On Tuesday, Oct. 27, 10 student/inmates began a new semester at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) Equine Care Program at the Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP), in Coalinga, California.
The program opened in October 2019, coinciding with the prison’s 25th anniversary celebration. The program is an extension of the TRF’s Second Chances/Groom Elite Program, which began in 1983 at the Wallkill State Correctional Facility, near New Paltz, New York. Former racehorses enjoy a tranquil sanctuary home at Second Chances, which is now offered at prisons in New York, California, Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and South Carolina. In return, the horses provide hands-on vocational instruction in horse care, as well as lessons in mutual respect, compassion, responsibility, and trust.
“The four groups that made this happen—the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the (California) Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, West Hills College, and Harris Farms—worked extremely well together,” said Heidi Richards, whose work with the Equine Care Program earned her the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) 2020 Corrections Officer of the Year Award. “We had 30 student/inmates in the first class, and 28 were certified. We are very excited about how successful the program is.”
In collaboration with West Hills College, also in Coalinga, PVSP’s Equine Care Program is a two-semester course from which completing participants receive certification to work at entry-level jobs in the racing industry, along with six transferable college credits. The program at this minimum-security facility is offered to student/inmates within five years of parole.
The fledgling program held strong despite the turmoil of 2020.
“Our biggest concern was the pandemic,” said Richards, who also is the West Hills College instructor for the program. “But our COVID-19 numbers were low enough to open the program this semester. Warden Scott Frauenheim and everyone here did a great job in maintaining the program. They kept testing everyone at the gate and, additionally, the staff was tested every 10 days. They were really on top of it.”
Frauenheim, who retired Friday, Oct. 30, after 26 years of state service and the past seven as PVSP’s warden added, “I am proud and honored to have been the first warden with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to start an Equine Care Program. I am grateful to provide a unique rehabilitative program that helps incarcerated people follow a new path in their lives.
The student/inmates are currently working with two former racehorses: Michael the Man, a 13-year-old Kentucky-bred who raced 60 times and earned $197,724 with a record of 11-8-9, and California-bred Slycy, who is also 13, earned $230,606 and posted a record of 14-10-7 in 52 starts.
The horses live on the Equine Care Program’s 2-acre facility that student/inmates built and help maintain in addition to their work with the animals.
A CDCR grant of $300,766 was secured last year with the help of the West Hills Community College District to fund the Equine Care Program at Pleasant Valley State Prison until 2022.
“It is hard to believe that the program is only a year old with all that Heidi has accomplished,” said TRF Executive Director Pat Stickney. “We are incredibly grateful to all the groups that came together to launch this Equine Care Program which, under Heidi’s leadership, will continue to have such a positive impact on the graduates and the horses for years to come.