By Francis LaBelle

DJJ Youth over looks the World Equestrian Center

     For more than a year, participants in the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Juvenile Program in Ocala, FL, have honed their skills in tending to former racehorses. These youths have not only catered to the horses but learned to maintain the facility and its surrounding grounds.

     They have even taken their show on the road.

     The TRF Second Chances youth have been forging a reputation for using their skills to aid Marion County’s equestrian community. Recently, they were enlisted by Good Apple Equine Consignments to assist the Paso Fino Horse Rescue at Happy Valley Farm. A back injury that required surgery had put the farm’s manager out of commission, and a resurgence of COVID-19 prevented many of Happy Valley’s volunteers from helping.

     “We learned that some of their fences were damaged from recent storms in the area and that some of the stalls were left in dismal condition,” said Velvet Saulsberry, Equine Program Director for TRF Second Chances Youth Program. “Our equine program youths and staff enthusiastically put their barn maintenance vocational skills to good use for the good of the equine community.”

     Assistant Equine Program Director Henry Dallas, Safety and Security Specialist Kenya Harris, Saulsberry, and the Second Chances youth, stripped and prepped stalls, filled water buckets and made things right for the horses. Another perk was getting to meet some goats and puppies.

     “Restoring Happy Valley was a beast,” Saulsberry said. “But it was quickly tamed by our youths.” 

     For their efforts, the Second Chances team was rewarded with a gourmet pizza lunch at the World Equestrian Center-Ocala, the largest equestrian center in the United States! There, they visited the memorial to Sgt. Reckless, a Mongolian mare who became famous for her military service during the Korean War. She was particularly revered for making fifty-one solo runs in one day to bring supplies to front-line troops in the Battle for Outpost Vegas in March, 1953.

     The Second Chances Youth team has also been busy in the entertainment industry.

     Since August, the team has been earning both community service hours and student hours, helping the preparations for The Gala of the Royal Horse. This international showcase was scheduled for November 12 at the Star K Equestrian Center in Leesburg, GA, and November 26 at the Grand Oaks Resort Covered Arena in Weirsdale, FL.

     The Gala of Royal Horses, under the direction of renowned equestrian Rene Gasser, has toured throughout the world. Featured in the Gala are Lipazzaner Stallions, Spanish Andalusians, Friesians, Arabians, and even a Quarter-Horse. The Second Chances youths took their job seriously.

     “Our youths were all business,” said Saulsberry, a former Deputy Sheriff and Corrections Officer. “They quickly and professionally prepared the stalls for the horses that Mr. Gasser has in training and assisted with the stacking of their load of alfalfa. Our youth’s presence in the barn was a great relief to Mr. Gasser.”

      Saulsberry makes a point of using her personal contacts to spread the word about Second Chances and the success of the youth program. She reached out to Gasser a few years ago, and after explaining the Second Chances program, she made a fan.

     “They have been coming here to help us out with cleaning stalls, walking horses, whatever we need,” Gasser said. “In turn, we give them little lectures on how and why we do things in training and caring for our horses. The boys really enjoy working with the horses and we love having them.”

    This speaks volumes about the quality of TRF’s Second Chances Youth Program. Gasser hails from a Swiss circus family who has entertained more than seven generations of audiences. Gasser himself has performed as lion trainer, acrobat, gymnast, and strongman. It was his skill at training horses, however, that has taken him across Europe, Israel, Ireland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

    He expects a lot from the people who work with him.

    “Velvet is a lovely woman and I have confidence in her,” said Gasser, whose daughter, Katharina, and son, Sidney, also perform with him at the Gala shows. “Velvet knows what she is doing, and she loves what she is doing. As a father, I am glad to know that there are people like Velvet and programs like Second Chances that could help if my own children ever needed it.” 

DJJ Youths watching a demonstration