BY FRANCIS LABELLE
Just over a year ago, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances Program at the Vandalia Correctional Facility in Illinois received a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Equine Industry Research and Promotion Board (IEIRPB).
That was only the start of exciting times for Vandalia, home to 21 former racehorses and the 10 inmates enrolled in the Second Chances program. The original Second Chances Farm, which the TRF started 35 years ago in Wallkill, NY, was designed to help inmates develop traits such as mutual respect, trust and selflessness as the basis for vocational training in equine care. Now at nine correctional facilities in as many states, TRF’s Second Chances has earned worldwide recognition for its innovation and record of success.
Second Chances Vandalia is in its 5th year of operation. It encompasses 40-plus acres and it now has a new program director, Alyssa Haney, at the helm. At 27, Haney is spirited and determined to let people know about the good work at Second Chances Vandalia.
“Being young, female and working at a prison, I was hesitant at first,” said Haney, who joined Vandalia in July, 2017. “But my family background consists of military and law enforcement, so I wasn’t hesitant for long, especially with help from coworkers at VCC guiding me.
“I see immediate changes in their mood once the inmates get their hands on the horses. They come in and reflect off the horses’ temperament and attitude. As a group, they experience something most haven’t: team work, selflessness, pride and, most of all, compassion.”
With so much going on at Vandalia, TRF has launched a campaign to raise $12,000 for the expansion project. Naturally, Haney sees it as a worthy investment.
“The IDOC (Illinois Department of Corrections) gave us permission to build nine more acres of fence and a shelter to accommodate the retirees,” Haney said. “There are a lot of people who have been generous to us, but we still need help from the community.
“So much goes into making this program work. The IDOC staffing – maintenance, in particular – as well as the work gang boss’s and security, are so important because they do a lot of the behind the scenes farm work such as building fence and fixing shelters, barn light improvements, pasture mowing etc. etc. Our Greenville veterinary clinic has been a big help with the health of our horses and are always here when they are needed. When it comes resources it all revolves around the people, including our donors that help to keep our program as good as it can be.
“And, they do it without hesitation.”
The support team at Second Chances Vandalia feeds off of Haney’s own dedication to her job.
A native of Highland, Ill, Haney spent her youth showing all-around horses and demoing at horse fairs around the Midwest. Ten years ago, she accepted a job offer in Palomino Valley, Nevada where she said: “I trained professionally, showing, starting colts and building a (riding) lesson program for all ages.”
A few years later, she moved to Kansas and enrolled at Kansas State University. She studied Animal and Equine Science and student taught the advanced ground work class at the program’s horse unit.
In May of 2013, Haney and her husband, Justin, returned to Illinois.
“We bought a small farm and I started a small boarding and training barn, still mostly training for outside clients,” she said. “I was doing all this while working full-time in the health care industry.”
Haney’s heart, however, remained with the horses. When Vandalia’s previous director, Niki Wheeler, moved to Tennessee, a career opportunity knocked on Haney’s door.
“I heard about the Second Chance Program through a mutual equine friend of mine and Niki’s, and immediately applied for the position,” Haney said. “Niki was wonderful in helping me take over the job.”
There are others who had the experience and horsemanship to qualify for this position, but could not get past the idea of working long hours outside at a prison. Haney’s day starts at 7 a.m. and usually runs until 3 p.m.
That is, if all goes well.
“Our oldest horse here is Inspired Chief, who is 27,” Haney said. “He developed a respiratory infection and the vet had to have a IV catheter port installed, so we could administer antibiotics without causing much irritation. So, I was coming here on the weekends for a while, too.
“I enjoy what we’re doing, and I really want the community to understand how important the work is that we do here. I will go over the history of our horses with the inmates, and explain the rigorous life of racing with these guys, many of whom have never seen a horse before. The men are usually scared at first, and that makes them vulnerable. But the more they work with the horses, the more a connection develops and that usually makes the mood in general more pleasant.”
It also helps that half of Vandalia’s horse population is over 20 years old. Of the eldest are 26-year-old Deputy Barrack; 25-year-old Remember Cass and 24-year-old Dime Novel. Deputy Barrack, a Pennsylvania-bred, won two of three starts; Remember Cass, a Kentucky-bred, raced 93 times, fashioned a 14-10-11 record and earned more than $273,000; and Dime Novel raced 121 times, earned more than $143,000 and posted a 14-15-14 record while racing main in his native Virginia.
These seasoned veterans know how to relate to humans.
“`Doty’ is Deputy Barrack’s barn name; he had that when I got here and I didn’t change anybody’s barn name,” Haney said. “He is just your typical old man. He is always the last one up to the gate and he never is in a rush. `Cass’ and Dime Novel are two grays, and they are always ready to go. They are always the first ones at the gate to come in first to get something to eat.
“They are the best teachers, but they are by no means easy to handle. There is no dipping your toes in the water around here. From the first day the inmates are in the program, they are working with these horses. I am a very hands-on person. So we work together right from the start. I think that helps them to respect me and to respect one another.”