By Harold Williams, Program Participant TRF Second Chances Program in Wallkill, NY
The view of the farm is so picturesque, with its rolling hills, its cream-white barns and the Shawangunk mountains in the background, it’s almost surreal. The beauty of the place is a secret that me and the other workers keep to ourselves. I guess that might sound selfish, but this is the horse farm at Wallkill Correctional Facility, part of the Second Chances program run by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. When I was assigned to work there in 2018 by the program committee, I didn’t have a clue what I was in for.
On a cold day in March, I was ordered to report to the rear gate lineup with a dozen or so other men. We were frisked then loaded into two vans—one driven by a civilian instructor, a young woman named Kelsey Kober, the other by a corrections officer—for the ten-minute ride to the farm. Upon arriving, I was interviewed by the pair of them. Any allergy to hay? No. You scared of horses? No. (Should I be? I wondered). Then came the don’ts: Don’t ride the horses. Don’t enter the red barn (it was struck by lightning). And don’t leave the farm or go on any main streets or roads. Pretty much common sense. As for the do’s, it was basically do everything they ask me and I’ll do alright.
The 80-acre farm is home to 50 horses, most of them former thoroughbred racehorses, living in groups separated by age and gender on eight fields. Each field is split in two parts with a shed in the middle. I had never been around horses in my life. Never even been on a farm. So after receiving my overalls, boots and gloves, I shadowed a worker around while he fed the horses and cleaned and filled the water tub. The next day, we did it again. On the third day, it was my turn. I was a little apprehensive to enter the field on my own with six 1200-pound animals. As I stepped through the gate, the horses approached, wanting the feed in the bucket. Horses can sense when someone is nervous. It makes them nervous, too. And if a horse gets edgy, it can cause a stir that moves like a wave. Then things can get ugly, or so I’d been told. As they got closer, I almost dropped the bucket and ran. But I knew my peers were watching and waiting for a good laugh, so I held my own. I calmly poured the feed in each bowl and hustled back to safety as the horses dug into the feed trough.
Miss Kelsey, who is in her mid-twenties is the farm’s manager and vocational instructor. She grew up around horses and has a degree in equine science. She also just finished a course in some type of human behavior—I guess to help her contend with all the characters who work on the farm. Her goal, she says, is to foster the healing process for both animals and inmates. When there’s time, Miss Kelsey lectures the workers on various aspects of equine care. She teaches us to recognize an injury or the symptoms of a sickness, and how to care for a horse with special nutritional needs.
It is always a challenge to make sure the horses are healthy and safe and we’re constantly on the look-out for any injuries, scratches, or signs of sickness. Recently, we noticed a horse named Pal’s O.K. acting strange, but Miss Kelsey was out on vacation. When the CO called her to describe the symptoms, she rushed back and called the vet. After the blood test it was revealed that the horse had tick fever. We gave him antibiotics and placed him in a special corral for 14 days, but to make sure he didn’t get lonely we put his pal Frosty in with him. Pals’ O.K. is now okay.
As I became more comfortable at the farm, I started venturing to some of the other areas. I met Quick Call, our resident celebrity, a thoroughbred who twice won the Forego Stakes at Saratoga. Quick Call is said to have won purses totalling more than $800,000. But I found myself more drawn to Silver Safari, a gentle while Northern Jove gelding with silvery markings. I could tell immediately that he was unwell. His ribs were visible, he kept to himself, and he was stubborn. While the other horses would let me groom them, apply fly repellant and coat their noses with sunscreen, I couldn’t get him to come near me unless I had treats in my hands. Once the treats were gone, so was he.
Safari was given a special diet with extra nutrients, called sweet feed. When he ate, I had to stand beside him to make sure he finished. He ate slowly, and if I weren’t keeping watch, the other horses might come nudge him away from his bowl and take the sweet feed for themselves.
I didn’t mind standing with Safari for as long as it took. I felt a connection to him, and as I stood patting his mane while he chewed the feed, I convinced myself I had the magic remedy that could help him.
For months I worked at the farm every day, 8:30 to 2:30. But in June, following a routine blood test, my schedule was interrupted by a series of appointments with a medical specialist at another correctional facility. This trip was not like the usual commute to the horse farm. I was strip-searched, then handcuffed and shackled for the journey. I was given a sonogram, an X-ray, and other tests—with weeks in between spent waiting for results. Soon a more elaborate test was scheduled, requiring a visit to a nearby hospital. Shuffling through the facility in chains, escorted by two armed correction officers past a gauntlet of staff members and patients, gave me an indescribably low feeling. Some gawked; others seemed to be trying hard not to look.
For security reasons, the CO made sure we rode in an otherwise empty elevator, which was not an easy task. I lost count of how many passed by before we finally got our chance. As we rode up to the proper department, the elevator seemed to stop at every floor. People would step in without thinking, and it was funny to watch them, one by one, register the sight of me and the guards before quickly backing off.
The examination room was tiny, with one door with no windows. The doctor introduced himself to me then turned to the officers. “Please take the chains off of the patient,” he said. I couldn’t help smiling at the irritated looks on their faces when he asked them to leave.
Then, a nurse inserted an IV into a vein in my arm, and before I knew it, I was out cold.
I awoke in a big recovery area to see the two officers sitting by my side. The nurse instructed me to take it easy, then turned to the COs. “I hope one of you is doing the driving, because he can’t drive back,” she said, seemingly unaware of my situation, and for a moment at least, I felt like a normal patient.
There are two ponds on the farm, each of them home to geese, turtles, frogs and other small wildlife. There are also 14 cats, whom one of the guys feeds every morning. I’ve also seen wild turkeys and plenty of deer roaming around. One morning I saw a young bald eagle land on the field in front of me. My head was on a swivel from field to tree top, trying to keep them both in sight. Suddenly, the adult spread its wings and gracefully fanned its way up in the air, followed quickly by what must have been its young. It truly is a beautiful farm.
When horses are sick, we work hard to save them, and we work even harder when we hear rumors the vet is scheduled for a visit. Safari had been on the chopping block before, and he’s somehow won a reprieve. As winter approached, he again seemed to be bouncing back, which made it that much harder when the vet said he’d have to be put down. It was the best thing, the vet said, but it was hard to understand since the horse didn’t seem to be in pain. It turned out Safari had cancer that was deteriorating his insides, and he wasn’t expected to survive the winter.
Somehow it always seems like the other horses in the pen know what’s happening. The concern they have for each other is obvious. If one of them gets sick, the others stand close by, seemingly to comfort him. I have seen horses nudging and jumping at one of their ailing fellows trying to prevent them from laying down.
When we took Safari out of the pen for the last time, the other horses tried to come out with him. Then they walked along the fence line, following as far as they could. But once the vet had started the procedure, they stood there quietly with their heads down as to say their final good-byes. I asked Miss Kelsey, “Does it get any easier?”. Her eyes were glossy with tears. “It never does.” she said.
I now have four new horses that I tend to—Bentley Ten, Class Skipper, Canonize, and Tom’s Dream—all from the state of Vermont. They tend to me as well. We take care of each other, and for now, we’re doing all right.