In the world of horse racing, once a horse reaches the end of its professional career, it very seldom has the opportunity for a quiet and peaceful retirement.
Once they grow too old or become too injured to continue competing, most owners opt to put their horses down rather than bear the cost of maintaining an animal that will bring in no further prize winnings.
In an effort to address this depressing practice, an Australian program has been running for a number of years in a minimum-security prison to the north of Sydney.
As part of the program, the St Heliers Correctional Centre has accepted a total of 50 retired racehorses since 2011 that would otherwise have been likely destined to be put down. In return, the horses provide a valuable resource for the prisoners that would otherwise not be available.
For example, the horses are made available for recreational riding, equestrian events, police work and as companion animals. They also provide a useful resource to help rehabilitate inmates by offering a wide range of new skills.
The governor of the centre spoke to the media regarding the program, saying: “It just adds another dimension to the rehabilitation of the inmates, but then also obviously contributes back to the horse industry and the animal welfare aspect of it… It’s great then to see them re-homed and go on and live happy lives after the track.”
“We’ve got about 48 horses here on site at the moment and about 10 inmates involved in their handling and then retraining… They’re really excitable animals [but] with that gentle handling from the inmates and the care and attention that’s taken with them, they turn them right around.”
The prisoners are tasked with caring for the horses, and also for maintaining the facilities that house them at a farm adjacent to the centre. It is hoped that some prisoners will gain skills that could be used to gain employment in the racing industry following their release from prison.
The prison itself also has a number of other inspiring programs that help the inmates feel a sense of worth, such as the vegetable farm where food is grown that ends up being served in over 12,000 daily dinners served in prison meals across the state.
For the horses, it’s a win-win scenario. Instead of having their lives abruptly terminated after their brief careers come to an end, it’s a way for them to enjoy a new lease on life during their retirement. Animal rights groups are united in their support of the program.
“For so long we have campaigned for former race horses to be rehomed and repurposed rather than sent to the glue factory,” said a spokesperson for a Sydney-based group. “This program is one of the things that we hope can be rolled out in other parts of Australia in future.”