Saratoga Stories: Second Chances program on the rise

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Kim Weir (left) and Tyler Frame at Saratoga Race Course last summer. Timothy Littau Photo.

(Editor’s Note: We’re still thinking Saratoga and are happy to (belatedly) roll out another piece from the almost archives of The Saratoga Special in 2022. Special thanks to Kim Weir and Tyler Frame for the visit with our own Timothy Littau back in August, before the latter headed back for his senior year at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!)

By Timothy Littau

Retired racehorse Promised Road was not an incredibly unique racehorse. Not at first, anyway. He won nine times from 64 starts, all at the claiming level, and earned $39,547. At the conclusion of his career, he got off the van in an unlikely place: the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County. He was the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s first horse.

Fast forward 39 years and Promised Road has not necessarily paved a road of promises, but he did lead the way for a road of chances. Second chances.

The TRF’s Second Chances program helps inmates improve life skills and learn about horsemanship as they take care of and manage their retired racehorse next-door neighbors. And that then-8-year-old gelding, Promised Road, is the horse that started it all.

Today there are eight locations of the Second Chances program at correctional facilities across the country, from New York to California, and there are 450 retired racehorses living at the farms next to those facilities. New York has the Wallkill location and a new one that just officially opened in July in Attica. Plans for a third facility in New York are in the works.

“The third one is really close to Saratoga,” said Kim Weir, director of major gifts and planned giving at TRF. “So, we’ll leave that as a teaser, that we are very hopeful to have one very close to Saratoga soon.”

The horses are teaching the inmates “how to take care of horses, how to understand horses, how to interact with horses, and in the process they learn a lot about themselves,” Weir said. “Horses make our lives better. We learn that over and over again, and the more we expose people to horses, the better the world will be.”

The inmates are vetted for a six-month program that teaches them how to care for horses while also building life skills, and some become full-fledged horsemen when they are released from prison while others just take the experience with them.

“We are not trying to create horsemen, we are trying to teach skills so that if that is something that person wants to do, they can,” Weir said. “But it’s really amazing to watch how that takes root – in some and not others. It’s fine either way, we are just about teaching. It’s sort of like the horses are college placement counselors in a way. They’re giving all of these skills and then the people are figuring out what they want to do with them.”

In a way, it is not just a retirement for the horse, it is a second career as a teacher. One student of the Sykesville, Maryland, program did not just stand out to Weir. Standing one afternoon last summer next to the paddock entrance at Saratoga Race Course was Tyler Frame, wearing a button down shirt, baseball hat and cool blue shades. He has stood out to everyone in Maryland’s equine community, and, like Promise Road, paved the way for opportunities for others as he took a trip to Saratoga in July to promote the program along with Weir.

“Tyler is one of our star graduates, and we could not be more proud of Tyler,” Weir said. “It was clear when I met Tyler that he had already gotten the bug, I had nothing to do with it. He was on a mission to get out and get one of these jobs.”

Incarcerated in 2013, Frame participated in the program from 2017-18 for nine months, rather than the typical six, to gain more experience for an associate’s degree.

“(The horses) teach you empathy, they teach you understanding, they teach you patience beyond belief, they teach you how to read a situation in the best way possible,” Frame said. “Horses have their own personalities, horses have their own ways of doing things. Sometimes they’re stubborn … and you need to have patience. The more patient you are the more likely you are to get what you want. Because let’s face it, that’s how life is.”

After being released from prison, the life and horse skills both helped Frame get to his current position as barn manager at Above and Beyond Farm in Hagerstown, Maryland.

“TRF has a book that’s compiled of (horsemanship knowledge) that’s about stuff mainly focused on the racetrack, but it teaches you anatomy, it teaches you the structure of bones for conformational purposes,” Frame said. “I’m coming in so new to this industry, to different barns, and they think they’re going to have to teach me things and I just go right into it. Because it’s almost like bootcamp for horsemen. They teach you everything in such a little amount of time and when you go off on your own, you know it. You fit right in, you don’t have to be told what you need to do, you just do it.”

Frame’s knowledge and work ethic that he picked up in the TRF program have impressed many employers since he got out of prison.

“We used to just take round bales and we would put them in a field. You waste a lot of it,” Frame said. “But in TRF, you put the round bale in a stall, and then we would pull it around, pack three trash cans and dump them in each field. That’s what we started doing here, and it significantly saves money.”

Being out of prison and working at a farm with 47 horses in the herd was not always a breeze for Frame.

“I came in the first day and they said, ‘oh wow, the two girls that are supposed to work with you, with these 47 horses, are quitting,” he said. “So, I was by myself the next day, but I stayed there after my first day of training, I stayed there until about 9 o’clock at night, took pictures of all of the horses, took pictures of the fields, took pictures of all of the feed, and then it’s funny, I bought a stylus, and on all of their photos I wrote down their feed. They wore halters but the halters always rotated, it was musical halters. There was really no way to tell. At first it’s hard to tell different bays from different bays, chestnuts from chestnuts, and we have a lot of bays and we have a lot of chestnuts, more than anything else.”

Frame has not just worked with Thoroughbreds, he’s worked with English and Western, warmbloods and draft horses, and even bronc and bull riding.

“The way I actually got involved in it, is a horse tried to throw me off and I held on for dear life,” he said. “Next thing you know a guy approaches me and is like ‘Have you ever thought about bronc riding?’ I went over to the farm and they put me in the chute with the animal and at that moment, I realized I messed up. Because I’m like ‘Oh god.’ And I’m on it and we get out of the chute and it’s like all of everything I did, even though that TRF doesn’t apply to bronc riding, all of it was worth it. It made me feel good. And when I get off, I’m excited to work and network and everything else. I wouldn’t be bull riding if it weren’t for TRF. And I love it. I love everything about rodeos, I love everything about the equestrian in general.”

As diverse as the disciplines that he has worked in are, so too are the contacts that he has built up, thanks to the horse caring habits that TRF instilled in him.

“A lot of farms don’t like to change their water troughs every day. I do. My water troughs have to be cleaned and filled every day and filled to the brim because I need to know how much our horses are drinking. And that was one of the things I explained to the owners of the farm and they had never thought of that. And the previous place I had worked, they had never thought of that. And they were like, ‘wow, TRF is a really nice place’ and they had gotten ahold of Kim. Everybody’s been a fan of it. That right there is when I started networking. That right there is when I tried starting to spread the word for TRF because if I can come in and do these things, other people can.”

That can seem impossible for someone who is locked up and appears as though they will have no future and nothing to look forward to once they are in prison.

“When one of the men or women who are in these programs who have certainly gone through one of the roughest stages of their lives to find themselves in this situation they never dreamed they’d be in, and if there is something that our horses can do to give them hope that there is somewhere to go after this, that it’s going to get better, that there’s a path they can take that’s better than the one that led them there, that’s a really powerful thing,” Weir said. “I do not believe that the people at TRF give people hope. I 100 percent believe that it’s the horses at TRF that give people hope. That hope is what got Tyler through his program and it’s happening all across the country.”

The only thing that unites the inmates, who come from all different backgrounds and experiences, is the crimes they committed and that shared hope for a better future than past.

“You don’t choose the people you work with,” Weir said. “You’re working with a bunch of people and you’ve got to find a way. They might not be the kind of guys who hang out together on a regular basis, but they got to the barn and the thing that mattered the most was the horses.”

The teams might not be filled with all-stars or first-round picks, but they come together and win in their own way.

“Everything else gets checked at the door. The horses are in charge and that happens over and over again at our programs,” Weir said. “Some guys might be like ‘I never want to talk to that guy. We don’t come from the same place. We don’t know each other. But here, we’re a team.’ And that might be one of my favorite things to observe. Because that’s a life skill. We might all be here with people we didn’t choose but the higher cause gets us to get our jobs done.”

The motivation to get the job done stems from the horse – no matter how difficult they are to work with.

“Greek Ruler was the first horse I ever worked with in TRF,” Frame said. “Greek will always hold a special place in my heart. Every time I see a horse, I see him. Every time I work with someone that is stubborn as an ass, I think of him and think ‘OK, well, this is how I dealt with him.’ ”

Olaf is one of those horses that remind Frame of Greek Ruler since getting out of prison. Even Frame’s thick blue sunglasses couldn’t hide his excitement for the now 10-year-old gelding.

“I love Olaf. Olaf is a gray Thoroughbred, he is 17 hands high and he is the love of my life,” Frame said. “I love that horse.”

Frame cares not only for the horses he works with, but for the inmates who are or have gone through the program. The networking that he does with other horsemen and women is not just for himself, but for others with the same experience from TRF Second Chances.

“That’s why I try to do what I do so when these guys come out (of prison) and they’re like ‘hey I did the TRF program’ then (employers) are like ‘well we know Tyler, we’ve seen and heard about Tyler, he was a good success story, so we’ll give you a chance,” Frame said. “It’s all about the next person, it really is.”

The next person and the next horse, from Promised Road to Greek Ruler to Olaf. Change and transformation can take form with a horse and another chance.

“Every horse leaves a special place in my heart,” Frame said. “Every horse, at the end of the day, will teach you something. The only thing I wish is that we had one for people who are not incarcerated. We could have a vocational shop at every high school and they could learn how to be a horseman. That would be the greatest thing.”

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