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In Need and in Luck: Rescued Horses Land in Prison, or Is It Heaven?

by Suzanne Bush

Sergeant Mike LIll and friend.  "A lot of these guys had been overworked.  Some have leg injuries.  They just need some time off." 
Credit:  Suzanne Bush

You never turn your back on a creature in need. It's a good way to face life and a good way to make a difference in the world. It's the guiding force that brought two vastly different organizations together in exquisite synergy.

George Hiltner, a Facilities Maintenance Manager at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, wants people to understand that life inside the fortress that contains the prison's inmates and business offices is not bleak and hopeless. "We have to believe there are possibilities in everyone, and that you can positively motivate people. That is the mission of corrections."

Lori Benetz, founder and president of Last Chance Ranch in Quakertown, believes in possibilities, too. Last Chance Ranch has reignited the spirits of countless horses that had been neglected, starved, beaten down and left for the meat wagon. Benetz and the volunteers who work with her know all about hopeless cases and hearts that seem too hard to reach. Horses like Grumpy, whose "skin was peeling off in chunks from rain rot." He was starving, too. "You could count every rib." The Last Chance Ranch prescription: "You kill them with kindness."

80 Acres

Hiltner was trying to develop a plan for making better use of 80 acres that once housed a dairy operation in the buffer area outside the prison's walls. "Our previous superintendent is a horse person and he had meetings to try to see what we could do to utilize the land," he explained. "I saw an article in a corrections magazine about an institution in New York that was using their land for horses." Hiltner started thinking about horses, and wondered what it would take to convert the former dairy farm into a haven for horses that had fallen on hard times.

In her relentless campaign on behalf of abused and endangered horses, Benetz touched a man named Mike Lill. Sergeant Mike Lill. Lill is head of the mounted patrol at Graterford Prison, and has a soft spot for equines. He had spent time working with Hiltner on the idea of bringing more horses onto the landscape at Graterford, and saw opportunities to train more inmates to work with horses. Before long—but not before a whole lot of paperwork and groundwork and hard work figuring out how this whole thing would work and who would make it work—Hiltner's idea became reality. "We spent a good part of six or eight months clearing brush, getting fences up and making arrangements with Last Chance Ranch," Hiltner said. "Sometimes the delays were frustrating. You get excited about everything, then you have to wait more."

Training Program

The inmates who would be working with the horses needed training, so Lill set up a program to teach them. There was already a group working with the horses they use for the mounted patrol, but the rescue horses would present different issues and different needs. "We teach them basic grooming, tacking up horses, checking the hoof, looking at the horses' legs for nicks, scrapes, cuts. Then we get into longeing horses in the round pen. We've even had them poultice," Lill explained.

The horses thrive when they're being cared for and respected, but something else happens, too. Benetz marvels at the way the horses change the people who care for them. "You see these big guys. I don't know what they've done to land them there. I know they've done something wrong, or they wouldn't be there. But there's just a…softness about them around the horses. They know that a kind hand is the only thing these horses need." She's thrilled with the arrangement, because it gives her a place to send horses that "just need a vacation from people." We've got some horses with psychological problems—caused by people." Horses like Grumpy, whose name doesn't fit as well these days, except for the fact that he still pins his ears when people approach. "I swear Grumpy's ears are on backwards," Benetz said, recalling the pathetic creature that he once was.

When he was a starving rescue prospect with a meager rating of barely 1 on the Henneke Scale, he had serious aggression issues with food. The Henneke Scale is an objective measurement of a horse's body condition. The lowest rating, 1, describes a horse with protruding ribs and bones projecting prominently. It is a rating that doesn't portend a good outcome, even as it tells a story of obscene neglect. "We brought him back to health," Benetz said. "We worked with him a couple of months, to get over the food aggression. Then we put him at Graterford with other horses. We let the other horses teach him that there's plenty of food, and you're not going to go hungry."

Conscientious Workers

While the horses work on teaching each other how to live peacefully and enjoy life without fear and pain, the inmates work on the horses. Lill is impressed with the way they approach their responsibilities. "The inmates are conscientious. If they see something we don't see, they're right on it. They want to make sure the horses are all right."

Although they've only been hosting Last Chance Ranch horses for a little over a year, Hiltner and Lill want to expand the program, and bring in more horses. "I'm happy with the progress so far, but I know it could be so much more," Hiltner said, noting that the prison farm raises enough hay to feed the horses.

"We have the land. We have the hay. Cost-wise it's not expensive. It keeps the inmates busy and they enjoy it. I'd like to be able to step it up a little more," Lill said. "I'd like to be able to ride these guys." In the back of his mind, Lill is thinking about ways he and his crew can get Benetz's horses ready for adoption. He's re-grading space for a round pen, and firmly believes that giving the horses a taste of Graterford's trails would help them become more adoptable. "The trails out here are unbelievable. You can't really make a horse totally bomb-proof, but they see a lot here, and get used to a lot," he said. He rides the trails every day and sees foxes, deer, turkeys and other spooky distractions.

Benefits Community

Hiltner said that the top management of Graterford is committed to programs such as the partnership with Last Chance Ranch. "They're pretty adamant that we put stuff out that benefits the community." He said that some of the housing developments that have grown up nearby no longer look out at blank fields. The homeowners can look across the roads and see horses grazing. They may not know the history of the horses they see, but the scene is nonetheless compelling.

The challenge is resources. "The only problem we're encountering is basically staff and inmates," Lill said. The program adds responsibility without adding too many ways to accommodate more responsibility. As he walks through the run-in shed, he introduces the horses—most of them eager for human contact. Their names tell part of their stories. Wreck. Thistle, a seven-year-old part draft with a bad knee. "She got her name because she was covered in thistles when we got her," Benetz said. "We had to cut away a lot of her tail and her mane because we couldn't get the thistles out."

There are 19 rescue horses at Graterford now. How many more could they handle? Lill waves his hand in an arc across the horizon. "We've got 80 acres. How many horses will that hold?"

"It's great—a perfect situation for the horses," Benetz said. "It brings out compassion, and it's just beautiful to see." She has seen the difference in the horses and the difference in the people, and it never ceases to amaze her. "There was one guy released last May. An older guy. He was in tears leaving. He knew those horses and every little bump and nick on them."

Compassion is a salve that heals the wounds of the patient as well as the doctor, and that is part of what drives Hiltner, Lill and Benetz. "When you step back and look at the bigger picture," Hiltner said "are we that much different than the people we see here?"

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