- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

LOWELL, Fla. (AP) In Florida's horse country, redemption is rendered amid rolling hills and second chances come in a place where neither prison walls nor paddocks have barbed wire.
It is here that Bill Bigger hopes to walk out of prison a free man with the mission of reuniting with the 6-year-old daughter he hasn't seen in more than two years.
He won't be leaving alone. Following him will be two thoroughbreds he has helped rehabilitate one, a chestnut steed named Upper Star, is his gift to his daughter, Cassie.
"He doesn't have a mean bone in his body," Bigger said of the 21-year-old gelding who was nursed back to health from a bout with West Nile virus. "The worst thing he does is rub on you, he forgets he's 1,175 pounds."
Open less than a year, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation farm near Ocala is the work assignment for seven minimum-security inmates from the nearby Marion Correctional Institution.
It is part racehorse retirement home, part prison, and it takes to heart Will Rogers' saying: "The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse."
The 100-acre farm is one of four such facilities nationwide. It has been built on a field next to the prison using donations, and all the feed, veterinary care and supplies come from donors and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a New Jersey-based organization that has been rescuing retired racehorses for 20 years.
The horses, some of them bound for the slaughterhouse or nearly lame from the toll of the track, come from all over the country. Those physically able are retrained to be pleasure horses and are available for adoption.
The inmates, who have to meet security requirements and can handle the course work, learn to work with the animals and study horse care. When they complete the program, they are eligible for state certification as grooms.
The farm is all about second chances for man and horse said Betty Jo Bock, the corrections officer and avid horsewoman who manages the farms and oversees the inmates.
"No one wants to take care of a racehorse who can't run anymore," Miss Bock said. "These guys are loving and hugging on them."
The parallels she sees between the horses and the men are strong. Some suffered neglect, some were mistreated, some had the best of care and still went bad.
Miss Bock teaches the inmates a form of training based on building a relationship with a horse and rejects the notion horses can be managed through power. That becomes the key lesson for the inmates, she said.
"Some of them come here with a lot of anger and hostility toward society," she said. "They deal with things with fists all balled up.
"The only thing that has been taught is how to manipulate this situation to get what I want. You can't manipulate a horse."
Despite its bucolic setting, the work is grueling. The inmates go to the barn seven days a week to take care of the animals, and they spend more time studying the course work.
The inmates are not allowed to curse nor are they allowed to lose their tempers with the animals.
They learn how to ride in English saddles, lessons that had one inmate dryly joking, "We take a spot of tea after."
Marion Correctional Warden Don Gladish said the stable has become a point of pride for the inmates, including those who have helped build the stable and paddocks.
"One of the biggest advantages is you've got an inmate out there who is willing to better himself," Mr. Gladish said. "Hopefully when he is released from prison, he might be able to get a job that will keep him out of the prison system."

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