When most people go looking for a prospective hunt horse they’ll visit a nearby farm or perhaps attend an auction, but not David Fortenberry. He went to a prison.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as the Angola Prison, is the largest maximum-security prison in the nation. It’s also home to an equestrian breeding program that focuses on draft and warmblood crosses, as well as the Angola Rodeo, the longest-running prison rodeo in the country. Many of the offspring of the breeding program go on to careers as police horses, distinguished by the Louisiana State brand on their hip. And thanks to horsemen like Fortenberry, these horses are starting to turn up in hunt fields across the South as well.
Fortenberry, an insurance agent who describes himself as a weekend warrior when it comes to riding, had long admired the mounts of fellow foxhunter Tommy Coleman, all of whom sported that Louisiana brand. When it came time for a new mount, Fortenberry started thinking about heading to Angola.
To get a little more information, Fortenberry headed 90 miles south from his home in Hattiesburg, Miss., to see some of the horses in action with the New Orleans Police Department. There he talked to Dave Waguespack, who explained that the intense training program has a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior, and horses from Angola have only a 10 percent dropout rate. That convinced Fortenberry.
“I’m a big guy, 220 pounds, and I wanted a big-boned horse, which is a little tough to find here in Mississippi,” said Fortenberry, who hunts with Hard Away Whitworth Hounds (Ala.). “I really wanted horses bred for temperament and disposition, and they fit the model.”
The prisoners who work with horses—from birth until they are sold—are serving a life sentence and live in a separate complex than the general population.
Many of the horses from Angola are sold during the annual Angola Auction as 2-year-olds, but Fortenberry wanted something a little older. Alongside a trainer, he picked out Eli, a 5-year-old, with the brand of 619, indicating he was born in 2006 and was the 19th foal born that year. He’s sired by a Dutch Warmblood out of a Dutch Warmblood-Percheron-Thoroughbred cross.
Fortenberry sent the green-broke horse to a friend in Ocala, Fla., to get him going reliably under saddle. Fortenberry hunted him a few times, but the horse was still a bit anxious, so he sent him to get half a season under his belt with Gina Salatino who hunts with the Why Worry Hounds (S.C.) and Aiken Hounds (S.C.), then the next season to Boo Montgomery in Live Oak (Fla.). By his third season Eli was comfortable first flight with Fortenberry, and this year Fortenberry alternated between leading the first field and whipping in aboard Eli.
“The instinct is always to go, go, go, but I made myself do this right,” he said. “It’s not about just the monetary investment but the potential of the horse. I’m glad I took a more patient approach. Now he’s wonderful in the field, with a great personality and just the right amount of energy. He gets tuned in but not spooky or crazy. He’s a pushbutton jumper.”
Now that Eli’s confirmed in the field, riders who dismissed him initially are eating their words.
“One girl I hunt with went over to [Midland Fox Hounds (Ga.)] and rode one of Tommy’s horses that he bought at the same time,” said Fortenberry. “When she saw mine as well she said, ‘I’m going to Angola! These horses are super!’ And there are others in the hunt who are clearly wanting to go down there and find one. I wouldn’t mind getting another one too.”
To see more about equestrian prison programs, check out the October 2012 issue of The Chronicle Connection.
This article first appeared in the April 29 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.