Tyler Murray stood bewildered in the pasture, muck bucket and manure fork in hand. Looking around incredulously, he turned to the man next to him.
“So you’re telling me I have to drag this heavy thing around and pick up poop?”
The corrections officer just laughed. “Welcome to horses.”
Murray discovered his passion for horses in a rather unorthodox way—in prison. Incarcerated at the Central Maryland Correction Facility after a string of non-violent crimes, Murray was depressed and angry at the world, consumed with guilt and shame. “I was in a dark place emotionally and mentally,” he says. Then a case officer mentioned a program he thought might help: the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Second Chances Program. It was a suggestion that changed Murray’s life.
TRF was founded in 1983 with the mission of saving ex-racehorses from possible neglect, abuse, and slaughter. The program focuses on Thoroughbreds unable to pursue a second athletic career. Deemed “useless” for most equestrian pursuits, these horses are most at-risk.
“So it’s a good thing we don’t use the traditional definition of ‘useful!’” says Kim Weir, TRF’s director of major gifts and planned giving. “Our horses have innumerable useful gifts to share, rideable or not, just by being themselves.”
Retired racehorses have been sharing their gifts since TRF’s inception. The program’s first rescue (aptly named Promised Road) walked off the trailer at the Wallkill (New York) Correctional Facility prison farm to serve in a new vocational program for inmates. Since then, hundreds of horses have found lifelong sanctuary at eight Second Chances correctional facility farms across the country.
TRF covers the upkeep costs for the horses, and the prisons provide the land and care. Through the program’s curriculum, Second Chances inmate participants receive a comprehensive education on how to care for horses. The course covers everything from first aid to feed to farriery.
“We have lots of old Thoroughbreds which means lots of bumps and bruises,” chuckles Weir. “They come with pins, plates, bad patterns, and crumbly feet. They can be hard keepers. So in learning how to take care of our horses, program participants learn a lot.”
But the inmates who graduate from Second Chances acquire far more than practical horsekeeping skills; they learn invaluable lessons about empathy, trust, responsibility, and more. It’s these lessons that radically reduce recidivism rates among Second Chances graduates.
“The most magical part of the program is when participants learn the power of their emotions and actions,” says Weir. “These men and women often come from backgrounds where they had very little control of their environments. When they learn they can control a huge animal by taking a deep breath and exuding calmness, that power gives them incredible confidence. They realize that they can influence and impact others in a positive way.
“Freedom from judgment is another superpower. The horses don’t label them. They don’t see an inmate. They see a caretaker, someone to trust. And that’s a huge mental shift for these men and women who often believe the worst about themselves. Horses teach them they can be trusted again.”
Murray had no interest in horses when he was handed his mucking tools. It was a hot July day and after a sweaty afternoon of cleaning pastures, he had no intention of coming back. But then Murray was assigned a horse to groom—a lanky bay named Greek Ruler—and everything changed.
“He just had kind eyes,” says Murray. “Something about him made me want to hug him, kiss him and talk to him. And I did. He didn’t judge. He didn’t interrupt. He just let me be with him. He trusted me and I trusted him. That was the moment I fell in love with horses.”
Throughout his nine months as a Second Chances participant, Murray worked with a variety of horses, each with their own lessons to impart. There were several standouts. Dreamer taught Murray how to cope with anxiety. Dancer taught him patience. And Luci taught him that love was a powerful antidote to fear.
Murray’s program instructor, Sarah Stein, helped him to apply the lessons he learned from the horses to life beyond prison walls.
“Going through this program was the best thing I could have done,” says Murray. “I learned so much not only about horses, but also myself and my worth. I learned how capable I am.”
Today, the man who once begrudgingly dragged a muck bucket across a field now manages 47 horses at Coexist Stables, a multidisciplinary training barn in Maryland. Murray is also a member of the Arabian Horse Association and the Maryland Horse Council.
“Horses and this program changed my life,” says Murray. “These days, my goal is to be the best horseman I can be. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
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The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) Second Chances Program is a unique and pioneering program where inmates build life skills while participating in a vocational training program as they provide supervised care to our retired racehorses. Located at correctional facilities in eight states, inmates from every imaginable background take part in a rigorous training program where they learn horse anatomy, how to care for injuries, equine nutrition and other aspects of horse care. Learn more at trfinc.org.
TRF was a 2021 grant recipient from Feed it Forward™, Nutrena’s giving program that provides support for organizations promoting the life-changing bond between animals and people. Learn more at feeditforward.org.