S.C. inmates find new role caring for ex-racehorses

The Wateree River Correctional Institute in Sumter County is one of eight lockups around the country where horses bask in life’s sunset years.
Inmates find purpose and companionship through working with horses
Published: Jul. 4, 2023 at 4:22 PM EDT
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SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. (WBTV) - Some of the fortunate four-legged survivors of the high-stakes game of thoroughbred racing are now cared for by the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

With names like Whiskey, Herc, and Crypto Disco, their dedicated caregivers are no longer grooms, trainers, and jockeys but rather men in flashy orange outfits taking on a fresh skill set.

These are inmates who are fostering a newly discovered passion for pampering retired thoroughbreds who once carried out a starring role in what’s been called the sport of kings.

WBTV was not allowed to show their faces or speak to inmates about their offenses, but Samuel, who works with a mare named Cassidy, embraces the Thoroughbred Racing Foundation’s second chance program as a therapeutic game changer.

The Wateree River Correctional Institute in Sumter County is one of eight lockups around the country where horses bask in life’s sunset years.

Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, believes inmates seeking a new equine skill set clearly reduces the rate of repeat criminal offenders.

“It is under 10%; I’d say seven-and-a-half, 8%. We’re stopping the revolving door,” Stirling said. “This is a program like other programs we have at the Department of Corrections that helps with rehabilitation.”

Assigned to Crypto Disco, Artie feels the deep personal connection between man and animal can best be defined as a two-way bonding experience.

“You take care of them. You watch them. They act up sometimes. That’s what they do. These horses teach you how to be calm with them. You be quiet with them,” Artie said.

It is a newfound lifeline according to William Cox, who heads up the South Carolina Thoroughbred Retirement Association.

“Instead of being lost to euthanasia or slaughter or something like that, we provide a sanctuary,” Cox said. “This is an old folk’s home for thoroughbreds. It’s kind of like a paradise for these horses that spent their days racing. Some of them pretty good and most of the not very good.”

There are no rocking chairs for the residents of this old folk’s home for horses, just individual stalls, a lengthy barn and farm pastures.

“These horses are taken care of. They get to come to this facility in Rembert, South Carolina to live out their days completely carefree,” Cox said.

It is the latest in a long-running love affair between the Palmetto State and horse racing.

Springtime brings the Elloree Trials, Camden provides a constant home to highly publicized steeplechase events, and Aiken is best known as a thriving thoroughbred community with its Dogwood stables that’s even sent entries to the Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s historic Churchill Downs.

Adding to the list is this minimum-security lock-up.

However, watching them and turning over the reins to a waiting family willing to adopt can be painful for their caregivers.

Artie’s heartstrings have been tugged.

You groom them. You take care of them. You watch them. When you get attached to them, it’s hard, very hard, especially when you see them every day,” he said.

For Samuel, it’s a deeply cherished relationship with a special dialogue all its own.

“Watch their ears, their body language. She’s listening,” he said.

The correctional facility houses 20 horses at a time and the animals receive routine visits from veterinarians.

This program, which provides inmates with new job skills, started in 2004.