REMBERT — Fourteen-year-old Victoria Mitchell and her father, Sean Mitchell, were checking out the horses at the Wateree River Correctional Institution in Sumter County on Tuesday.
The Sumter pair had adopted a retired race horse through the S.C. Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances program a year ago and were mainly at the prison there to show their support of the organization. But Victoria seemed to have other ideas.
“If she could, she would take them all home,” Sean Mitchell said.
The Mitchells were among about 100 people who turned out for the adoption event held at the foundation’s barn, located just outside the main gate of the minimum security facility on the Sumter-Kershaw county line.
Horse lovers from across the Carolinas rubbed elbows with men in khaki prison uniforms. But all eyes seemed to be on the former champions with four legs and names like Pan for Gold, Willie Boy and Blaine’s Storm.
Tuesday’s open house was the first of its kind for the foundation and the correctional institution, although the group has actually been working with the prison, helping to train inmates to work as groomers and adopting horses out, since 2005.
Through a six-month, intensive certification program, Second Chances works to provide prison inmates with a skill while providing the horses with a second chance of their own.
“These horses are all going on to alternative careers,” said program instructor Reid McLellan. “Just as its important to take care of the horses, it’s important to take care of these men.”
When the inmates complete the program – which covers everything from the horse’s health to the feeding and caring of the animals – they can earn introductory or advanced-level certification as groomers.
But before any of that can take place, both man and horse have to work together and establish trust, McLellan said.
“I can teach them how to work with these horses, but the horses consistently teach the men,” McLellan said.
Often, the results are rewarding for all parties involved. While the average return rate for released prisoners is 78 percent, just 12 percent of Second Chances graduates return to prison.
Tyrone Thomas, an inmate who was answering questions about the horses Tuesday, said the program has “made him a better person.”
“There are days when you feel down or like you don’t know what the purpose of your life is,” he said. “But this lifts your spirit.”
Having never been around horses before, Thomas admitted to being a little scared of the large animals at first. But as he learned more about them, he found they had personalities and even moods of their own.
Over the past few months, he had grown particularly close to Blaine’s Storm and Be Distinct, two thoroughbreds who helped him get through the program, he said.
“We’ve helped each other out.”