Second Chances Farm Honors First Graduate
The Advocate of Sykesville/Eldersburg

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Second Chances Farm in Sykesville marked the first anniversary of living up to its name on May 14. It is currently the home of four thoroughbreds rescued from an uncertain fate that are now part of a unique job-training program for inmates, one of whom is the first in Maryland to complete the program.

Conni Swenson, Program Coordinator of the Elite Groomsman program at Second Chances said that at first she had doubts about Edward Rybolt.

“I looked at this guy and said, ‘He's not going to make it,' but he's stuck with it and proved me wrong,” she said.

Rybolt, 39, of Baltimore, said before going to prison he had a successful business, but admits he has made mistakes. He was sentenced to 10 years, and is getting paroled within the month after serving almost three years. Although he and has been dealing with a drug problem for most of his adult life, he has been clean and sober for 2˝ years, and sponsors others in a 12-step addictions program at the Division of Correction's Central Maryland Correctional Facility.

“I view incarceration as a learning experience, positive and not negative,” Rybolt said.

He said completing the six-month Elite Groomsman program is one of the most important things he has done in his life, and he would like to eventually become a volunteer mentor with the program.

The course is one of several pre-release programs available through Corrections Enterprises to approximately 500 inmates in the final stages of incarceration at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville.

Swenson explained that the textbook for the six-month, horseman education course covers grooming, anatomy behavior, as well as some medical and health procedures. However, most of the learning occurs through hands-on experience.

Rybolt has stopped looking for big miracles and has learned to appreciate simple ones, like working with the horses and spending time at the farm.

“It's almost heaven here, one of the still beautiful places left. There's a lot of peace out here,” Rybolt said.

Now that he is an Elite Groomsman, he wants to enroll in a school in Virginia that will also qualify him to work as a farrier. With the additional certification, plus what he has already learned at Second Chances, he plans to work in the racing industry or in farm management.

Rybolt says he has never been afraid of hard work, and will do what it takes to succeed in a new career because he wants to have something to leave to his three children and his grandson. Rybolt will impart to them one of the life lessons he has learned from Swenson, the other inmates and the horses, especially a 12 year-old retired racer named Quite Rightly (Quinn), to whom he has become quite attached. He says Quinn has been a great teacher because of his patience with people.

“There's no room for selfishness. You've got to think of others,” he said.

He explained that horses deserve to be treated with respect and dignity that befits their role in our nation's history, and in the racing industry today. Rybolt added that Second Chances needs community support and would like to see more volunteers get involved in the program.

Located on Slacks Road, adjacent to Springfield Hospital, the 80-acre farm is located on property of the pre-release facility. In 2008, inmates started renovating a decrepit barn and fencing the adjacent pasture. Construction at the farm is ongoing. A new pasture is currently being fenced and there are plans for two run-in sheds to provide more shelter for the additional 8-10 horses and equipment that will arrive over the summer.

In addition to equine care, participants gain knowledge of carpentry, welding, roofing and other construction skills from repairing the barn, building fences and fabricating farm equipment through the program. Inmates are given leeway to perform their assigned duties, interact with each other, the horses and Swenson as if they were hired hands on a regular farm. However, a guard is always present on the property.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard spearheaded the effort to bring the program into Maryland. Maynard previously implemented similar programs in other states. It is a unique partnership between the department DPSCS and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

“The Second Chances program is one of nine identical programs in the country,” said Diana Pikulski, executive director of the foundation.

In 1982, the foundation began the first program at the Walkill Correctional Facility in New York. According to Pikulski, the rehabilitation program for horses and inmates is still successful and self-sustaining.

She explained that the program has two goals: take in as many horses as need help and rehabilitate and maintain them, and help as many inmates as possible.

Since its inception in 1982, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's mission has been to rescue thoroughbred horses no longer suitable for racing from neglect, abuse and slaughter. The cost of maintaining a retired racehorse is staggering, especially in today's economy.

Despite their owners' best intentions, more than 100,000 horses go to the auction block each year because they are no longer able to earn their keep on the racetrack. They often end up in the slaughterhouses of countries that supply horse meat to areas of the world where it is in high demand.

She explained that because horses are prey animals that they are as sensitive to their surroundings and the moods and emotions of those around them as people are. In order to be successful, their inmate trainers must learn to carry themselves with a quiet confidence around the animals, without being confrontational.

“They have a real sense of how people are and you can't be impatient or angry with them,” Pikulski said.

Second Chances is meeting and exceeding expectations because of Conni Swenson's patient approach to working with the horses and inmates, she added. Pikulski also praised the diligence and dedication of Maynard and everyone at the Department of Corrections and the Central Maryland Correction Facility who is involved with the program on any level.

“They are just over the top in terms of supporting the project. We're very proud of the farm and look forward to expanding,” Pikulski said.

According to Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the facility will eventually expand to accommodate 40 horses and employ 15 inmates at a time. The majority of the horses can be re-trained for pleasure riding, polo, therapeutic and jumping, to make them suitable for adoption. Vernarelli envisions that the ranks of honor guard formations throughout the state will eventually be filled with horses from Second Chances Farm.

He added donations of no longer needed saddles and tack would be greatly appreciated. Monetary gifts will supply feed and equipment to expand and operate the farm. Gifts made through the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation are tax deductible.

“We are very proud of Second Chances Farm. There's an “s on ‘chances' because this place gives a second chance not just to horses,” Vernarelli said.