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Hopes of a stable life

CASTLEREA, IRELAND (AFP) – The purpose-built stables and adjoining paddock stretch almost as far as the high grey, exterior wall of Castlerea Prison in central Ireland.

For the men held at the medium-security jail in County Roscommon, the horses provide an opportunity to learn practical skills – and develop more compassion through their work.

The new equine centre – named ‘Horses of Hope’ by the inmates themselves – is the first of its kind in Europe and was officially opened this week.

On completion of the course, the prisoners will get a nationally recognised 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 prisoner, whose name was withheld by the prison authorities, told AFP.

“I am just happy that I’m getting this opportunity and I am going to be taking it with both hands,” the prisoner, who is serving a stretch of several years for a violent crime, explained.

“At the end of it, if we do well in this, there could be a job opening at a stud farm or other places around the country,” he said following his first three weeks on the course.

A prisoner feeds two horses at the ‘Horses for Hope’ Equine centre at the Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon Ireland. PHOTOS: AFP
A prisoner speaks with prison officer David Dwyer (C) and chief prison officer Conor Coen (R) at the ‘Horses for Hope’ Equine centre as part of a new programme to teach convicts compassion and practical skills through work with horses

“It’s relaxing. You can’t just come out here and expect to go into the stable to a horse that doesn’t know you and just thinking he’s going to be alright with you. You have to gain their trust.”

The scheme has been delivered through collaboration between the Irish Prison Service and Ireland’s horse racing industry.

Groups of inmates work with horses over a period of 12 weeks, learning horse care skills such as grooming, stable management and first aid.

Similar initiatives have been launched in Australia and the United States (US), where a real-life programme inspired the 2019 film The Mustang.

Prisoners who learn to care for horses can go on to make valuable contributions to their communities on release and in some cases gain employment in the equine industry, according to the Irish government.

Charity founder Jonathan Irwin, who has worked in horse racing for decades, provided the impetus for the initiative after he visited a US scheme 30 years ago.

But he said it had taken 26 years before the plan started to come together. “There were a lot of brick walls,” he explained.

“I started writing to every minister of justice but most of them never replied because I think they just thought I was some kind of madman.”

Ireland’s horse racing community has raised over EUR100,000 for the costs of the ‘Horses of Hope’ initiative.

Irwin hopes it will expand over the coming years, extending the stables, which currently hold 10 boxes for retired racehorses.

Already, he said, the programme of equine care was starting to have a positive effect and there was a “sense of excitement that something is being done that’s completely different”.

“There’s a great affinity between the horse and the prisoner, and the prisoner is much more relaxed,” he added. “This has made such a difference already.”

Opening the facility, Justice Minister Helen McEntee said it was “fitting that Ireland should be a leader in this space, particularly given our leadership… when it comes to the equine industry”.

“I have no doubt that our European colleagues will be following suit and will be replicating and imitating what has been done here.

“It is so important that there is an opportunity for rehabilitation, for people to be able to admit where mistakes were made… and people can be given an opportunity to turn their lives around.”