Tyler Harris has been to rehab six times in the last 10 years. At one point, he had nearly five years of sobriety. But he could never get it to stick.
“My normal thing is, I’ll stay sober for 30, 60, 90 days after [treatment],” Harris said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “But then I fall back into my old ways so quickly it’s not even funny.”
This time, he’s trying something new. Harris is one of 26 men currently participating in the Stable Recovery program in Lexington, Kentucky. The program combines housing and recovery support with job training that prepares participants to work in the equine industry.
Will Dorton helped start Stable Recovery. He said the program’s built-in therapeutic community and emphasis on job training provide an alternative model of recovery.
“You don’t necessarily need to go to a $30,000-a-year treatment facility. You don’t necessarily need to go to prison or a hospital,” Dorton told the Daily Yonder. “If you get a job that means something to you and you live in an environment that supports you, you will be able to recover.”
For their first 90 days at Stable Recovery, participants are enrolled in the School of Horsemanship at Taylor Made Farm, which trains people in recovery to work as grooms. Program founder Frank Taylor said he started the school to help solve what he sees as two interrelated crises—high rates of opioid and alcohol addiction, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a labor shortage in the equine industry.
Kentucky’s horse industry employs nearly 60,500 people and contributes $6.5 billion in direct and indirect annual economic activity, according to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. Although the industry is most concentrated in Central Kentucky, over 1 million acres across the state are used to keep, breed, and train horses, from Lexington to rural counties like Grayson, Pulaski, and Adair.
In response to the industry’s labor shortage, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has also helped develop an employment pipeline for graduates of an equine program in the state Blackburn Correctional Complex.
Since 2019, more than 110 graduates of these three programs—all of whom are in recovery or recently released from prison, or both—have gotten jobs in the horse industry.
Disrupting the Old Paradigm of Recovery
When Frank Taylor first suggested starting the School of Horsemanship for people in recovery, his brothers—who are also his business partners—were not enthusiastic about the idea. Some of the horses at Taylor Made are worth millions of dollars, and working with horses while intoxicated could put both the horse and groom at risk.
But Taylor—who had seen a similar model work wonders at a local restaurant—was adamant that they give the program a try.
“My response was, well, what if we save somebody’s life? What if we reunite a family? What if we turn someone who is a drain on society into somebody that contributes positively to society?” Taylor said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “So I just think the upside outweighs the downside.”
And so far, it has. Around 70 students have graduated from the School of Horsemanship, several dozen of whom are now employed at Taylor Made Farm or elsewhere in the horse industry. Taylor Made Farm’s staffing shortage has been addressed, and the demand for graduates of the program has spread to other farms.
Participants in the School of Horsemanship are paid for their work from the beginning of the program at the same rate as other beginning grooms. By the end of the 90-day training, they are equipped to work as an entry-level groom in a range of facilities, from breeding and training farms to equine hospitals.
The addition of the Stable Recovery program has also created a unique opportunity for people in recovery. Stable Recovery is a non-profit, which has so far relied primarily on donations to support its operations.
“We see ourselves as a bit of a disrupter in the recovery community,” said Will Dorton. “We do it totally different.”
For one thing, the program has no set end date. “We don’t tell anybody, ‘Hey, it’s time to leave,” said Christian Countzler, the founder and director of Stable Recovery. “We want them to stay as long as it takes for them to get their life back.”
For Harris, this is one of the main things that sets the program apart from other treatments he has tried. “To think that you can fix [years of addiction] in 30 days is not realistic. And I’ve proven that to myself many times,” he said. After graduating from the School of Horsemanship, Harris chose to move permanently from Bowling Green to Lexington to continue the Stable Recovery program. He is now a barn foreman at Taylor Made.
He says that combining work and a therapeutic community has also been essential for his recovery. “Since we work together, we can be up here busting our asses working with the horses, and at the same time be talking to each other about recovery throughout our workday,” Harris said. “And we cut up and have a good time, but some days we’re serious. And if somebody’s struggling, we pick that person up.”
Lewis Germany has been in the program since August. He says the connection he feels with the other men in Stable Recovery makes his recovery stronger. “Being around a bunch of other sober guys, it’s a brotherhood. This is a big safe house.”
As word of the program spreads, Germany says more people are starting to realize that Stable Recovery is something special. “You’re not supposed to be very prideful in this program, but I am just so proud to be a part of this group,” he said. “Nobody does it like we do. And it saved my life.”
Building the Missing Talent Pipeline
On the other side of town, the Blackburn Correctional Complex offers a horsemanship program for incarcerated men. The Second Chances Farm is funded by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing retired thoroughbreds that may face abuse or neglect after their racing career is over.
The program at Blackburn was started more than 20 years ago and is now one of eight similar TRF programs in prisons across seven states. But few graduates have been able to get jobs in the horse industry once they were released, despite the severe labor shortage many farms are facing.
This is changing due to a new talent pipeline established by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
“For the longest time, we had what I call a two-legged stool,” said Kim Weir, the director of donor engagement at TRF, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. She explained that the Second Chance program created an efficient solution that allowed TRF to place their thoroughbreds on prison land and made an equine vocational program possible at the prison. But neither TRF nor the Kentucky Department of Corrections is set up to help with job placements.
That is where the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has made a difference, using Talent Pipeline Management tools developed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“When I started talking to Blackburn, there wasn’t much of a connection between the gentlemen who were being released and the industry that desperately needed those people,” said Laurie Mays, the project manager for the Agriculture and Equine Talent Pipeline at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Since Mays became involved in the Blackburn program in 2019, she has worked to connect employers with graduates of the horsemanship program. She has also created the Workforce Readiness and Re-entry Program, which provides the incarcerated men with mock interviews, resumé writing, and information about working in the horse industry.
“There are so many qualified gentlemen who come out of [the Blackburn program] but a lot of times their only exposure to the horses was in prison. So they don’t know how to navigate the industry,” Mays said.
The Kentucky Chamber also provides wraparound services, which help with issues like transportation and housing, to support employers and their new employees in the transition out of prison.
For men like Chris Courtney, this support is critical. Courtney was released from Blackburn in 2015 but was unable to find steady work on a farm due to his felony record.
“It’s hard to get a horse farm job because they have to trust you—these animals are their babies,” Courtney explained in an interview with the Daily Yonder. Eventually, he got in touch with Mays, who connected him with Jeannie and Nick Larkin, who own Wainui Farm in Lexington.
“It was like dominoes falling,” Courtney said. “I’ve been [at Wainui] going on two years now. It’s been a blessing for me.”
According to Mays, nearly 70 Blackburn TRF graduates have been hired by the equine industry since 2019, and no participants have ended up back in prison since the talent pipeline was established. This is especially notable given that nearly 30% of people released from Kentucky prisons will return there.
“I was in prison for 10 years flat, and I would see guys come in and out two or three times. And I’d be like ‘man, this is a revolving door.’ And I’m sure I’d be back in prison right now if it weren’t for you all,” Courtney told Mays and Larkin.
Employment, transportation, and housing are the essential ingredients in keeping recently released people from recidivating, according to Mays. But she said Kentucky’s reentry services have been historically inadequate. “And so a lot of times, unintentionally, the system is setting people up for failure when they just release them and say ‘good luck.’”
The TRF program at Blackburn is helping to break that pattern. Since the pipeline was established, “every single guy that has wanted a job in the horse world has walked out of Blackburn with a job and a uniform waiting for them,” said Weir of TRF.
This model is already being recreated at other TRF Second Chance farms in Maryland and Florida. While not directly connected, the programs at Blackburn, Stable Recovery, and Taylor Made Farms each demonstrate the effect that a jobs program can have on people’s lives.
“We’re showing people what hope looks like,” Weir said. “We’re showing people what the power of a second chance is. And we’re making the world a better place.”