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Rick Miller, who graduated from the Groom Elite program in November, shares a moment with one of his charges.
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Seventeen Dowdell greets Reid McLellan, the originator of the Groom Elite program, and volunteer Polly Bauhan; the 3,000-acre farm at James River Work Center
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Charts on each horse; Rick Miller and Jessica Bowen (bottom left), who exercises the horses; veterinarian Tom Newton and Will Wilson, who graduated in May, check in on Happy
Rick Miller had a rough introduction to horses.
"When I was 6, I got put on a horse. Somebody smacked him on his butt, and he let me know he wanted me off. That was the end of horses right there."
Even so, Miller, now 49, became intrigued after watching other offenders interact with horses through a window at the minimum-security James River Work Center (JRWC).
"I could see the backside of the barn. I knew some of the guys, saw how passionate they were," Miller says of the program called Second Chances, where offenders also work on their second chance at life through a joint program between the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the Virginia Department of Corrections.
"I love animals, but I was never exposed to horses. After I learned to read their [body] language and got over my fear of them, I started caring about them."
The caring is mutual. Miller responds to a nudge on his shoulder.
"This is Roman," he says, introducing his favorite horse with a wide grin. "That's short for Romancera, her racing name. I've worked on all 30 horses here, but Roman was my big experience."
Pointing to her leg, he says, "She used to have a gash as wide as my two fingers there, caused by a feudal fight with another herd mate. We found out she had a slab fracture — actually she had a sequestered fracture of the right proximal condyle of the femur," Miller, a GED recipient, says, laughing outright. "Six months ago, I would've looked at you like you had three heads if you'd said that to me. Now I can say that — and I love it. Now I can speak with a vet and know exactly what he's talking about."
Miller talks often to Dr. Tom Newton, a Goochland veterinarian and horse breeder who provides free care for the farm's horses. Miller has soaked up Newton's instruction, graduating in November 2010 from the Groom Elite program, started at JRWC in 2007. A cadre of other vets and volunteers teach classes covering chiropractic; acupuncture and dental care; farrier work (replacing shoes and hoof care); training; and grooming.
Many other subjects, including demeanor around horses, how to examine them and diagnose potential problems, and knowledge of skeletal and digestive systems are taught and tested by Reid McLellan, a Texas horseman and originator of the Groom Elite program that leads to groom certification.
Heather Mitchell, a horsewoman and counselor who no longer works at JRWC, kick-started the program in 2006 when she decided to implement an equine-assisted rehab program. Sam Pruett, then JRWC's warden, approached Robin Williams, past president of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), a national organization that rescues retired racehorses. Williams' property adjoins the prison's land.
Williams and Clay Camp, another member of the national board of TRF, organized a local committee. Ultimately, the program became part of a public-private partnership contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections.
The first six offenders in the program, like all future ones, had to meet strict guidelines to participate, including not having any institutional infractions for one year, exemplary behavior and the ability to work with others. The men transformed Barn 4, now the program's central teaching arena, from a pig barn with floor gutters into a shoeing area and seven stalls. Classes were held in the unheated barn the first year. Offenders subsequently built two bathrooms and a heated classroom. Initially, progress was slow, due to 18 months of negotiation with DOC, which required the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to raise $50,000 to establish the program.
"DOC wanted us to put this program somewhere else, but we wanted it here," Williams says. "I made some calls, which produced a huge amount of volunteers and $10,000 in seed money."
The Virginia Racing Commission, which Williams used to chair, offered a grant to advertise the program. Colonial Downs provided addresses, and a mass mailing brought in another $15,000. After the initial $50,000 was raised, Williams suddenly realized the offenders didn't know anything about horses.
"It occurred to me that some of them had never seen a horse, so I rode one of mine over there and just left her for a few days. I'd been working for over a year on this project and was getting grumpy about my investment of time, but when I saw the faces of those guys light up like Christmas morning, I thought, ‘this is about saving people.' Your heart just swells."
Williams credits Jesse Barker, a correctional officer at JRWC who has since been promoted, with pushing the program forward.
"We wouldn't have succeeded without him. He took the first class, along with the offenders, and then became their teacher."
Tamio Holmes was also in the first class, becoming responsible for Covert Action, the program's mascot and a grandson of Secretariat, the legendary Triple Crown winner who was born in Caroline County. After graduating, Holmes became a teaching assistant, helping to train fellow offenders who must remain infraction-free to continue in the program, which has graduated 33 men. Smoking a single cigarette on state property is cause for expulsion.
Holmes says his transformation happened the day the barn received its horses. "The first day I walked into this barn, I was more like I didn't care," Holmes says. "As long as I had a meal in my mouth, that was good enough for me, but once we got the horses, the whole way I was doing things changed. They give you so much more. Just like kids, they give you joy. I got to where I wanted to sleep in this barn because I wanted to be closer to them."
Released in January, Holmes started his own farrier business in Goochland under the tutelage of Bill Lane, a farrier in the area for 40 years and one of a host of individuals who continues to support Holmes. Anne Tucker, a fourth-generation racehorse breeder and current president of the James River Chapter of TRF, employs Holmes, who lives on her Hanover farm.
"None of us really knew what the program was going to be like," Tucker says. "I'd hoped it would be good, but it's been wonderful. We've adopted out about 30 horses. Some would have gone to slaughter, so that's a big part of it. But the other part has surprised us all. We adopted a bunch of men as well."
Holmes returned to the barn as a free man for the first time in May. Obviously nervous, he eventually slipped back into his teaching mode, guiding Rick Miller as he shod a horse with a sensitive hoof. That training carries extra meaning for Miller, who has experienced the revolving doors of correctional facilities, having been incarcerated five times for nonviolent offenses.
"The last 10 years, I've found two things that completely changed my whole life," Miller says. "That's AA and this horse farm. I found parallels between the two. One of the main ones is about not being so selfish, starting to pay attention to other things and people around me. I'd been making all my life decisions on a teenager's mentality.
"I've also been able to take trades I know and apply them here, like leather repair. It falls right together — the pattern making, the sewing. Same thing with farrier work. I've developed an eye for what's true and square from construction and sheet-metal work. That helps when I'm looking at the horses, trying to judge which way to trim and shape the hooves for them to be comfortable."
Miller has continued in the program as a teaching assistant, helping train Seventeen Dowdell and Will Wilson, who graduated in May. The men make 45 cents an hour, usually working seven days a week. Miller confers regularly with Polly Bauhan, an ever-present TRF volunteer, who visits the barn each morning for about three hours.
"I make sure the horses are healthy and sound, that they're being fed and cared for properly," Bauhan says. "These men knew absolutely nothing at first. Now they teach each other and have become pretty self-sufficient."
Bauhan also helps with projects to keep the nonprofit program afloat. It costs the organization about $2,500 a year for each horse, but expenses don't stop there. When no student is adept at farrier work, one is hired, one of the largest expenses for equine care. TRF also employs Jessica Bowen, a rider who comes three times a week to exercise the adoptable horses.
There's also an ongoing need for programs supporting the goal of reducing recidivism for offenders. Virginia has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country, about 28 percent. The national average is about 40 percent.
"I'd like to see one of these men become a veterinarian one day," says Harris Diggs, warden at Deep Meadow Correctional Center, who also oversees JRWC. "It would be like going to another universe, but it's possible. I see nothing but pluses for this program. Virginia is fertile with horses, and these guys learn valuable skills that can be utilized in the community."
Miller, who's divorced and has no children and no family closer than several hundred miles, was released from JRWC on June 6. During his last week, he was filled with mixed emotions.
"If somebody asked about the biggest thing I've learned, I'd have to say it's helped me knowing that a large part of everything horses do can be based on two things: fear or aggression. That's exactly what I was doing. I've learned so much about the inside of human beings, especially the guys in here that I'm locked up with and myself, just by watching the horses. It's incredible."
Officer Frank Alt, responsible for hiring the offenders for the program and coordinating the barn routine, takes pride in the men's accomplishments.
"When Rick graduated, he was the only student with two stars by his name, because ‘Dr. Reid' said he was exceptional. He keeps trying to learn new stuff, and he just shines all the time. What I really like about him is, if he tells you something, you can take it to the bank. If I was rich enough to have somebody on my farm, I'd want it to be Rick."
Miller feels he has a better future now and plans to begin paying off fines and court costs.
"After that, it will be the first time that I've been off probation and parole since I was 16. I have other priorities this time. That comes from what I've learned here, which has settled me down a lot, helped me focus on what I need to do. There's been tentative job offers, working on farms with horses. This program has opened the door for a lot of different things. I will not come back."
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2011.