"You wouldn't believe how many people are desperately trying to get down here," William Ray "Will" Wilson II says of the Second Chances program at James River Work Center (JRWC), a joint effort of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Virginia Department of Corrections. Under the Groom Elite program, offenders help rehabilitate horses, meeting strict behavioral guidelines to be allowed to participate. As they care for the horses, the offenders also have the opportunity to learn a trade — and something more.
"I've learned so much, but the most intriguing and beneficial part is about the horse's mentality," says Wilson, who's incarcerated at the minimum-security facility. "Learning that something so big is willing to give in to the cues of a human being so small — just to restore harmony — then I can do the same thing among my ‘herd mates' for a much more peaceful environment."
Wilson, 31, says harmony is something that has been lacking in his life: "My parents divorced when I was about 7. I haven't had much stability, guidance or support. I've never really felt loved."
In an effort to fill the void, he sought solace in drugs. "That ultimately landed me where I am now," he says. "I've never really considered myself a bad seed. I just needed some fertile ground. ... For the volunteers and coordinators to show compassion, respect and kindness to someone like me — with the label I must wear — it lets me know that there is still hope for a meaningful life."
Wilson was new to horses when he started with Second Chances and the Groom Elite program.
"Grateful is an understatement of how glad I am that these horses have been saved. In return, everyone involved in this program has played a part in saving me," he says. "I've literally fallen in love, and I'm glad to be able to share what's been bottled up for so long.
"This is hard work, but I just know that there are horsemen and barn owners willing to overlook my past and give me a chance. I'm still young, athletic and able-bodied, so I'd like to become an exercise rider. There are so many avenues I've yet to explore. No matter what, I've found a career that I'm going to be happy with."
When asked how he'll react if his horse is adopted, he looks down and says, "I'll probably cry."
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2011.