December 2019 - The Gallop: Prison Program Prepares Grooms
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Sunday, 01 December 2019 10:01
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Determined horsewoman fulfills dream to have horses help people in yet another way.

by Kim F. Miller

Transcendent moments grace Heidi Richards’ life with horses, but none quite compare to the sight of Pleasant Valley State Prison inmates interacting with horses as her students in a new program that prepares them for careers caring for horses after their release. A version of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Vocational Training Program, the Pleasant Valley endeavor had its grand opening in the San Joaquin Valley’s Coalinga in October.  It’s a joint venture between TRF, West Hills College, Harris Ranch and the prison, but it’s Heidi who had the vision and saw it through five years to fruition.

 


“There are days when I drive to work and I can’t believe it actually happened,” she acknowledges.

The Pleasant Valley Equine Rehab Program is the first California manifestation of TRF’s Second Chances program. It provides vocational training for incarcerated men. During a rigorous 18-week training program, inmates learn anatomy, injury treatment, nutrition and other aspects of care. After their release from prison, graduates of the TRF Second Chances Program in other states have gone on to careers as farriers, veterinary assistants and caretakers.

In Coalinga, the curriculum is sanctioned by West Hill College, which offers Equine Science classes and degrees. It includes natural horsemanship-based desensitization methods, learning to tack up a horse for various disciplines and basic farrier work to safely trim a hoof after a lost shoe or other minor incident.     

In keeping with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s mission, the program also helps horses. At Pleasant Valley, two 12-year-old horses now have careers as “instructors” helping the inmates learn to care for them. Two young horses belong to Harris Ranch and will rehabilitate from injuries with the students’ help, then go on to other careers. A third young horse will join the program soon, meeting the total of five horses for which the program is designed and funded by a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Innovative Programming Grant. A hoped-for later phase is hiring a trainer to take the young horses after they’re rehabbed to provide the training foundation needed to increase their second-career options.

The courses occur in the fall and spring semesters, with 15 students each for a total of 30 expected to be certified each academic year. Candidates must apply and are carefully screened. They all reside in the prison’s Level 1 minimum security facility and are interviewed by Heidi, the West Hills College Farm director and a psychologist. “We are very careful to pick people who have the kind of personality needed to work with horses,” Heidi explains. In its inaugural run, 67 people applied for the 15 available spots. Most are very close to earning parole. The few with more time to serve will continue working with the horses as assistant instructors.
    
“Wow!” Moments

Midway through its first semester, the equestrian program has already created many “Wow!” moments, Heidi says. While working with a horse in the facility’s round pen, one student had a moment of true connection with the horse, including the horse starting to follow him around the pen. “He told me it was the best feeling he’d had in eight years,” Heidi relays. Another had already lined up a stable job, with help from his wife. After the Oct. 16 ceremony christening the program, several participants expressed deep appreciation.

It’s already obvious to Heidi that horses positively affect people inside the prison’s walls as much as they do the people outside them. “The TRF Second Chances began as a vocational program,” corroborates Second Chance’s website. “It wasn’t long before other benefits of the program were realized; inmates not only learned a viable skill but also gained confidence and a sense of empathy. Studies have shown a reduction in recidivism rates at facilities that host the program.”

Participants’ enthusiasm is conveyed in daily actions, starting well before there were any horses on the property. The horses live in 24’ by 24’ stalls, with 6’ high walls and shade covers. Along with the round pen, there are wash racks and an arena, all built by the inmates in the program.

A Horse Helper

Supporters include Harris Farms’ John Harris, right

Heidi with future horse care professionals.

Heidi Richards

Despite Heidi’s occasional disbelief that the multi-faceted project came together, the accomplishment is the latest – and biggest – in a life dedicated to helping horses. “I’ve been rescuing horses since – oh gosh – since I can remember,” Heidi laughs. “I started rescuing them from auctions and from people who weren’t able to take care of them. I made sure they had good homes and I always tried to find people, like 4-H or Future Farmers of America, who maybe couldn’t purchase a horse but could take care of one.” Some of these included wild Mustangs she started while in high school.

After earning an Associate’s degree in Equine Science from West Hills College, Heidi went to work for Harris Ranch. The renowned racehorse, breeding and training facility has long advocated for post-racing careers. She worked there for 10 years, primarily on foal watch and delivering babies.

Heidi joined the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 15 years ag, while continuing to work with and enjoy horses in her off-time.

About 10 years ago, she began thinking about merging horses and prisoners. Her own experience working with BLM Mustangs inspired her to investigate the Wild Horse Inmate Program, in which inmates gentle and start wild horses. “I hit a roadblock with that because of the requirement for permanent fencing,” she says of a program introduced to much of the public via this year’s movie, The Mustang.

Five years ago this month, Heidi reconnected with former Harris Farms manager Dave McLaughlin. She also found the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which agreed to back Heidi’s idea. The next milestone was discovering the CDCR Innovative Programming Grant. She turned to West Hills College for help with the application, a process that entailed, among many steps, documenting the success of a similar program elsewhere and demonstrating that it did not yet exist in the intended location.

Working with two state entities, the Prison and the College, was a new challenge, she notes, as were the safety issues of pairing horses with people not accustomed to working with them.

Harris Farms’ support was relatively easy to secure, given the family-owned company’s commitment to doing good while doing well in the horse world and beyond. It was the same with the like-minded Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

The CDCR grant funds the program for three years. After that, Heidi is optimistic that that West Hills College, Harris Ranch and the TRF will continue their various forms of support and that the program’s success will assure its continuance at the prison. Occasional fundraisers will help with needed equipment additions and there are plans to attain long term self-sustainability.

“Sometimes it feels like a big dream because I wanted it for so long,” Heidi concludes. “It’s the best feeling ever when I walk out there and see how the inmates are responding to the horses.”

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .