By Francis LaBelle
Chris Griffin walked into prison in 2010, he looked at the grim view ahead and winced as the iron door slammed behind him.
He had been convicted of third-degree burglary, landing him in the Wateree River Correctional Institution in Rembert, South Carolina for four years. From where he stood, he could not see much of a future.
But then he had a vision.
“I looked outside and saw these horses,” Chris said. “I have always loved animals and just looking at them made me feel better. I wondered who they belonged to. When I found out that I could have the chance to work with them, it changed everything for me.”
Chris learned that the Wateree horses were part of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Program, which began in 1983 at the Wallkill Correctional Facility near New Paltz, New York. Presently, there are TRF horses at Second Chances programs in seven states: New York, Kentucky, Florida, California, Illinois, Maryland and South Carolina. Second Chances was formed to not only give former racehorses a sanctuary home, but also to teach inmates vocational instruction in how to care for the animals.
The TRF Second Chances Program at Wateree River Correctional Institution was started in 2004. True to its name, the program gave Chris a real chance at a different life.
He happily accepted it.
Chris was serious about his studies in the Second Chances/Groom Elite program at Wateree, which employs a curriculum that began at Thoroughbred racetracks to assure competent and consistent care for racehorses. The lecture and hands-on course is taught to up to 25 inmates every six months. Once participants have completed the course, they are tested in an array of different equine subjects. Graduates receive certification and thus improve their chances for employment when they are released.
Chris entered the program knowing little about how to care for horses, but by the time he graduated from the course, he was Wateree’s star pupil, even in the eyes of Groom Elite’s founder, Dr. C. Reid McLellan. Reid even recommended Chris to his friend, Diana McClure.
Because of his hard work, Chris had a job upon his release.
“I knew Reid when he taught a Groom Elite program at Colonial Downs (Virginia),” said McClure, who races Thoroughbreds on the Mid-Atlantic circuit from her DMC Carousel Stable in Berryville, Virginia. She knew about the program and its reputation. She said it was becoming increasingly hard to find good help who had knowledge of how to properly care for horses, but she trusted Reid’s recommendation of Chris.
“Chris was everything that Reid said he was,” she said. “Chris loves all animals, but he is especially passionate about horses. He was so happy to be working with the horses because he also had the talent and the skill set. He was the best hand I had around here in a long time.”
Chris worked for two years with McClure, then found another opportunity and went to work at High Point Farm in Watkinsville, GA. The farm taught hunting, jumping, dressage and equitation, and it’s where Chris met Taylor Rae Laney.
“I was a student/assistant trainer at High Point and I was more involved with teaching,” Taylor said. “I didn’t work much with Chris directly because he was busy working for one of the big trainers with the hunter/jumper group. But you could tell that Chris knew what he was doing with the horses.”
Chris worked at High Point, then had brief stints as an ironworker and as a manager at a farm in Virginia. Two years ago, he got a call from Taylor, who offered him a new job at her Diamond Dressage Farm in Monroe, Georgia. He accepted the offer and has thrived at the farm.
“I brought Chris in to help me run it because he knows how to take care of horses,” she said. “He’s very good at it.”
These days, Chris works five and a half days a week. He oversees 20 acres, 17 horses and has stayed happy by doing what he loves.
“When you are in prison, you don’t trust a lot of people.” Chris said. “But when you start working with the horses, they start to trust you and you start to trust the horses. That is what helped me the most and got me to where I am now. I consider the horses that I work with to be family. They have always been there for me.”