Horses and Men Given a Second Chance at Sykesville Farm
12/13/2013
Ellicott City Patch

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Second Chances Farm is an unlikely partnership between horses and men that may be saving both.

Inside the Sykesville barn classical music hummed from a radio as the men milled about the horses' stalls.

They were bundled up to stay warm in the December cold that penetrated the barn situated on state property near the Howard County line in Carroll County.

Inside the stalls the former thoroughbred horses were being brushed, cleaned, and fed.

"They're free out here," said Abijah Hatten, 24, an inmate at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility, who was applying a cream to the legs of Niles, a horse he'd been caring for the past four months.

Hatten himself is at the tail end of an armed robbery sentence and is one of six inmates involved with the farm in Sykesville, that rescues retired thoroughbreds and teaches prisoners how to care for them. The farm is located on the same property as the prison.

"When I first came out here, I was nervous at first," said Michael Atkins, who has been in prison for 14 years. "You have to develop a herd relationship with the horse. He'll push you around a little bit. You have to prove you're a leader. He's really taught me to deal with patience."

The purpose of the Second Chance program is to teach prisoners life skills, while also providing a home for the former racing horses.

"The reflection of a horse on a groom changes a man," said Judi Coyne, the program's coordinator who is retired from a job with the state's department of public safety where she worked placing parolees.

"I see [the men] transform and grow," said Coyne. "They become confident and compassionate. The goal is for them to get jobs when they get out."

During the six-month program, Coyne teaches the six men skills like grooming, basic equine veterinary care, exercise and farm maintenance. At the end, they are required to take an exam. If they pass they earn a vocational certificate that aids their chances of release.

Coyne said the men in the program are low-risk offenders nearing the end of their terms who are hand-picked for the program after a review process.

"I don't know what they're in for," said Coyne. "I know them by their first names."

An open atmosphere defined the barn, with one prison guard walking around and inmates working inside stalls with horses, or out in the field piling hay.

Since the program began in 2009, it has graduated 15 men who were later released from prison. Of those, two have returned for parole violations, according to Coyne.

The program is a partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a group that places former racing horses at farms, including nine at minimum-security prisons.

Coyne said most of the horses who live at the farm are injured, which keeps them from transitioning to a new life as a riding or jumping horse after racing. None of the horses are readable, said Coyne, and they'd likely be slaughtered or abused, if not given a home at the farm.

"It's a second chance for the horse and a second chance for the men," said Coyne.

Cornell Madden, 50, is nearing the end of a 15-year sentence for attempted second-degree murder.

He talked about caring for horsesóchecking their pulse, temperature, respiration, lifting the lip up to check for dehydration, watching out for sings of rain rot, brushing them in a certain way, walking them, being patient.

"Your way is not always the best way with a horse," said Madden. "They teach you to seek other ways and open you to other options.

"I use to be a grumpy guy, but I'm not anymore," added Madden.

He said one day the inmates were taken to Laurel Park to watch the groomers prepare horses for a race. While watching the horses being groomed, he had an 'ah ha' moment.

"I realized Miss Coyne taught me so well," said Madden. "If I groom that horse the way Miss Judy taught me, I'll be good. I've learned all the things a professional would do."

Madden said the experience provided him with the confidence he needs to return to his community in Baltimore and he believes the program is one of the best in the prison system.

"Men will see they have a chance to succeed in life as opposed to getting out and coming back," said Madden, who hopes to land a job at a farm somewhere after being released. "I'm not coming back to jail."