Edward Rybolt considers himself lucky to have received another chance. A heroin habit nearly destroyed his life, damaging his relationships with his family and driving him to a bank robbery attempt that netted him a 10-year prison sentence.
Paroled after serving three years, sober and gainfully employed, Rybolt credits an unusual corrections program that allows inmates to spend their days caring for retired racehorses. It's an opportunity that he says helped build the compassion and patience he'd need to re-enter society.
Rybolt, the first graduate of the Second Chances Farm program, said Friday that he used his interactions with the horses to change his outlook on people.
"At first when I tried to lead the horse, I would pull and pull, but it never went anywhere," he said. "But you can't move a 1,000-pound animal. I had to change my tactics, be gentle."
The farm, a rehabilitation center tucked away in a rural nook of Sykesville, was created from a partnership with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which cares for racehorses that might otherwise be sent to a slaughterhouse.
Inmates from the correctional facility travel to the farm and work every day for seven hours with the six horses, said Conni Swenson, program coordinator for Second Chances Farm.
The 60-acre facility was renovated entirely by the inmates, Swenson said, including fencing, the barn and stable areas, the pastures and the stables.
Swenson teaches the inmates the Elite Groomsmen program, an intensive curriculum used nationally in schools and in professional tracks. Participants learn veterinary tactics, how to groom and maintain the horses and the nuances of a horse's anatomy, such as hoof health.
But the most important skill the inmates learn is patience, Swenson said.
"When they come down here, they've been incarcerated and they have a tough exterior, and to work successfully with horses you have to open yourself," she said.
Upon his release, Rybolt said, he reopened the power-washing and landscaping business that he lost because of his drug problem. He didn't believe he could restart his entire life's work, but the work at the farm inspired him to try.
Now Rybolt said he focuses on hiring workers he feels deserves a second chance, including those with a criminal record. He also assists at a halfway house where he met his wife, Jamie.
"People don't want someone who is book-smart — they want who's been there," he said. "I can help turn someone's life around, and I owe 80 percent of that to this program. The other part is me. I wanted to change."
Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary Maynard, who developed the idea for the program, said every inmate deserves that second chance.
"We have an obligation to change behavior so when they leave they have better skills and control of their emotions and have better relationships," he said. "This is one means to do that."
Though the property is owned by the state, the department only pays for the electricity bill and inmate wages. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation foots other costs, such as materials and veterinary services, which the inmates sometimes perform.
An inmate in the program, Anthony Shelton, said he checks the horses every morning when he arrives at the farm at 6:30 a.m. He said he has learned to treat multiple illnesses and injuries, including "scratches," a fungus similar to warts that grows near the hooves.
Shelton said at first he was intimidated to treat the hind legs, because a horse's kick can be fatal, but as time went on, he worked up the courage.
"I enjoy coming here so much," he said. "It's a release of pressure, and it's freedom."
In 2010, The state corrections department donated funds and inmate labor to a similar horse-rescue nonprofit, Days End. The decision sparked an outcry from nearby Howard County residents, who said they were not informed of the inmates' presence, and the initiative was discontinued.
Mark Vernarelli, an agency spokesman, said Second Chances Farm is radically different, and existed before the Days End program.
Community members are invited to visit the farm during work hours, 6:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and commonly come to admire the horses, Swenson said. A correctional officer is on site during that time to monitor the inmates and eliminate flight risk, though Swenson said this is not necessary.
"These guys are about to get out, and they've worked so hard," she said. "They wouldn't ruin that for themselves."
None of the 10 graduates of the program has reoffended, Swenson said.
"It's a second chance for both the men and the horses, who would otherwise be slaughtered," she said.