and start to think, ‘I’m not all bad. Maybe I’m not totally useless,’ ” Tucker says, adding that the offenders—inmates who committed only non-violent crimes—learn not just job skills, but a sense of community.
As for the horses, they vary. Some are young and fresh off the track; others are in their 20s. In five years, James River has placed 26 of them. A few horses have the potential to compete again in second careers, while the reality for others is simply a lifetime of pasture ornamentation. Whatever their abilities, Tucker says, James River has a place for all horses to be loved.
For Holmes, the program brought back good memories of his boyhood in rural Louisiana.
“We had horses when I was a kid,” he says. “So horses were always kind of like a friend to me. More than that—like a partner.”
Holmes says deep down in his heart, he was a good kid, raised by a loving grandmother, though life could be tough at times.
“Everything you had, you had to work hard for,” he says. “We made do with what we had.”
When he grew up, Holmes imagined a more prosperous life for himself in the Richmond area. But when he got there, he only found low-paying labor jobs and a party lifestyle fueled by drugs.
“I chose to hang out with people I shouldn’t be around,” Holmes admits. “They weren’t my true friends. I was just trying to impress people.”
Those days ended with a ride to prison, and working with the horses was a privilege Holmes earned. He tried hard to be a model inmate, steering clear of trouble. He hit a low in 2010 when his grandmother died, and he was unable to attend her funeral. But he took solace in the fact that his grandmother knew he was in the Second Chances program and was already starting to turn his life around.
“Overall, I found, I was a good person,” says Holmes, who was released from prison in early 2011. “I made some bad decisions. I can’t change that, but I would advise others that there is always hope. There are other options. I look back and think, ‘I should have struggled harder in hard times.’ Now I’m going for what’s good in life.”
And the program taught him something else as well: That there are people out there who don’t give up on former convicts. Holmes wants to repay their kindness, adding that there’s something particularly special about people who love horses.
“I’ve met some of the best people in the world doing this,” he says. “The majority of them are kind and tender-hearted. I think that’s maybe because they’ve had struggles somewhere in their lives, and they know what it means to receive a helping hand.”
Behind Bars, Trophy Buckle Dreams
There does seem to be something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man, and when this famous Winston Churchill quote is mentioned to Warden Burl Cain, who’s media savvy and charismatic in the style of the best evangelic preachers and Louisiana politicians, he nods in agreement.
Cain initiated the equestrian program at Angola Prison in southern Louisiana and looks at horses as valuable, non-judgmental teachers that help offenders learn two important things: The first is patience.
“The second thing they learn is that aggression is not an option,” Cain says.
A visit to the Angola Prison Rodeo or Horse Sale, which take place a two-hour drive from the vibrant heart of New Orleans, is like a good Cajun filé gumbo—there’s a lot to digest.