‘Horses of hope’ in prison give inmates a shot at a stable life
1st January 2023
John (not his real name) never thought he would get the chance to work with horses again, after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder.
But for more than the past year, the convicted killer has become a staple at Castlerea Prison’s equine unit, mentoring other inmates learning to tend to horses in the first prison facility of its kind in Europe.
“I never thought I’d get to see a horse again,” he told the Sunday Independent. “But here I am. I had a lot of experience working with horses for years before I was sent to prison.
“I was in another jail but I got a transfer after hearing about the equine unit. I thought I knew everything about horses, but I’ve learned some things here.
“I’ve been working here since they opened the equine unit. I help teach the other lads learn how to take care of the horses. It’s been really rewarding for me too, to work with horses again. And it goes both ways. We all get a lot out of it. Sometimes it’s as if we need them as much as they need us.”
Each prisoner in the unit has their own horse they are charged with minding.
“My horse is called Timber Storm,” added John. “The only thing I miss is being able to ride the horses. We can’t do that here — it’s just about looking after them and there’s a lot of work in that. But as long as I’m wanted here, I’ll stay. I really like teaching the lads who come in too as much as I can. To be honest, this place has been a godsend for me.”
Since the Roscommon prison opened its equine unit in September of 2021, more than 43 prisoners have passed through its doors. They undertake a 12-week certificate, which begins as a theory course in the main jail, before they are permitted out to an American-style barn where they begin to work hands-on tending to the horses.
John is something of an exception. Given his extensive experience with horses and the qualifications he already holds, he works with other staff helping those inmates keen to learn how to take care of the animals.
Much like the horses themselves, staff at the equine unit have seen prisoners of all shapes and sizes pass through its doors. The chief prison officer said the seven horses currently housed there have established friends and foes among one another.
“Timber Storm, he kicked Champ in the face a while back, so they have to be kept separated now. I suppose it’s not that dissimilar to the main prison. The horses have their own friendship groups, just like the prisoners. Horses are very intelligent animals.”
The inmates who have taken part in the programme come from all walks of life.
“There was a Dublin criminal who took part in this programme a while back. He got a big blister on his hand from minding his horse and cleaning out the stables,” said the chief officer.
“He came to me about it, because he didn’t realise what it was. He’d never had a blister in his life and he asked me what it was. In the end, he turned out to be one of the best fellas we’ve ever had in here with the horses.
“It’s amazing to see the transformation the horses can make in their lives. It has been a real learning curve for us as well. We’ve hired three specialist staff with expertise from outside the prison to help run the place. These are powerful and complex animals to take care of.”
The purpose-built stables and horses provide an opportunity for inmates to learn practical skills. The programme — named ‘Horses of Hope’ by the prisoners themselves — is the first of its kind in Europe.
On completion of the course, the prisoners achieve a nationally recognised certification in horse care.
When the Sunday Independent visited the equine unit in late December, there was a waiting list for participation in the programme among the 342 inmates.
“There is huge interest in the programme,” said Anthony Shally, the Governor at Castlerea Prison. “There’s capacity for 10 horses in this American-style barn. This project has been many years in the making.
“The prisoners who take part earn a certificate, but it’s about much more than that. What this programme is about is teaching compassion for animals, and empathy.
“At the end of it, those who take part gain a certificate, and it can hopefully lead to them securing employment when they get out of prison, working with animals.
“The aim overall is that this course will provide them with the skills to stay in the community and contribute to society, rather than end up back in prison.”
There have been instances of prisoners who are accepted into the equine unit course being expelled if they break the rules, according to the Governor, but “overall it has been incredible successful”.
Castlerea’s equine unit is the brainchild of philanthropist Jonathan Irwin — founder of the Jack and Jill foundation — and is also supported by the horse racing industry, as well as the Irish Prison Service (IPS). Mr Irwin supports the main operating costs.
The plan has been in motion for over 25 years and the philanthropist was inspired by similar programmes in the US and Australia.
The Irish Horse Welfare Trust, as well as other groups in the horseracing industry, have also been involved in fundraising as well as helping supply retired thoroughbred horses. Racehorse trainer Jessica Harrington is also a patron of the initiative.
“When I heard they were getting horses at Castlerea I applied for a transfer from the jail I was in, but I didn’t think it would ever actually happen. I can’t believe how much it has changed my life,” added John.
“When I’ve had a bad day — and it’s the same for all the lads — we come out here, and it gives us a sense of purpose. It’s not just a prison job for me. It’s my whole life in here now.”