TRF Second Chances farm is changing human and equine lives

November 2nd, 2021

Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances farm at Blackburn Correctional Complex has been changing lives—both human and equine—since 1999.

In this program, men serving time at Blackburn learn to provide for the safety and welfare of retired racehorses. Two TRF Second Chances Ambassadors are Donna Brothers, who covers racing for NBC, and Peter Fornatale of In the Money Media.

To get in the six-month program, candidates must have a high school education or GED, which can be obtained at Blackburn. The participants must pass each section of the Groom Elite curriculum. This course teaches horse handling skills and knowledge in equine care. For example, participants learn the best foods for horses and how to trim their hooves, administer topical ointments, and provide wound care.

Blackburn residents who pass the program receive 90 days off their sentences. When they leave the facility, they are prepared for jobs in the horse racing industry, and many already have jobs. Blackburn has a waiting list of employers looking to fill roles, and program participants have Zoom interviews before they leave.

“One man who was in the program recently had three different offers,” Brothers said. “So he had a choice. He decided to go with Spy Coast Farm, a sport horse farm neighboring the Kentucky Horse Park. Spy Coast came and picked up this gentleman and gave him two work uniforms in his size and had a place for him to stay.”

Most of the 50 thoroughbreds at Second Chances at Blackburn are horses who cannot be retrained for new careers and have not found placement elsewhere. At Blackburn, they find a place to live out their days.

“But at the same time that doesn’t mean that they are done serving their purpose here on Earth,” Brothers said.

The horses at Blackburn do take on a new role: as therapy animals for men in the program.

“Horses have this magical quality of making people feel seen and known and respected,” Brothers said. “I think working with horses is a beautiful way to keep them focused and keep them reaching towards a goal, a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A program participant named David made a strong impression on Brothers. He had never worked with horses, but he says now he knows he will always work with them. He expressed that the horses motivated him to no longer be in and out of the system, as he has been since he was a teenager.

“I can see how this program will truly change his life,” Brothers said. “And this is the case of so many men at Blackburn: their lives are truly changed. This makes me really value what the TRF is doing. And I want to be a part of it any way I can.”

Fornatale recently led a group of industry professionals on a Blackburn tour. He described the experience of seeing the program in action as “visceral.”

“We were amazed by what we saw,” Fornatale said. “The amazing part of the experience was the opportunity to spend an hour or so with the men in the program. You could not have hired actors to more effectively get the message across about how these horses have improved and changed their lives and how the program will give them a direct avenue to a life after their time inside.”

Fornatale described the relationship that the men have with the horses.

“Each person has a horse that kind of became their horse, and you can see that close bond between human and equine that is at the root of the transformation. One of the young men said, “Yes, we take care of these horses, but they do way more for us.’”

Fornatale believes that Second Chances is something in the prison system that truly works.

“I want to do more to raise money so that more people will have an opportunity to have this transformative experience,” he said. “I’d describe it as a magic or an alchemy of how this program can transform lives.”