Castlerea (Ireland) (AFP) – The purpose-built stables and adjoining paddock stretch almost to the high gray outer wall of Castlerea prison in central Ireland.
For men held at County Roscommon medium security prison, horses provide an opportunity to learn practical skills and develop more compassion through their work.
The new equine center – named “Horses of Hope” by the inmates themselves – is the first of its kind in Europe and was officially opened this week.
At the end of the course, prisoners will earn a nationally recognized certification in horse care – a potentially beneficial qualification in a country renowned for its love of horses.
“It could be a life-changing opportunity here, so you just have to wait and see,” one inmate, whose name has not been released by prison authorities, told AFP.
“I’m just happy to have this opportunity and I’m going to grab it with both hands,” said the prisoner, who is serving a multi-year sentence for a violent crime.
“At the end, if we do well, there could be a position at a stud farm or in other places in the country,” he said after his first three weeks of lessons.
“It’s relaxing. You can’t just come here and expect to walk into the stable with a horse that doesn’t know you and just thinks he’s going to be fine with you. You have to earn their trust. ”
The program was set up through a collaboration between the Irish Prison Service and the Irish horse racing industry.
Groups of inmates work with horses over a 12-week period, learning horse care techniques such as grooming, stable management and first aid.
Similar initiatives have been launched in Australia and the United States, where a life-size program inspired the 2019 film “The Mustang”.
According to the Irish government, prisoners who learn to care for horses can go on to make a valuable contribution to their community upon release and, in some cases, find employment in the equine industry.
Charity founder Jonathan Irwin, who has worked in horse racing for decades, provided the impetus for the initiative after visiting a US program 30 years ago.
But he said it took 26 years before the plan started to come to fruition. “There were a lot of brick walls,” he explained.
“I started writing to all the justice ministers but most of them never responded because I think they just thought I was some kind of crazy.”
The Irish horse racing community has raised over €100,000 ($108,500) towards the costs of the “Horses of Hope” initiative.
Irwin hopes it will expand over the next few years, expanding the stables, which currently contain 10 boxes for retired racehorses.
Already, he said, the equine care program was starting to have a positive effect and there was a “sense of excitement that something was being done that was completely different”.
“There is a great affinity between the horse and the prisoner, and the prisoner is much more relaxed,” he added.
“It has already made such a difference.”
Opening the establishment, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said it was ‘suitable that Ireland is a leader in this area, particularly given our leadership … in relation to the equine industry “.
“I have no doubt that our European colleagues will follow suit and replicate and emulate what has been done here.
“It’s so important that there is an opportunity for rehabilitation, that people can admit where mistakes have been made… and that people can have the opportunity to turn their lives around.”
© 2022 AFP