“I have no desire to fit in. No plans to walk with the crowd. I have my own mind, heart and soul. I am me, and it has taken me years to realize how important that is.” – R.M. Drake

Aimee Riaski pictured center

By Francis LaBelle

    The R.M. Drake quote above  rings true for Aimee Riaski. It took her years to discover her own importance, and the journey was a rough one.

  “I had been married for 20 years,” she said. “It was an abusive relationship that ended with me in prison for two years. After my marriage and my incarceration, I learned a lot. Now, I don’t keep anybody around that doesn’t deserve me.”.

  Aimee says that her ex-husband’s dependence on prescription drugs was at the heart of her own past troubles. Without his supply, she says, he was out of control. To keep the peace and for her own safety, she says she went along with whatever he said, even if it was against her better judgment.

  “I was arrested for transportation and sales of narcotics,” Aimee said. “By that time, my husband had also been using pot and meth. He had charges, too, but he wound up serving just a few months. I was 40-something and had never done anything worse than getting a speeding ticket.

    “I was arrested in 2009. My lawyer was trying for felony probation for me, and we fought hard in court. But the district attorney didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to make an example of me and, finally, I went into prison in December, 2010.”

    Aimee served the bulk of her sentence at the California Institution for Women in Chino  and completed her time at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla in 2012.

  Purely by chance, she entered the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Program at Healing Arenas in Modesto, Calif.

  “I was put into the program simply because my parole officer needed some place to put me,” Aimee said. “I had a high school diploma, but the (parole) requirement was that they had to put me somewhere. This seemed to be as good a place as any.”

    In March of 2013, Aimee started working with Healing Arenas founder Julie Baker, who had been working with the Probation Department in Stanislaus County and TRF’s Second Chances/Groom Elite program.

  “I had no background with horses other than a typical little-girl-wants-a-horse kind of thing,” Aimee said. “I was intimidated by the first horse I saw. I mean, here was this 1,000-pound animal that could really do damage if you weren’t paying attention. But he just sort of ignored me.”

  That horse was Z. Sheikh, a Kentucky-bred who raced 38 times, won three and earned more than $83,000.  Around the barn, the big chestnut was known as “Grumpy.” According to Baker, he would pin his ears back at times and push the other horses around.

  Still, despite his less than genial disposition – an injured fetlock was a source of constant pain – “Grumpy” was a favorite among the program’s participants and he developed a special bond with Aimee.

    “I had to win him over, whether he liked it or not,” Aimee said. “I was told that, when working with a horse, somebody has to be the leader.” Grumpy had a bad habit of trying to nip whoever was cleaning his hooves. “I made my mind up that I would do what I needed to do, regardless of what he thought about it,” Aimee said.The more she worked with Grumpy, the more at ease they became with one another.

   Aimee’s hard work paid off. Through Second Chances, she received certification in theGroom Elite program. Groom Elite, founded by Dr. C. Reid McLellan, was founded as an instructional course for backstretch workers at the nation’s Thoroughbred racetracks. Its purpose is to train workers in a thorough and consistent method of horse care. The goal was for horses to last longer in their racing careers and to retire sounder animals for new careers when they left the track.

  “I took my test with Dr. McLellan sort of like a Zoom call,” Aimee said. “I was working with Viva Pentilicus, a very classy ex-racehorse. That whole time, Dr. McLellen was watching me and asking me questions. I was nervous because I was the only one in the class after some others dropped out, but I got my certification.”

  While at Healing Arenas, Aimee also participated in EAGALA, an acronym for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Founded in 1999, EAGALA is a non-profit professional organization whose self-described mission is “that every person worldwide will have access to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Learning (EAL) Services, provided at the highest standard of excellence.”

  “Aimee came into our project very quiet,” Baker said. “She seemed unsure of herself and the horses, but she loved them and wanted to try something different in her life. She learned the Groom Elite without a problem and could definitely go on to an equine career. Those jobs are few and far in between in her area of residence. She had a VERY powerful EAGALA experience, aka equine therapy. She says it changed her life.”

  Since then, Aimee has also received certification as a veterinary technician through Ashworth College and needs only “an internship and hands-on time” to pursue that path.

   Because of the lack of jobs where she lives and because transportation is also difficult, Aimee has taken full advantage of a different career opportunity. She manages RJ’s Homestyle Eatery in Gustine, Calif. The place serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but its identity is its assortment of daily, homemade doughnuts. Aimee does “whatever I need to do,” including, cooking, scheduling and cleaning, she said.

  The restaurant business has been tough, especially with California going in and out of lockdowns since the pandemic hit last year. Lately, however, business at RJ’s has improved.

  Aimee is now engaged to Josh Starkey, who operates a dairy farm. She is happy, she says, even if her voice cracks when she re-reads Drake’s words.

  “A big part of that comes from the abusive relationship I had in the past,” she said. “It comes from being put down a lot and not feeling important.  I have never been one to blend with the crowd. I am kind of an introvert. Now, I have a small circle of friends.”

   And they all clearly appreciate the importance she finally feels in herself.