James River Correctional Center inmate Pete Luce wraps the ankle of his horse, Dr. Pamela, at the prison's farm in Goochland, Va. (AP photo)
COLLINSVILLE, Ill. — Pete Luce was a bundle of nerves the first time he stood next to a towering former racehorse, knowing he could be seriously injured or killed with one kick.
Months later, Luce moves easily among the one-ton animals at a Virginia prison in a program that allows inmates to care for retired racehorses. And he hopes to parlay newfound skills into a job at a racetrack after he is released from prison, where he is finishing a 23-month term for drug possession.
"I go out in the pasture and I just call my horse's name, and he'll come right up to me," Luce, 35, said during a recent telephone interview from the James River Correctional Center.
Proponents say such programs, already operating in several states, give animals and inmates alike second chances.
The horses, many facing possible slaughter at a foreign rendering plant if they aren't retired to breed, are carefully tended and sometimes rehabilitated until an adoptive home is found. Inmates who volunteer learn marketable job skills they can use once they're freed.
Across the country, "there's no limit to the number of correctional facilities with land," said Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a 27-year-old equine-rescue group eager to expand the programs. And "we're not running out of inmates to teach or racehorses to offer."
Pikulski's group has made great strides connecting horses with inmates since it began its first "Second Chances" farm 25 years ago at New York's Wallkill Correctional Facility. Similar programs have since expanded to Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and Maryland.
Massachusetts and Illinois are considering them.
Illinois state Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican, is encouraging the state Department of Corrections to adopt a Thoroughbred horse groomer training program.
"There's something about an animal, particularly a horse, that gives these guys a chance, maybe for the first time in their life, to have empathy," Stephens said.
Lanny Brooks, a 62-year-old horse trainer and owner who heads the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, is trying to find good homes for five thoroughbreds that once made their living at Fairmount Park, outside St. Louis. He says Illinois' Vandalia Correctional Center is a logical choice.
The prison has about 1,500 inmates and more than 1,300 acres of former dairy farm, complete with barns and fences that could accommodate horses with only modest alterations.
"The public thinks we just race these horses, use them up and then they go down to La-La Land," said Brooks. "We're gonna make it known to the public as much as we can and as often as we can that we continue to take care of these racehorses that ran so well for us and made us money during their career."
Similar programs have operated elsewhere for years.
At some prisons in Kansas and Colorado, inmates work with hundreds of horses that once roamed free in the West, tending to them before they are adopted. They do everything from cleaning stalls and trimming hooves, and some can learn to become trainers.
Brian Hardin, who supervises the program for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said the recidivism rate for inmate trainers is half the national rate of 68 percent.
"The animals take the place of the family unit while they're locked up," he said.
In Virginia, James River warden Layton Lester says the program forces an inmates once preoccupied with himself to understand "there is another life that depends on him."
"There's a lot of personal growth and cognitive growth because of that," Lester said. "That's probably the most important part."