Dax Rodriguez is 43 and has spent almost half his life in prison for attempted murder.
“Cold-hearted … callous … calculated. I didn’t care about nobody or nothing,” is how the Bronx native described himself on Thursday.
Story Bond is a New York-bred chestnut thoroughbred, two generations removed from his grandsire, Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Story Bond raced once, finished last of 12 at Saratoga Race Course in 2006, earned $130 and never ran again.
He is the bad-ass, according to Rodriguez.
Thrown together on 80 acres of rolling green hills, wood fences and a beautiful white barn with dark green trim, Rodriguez and Story Bond figured each other out. In the process, these lost souls figured themselves out.
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s Second Chances, a mutual inmate/horse rehabilitation and vocational program at Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County, celebrated its 30th anniversary last week.
The brainchild of retired state Sen. Howard Nolan, Second Chances has spawned similar programs in nine other states and has shown a remarkable ability to not necessarily put ex-cons in the equine job market, but to fulfill a much higher purpose: ameliorating the character traits that put them in prison in the first place.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Story Bond saved Rodriguez’s life.
“I tell my wife all the time, I feel like Pinocchio … little by little, I’m becoming more human,” he said.
“And it all started here.”
“Here” is a neatly maintained horse farm on the Wallkill state prison property, a former dairy farm that was in utter disrepair and neglect until Nolan, whose breeding farm was up the road, hatched the idea to convert it into something that would help horses and men doing hard time alike.
With almost 1,000 retired horses in its care nationwide, TRF is the oldest and biggest rescue organization in the world. The TRF herd ranges from brutally abused animals bought off feed lots to stakes stars like the 30-year-old Quick Call, a two-time winner of the Forego at Saratoga who has been at Wallkill since 2001.
Some of the robust creatures who have been through Wallkill, which keeps about 45 on the grounds, were plucked from the ranks of the 170 horribly neglected horses that led to multiple animal cruelty charges in 2009 against former owner/breeder Ernie Paragallo.
The inmates, meanwhile, are in for offenses ranging from drug convictions to assault to murder.
A lack of patience, anger management and an inability to curtail aggressive behavior are some of the root causes of their problems. Many of them are just bad people. Some have suffered child abuse, and find kindred spirits in these paddocks, each of which is wryly named after a prison.
They’re taught all the routine duties of grooms and hot walkers — tacking up the horses, feeding them, giving them baths, mucking stalls, cleaning hooves and combing manes and tails.
“The patience thing, interacting with animals who have the fight-or-flight instincts — we want them not to do either of those things,” said farm manager and vocational instructor Jim Tremper, who has been with Second Chances since the beginning.
“We want the cooperation, and that takes a certain kind of handling, and most of these guys don’t know how to do that until they start interacting with these horses.”
“Trust … it takes time,” said William Douglas, who is serving five years on drug charges.
“These horses actually helped me change a lot, as far as with patience, my aggressiveness … I still have it, but the horses helped me work with anger issues,” said Noel Jiminez, in for eight years for assault. “I can’t approach them with anger. It’s not going to work.
“As far as patience, I didn’t have any. And when I go back to the prison, they help me with certain characters there, too. I have patience with certain things that come my way.”
On Thursday, Douglas and Jiminez were in the “Sing Sing” paddock with the chestnut Jaystone, a son of Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Birdstone who rarely raced higher than the claiming level, and Energy Flow, nicknamed “Boodles”.
Energy Flow weighed 640 pounds when he came to Second Chances from the Paragallo herd.
Just as Rodriguez discovered his affinity for the violently aggressive and uncontrollable Story Bond, Second Chances alum Steven Emery, who did time for assault, latched on to Energy Flow. Tremper called Energy Flow “the least socialized horse who was abused from the Paragallo mess.”
“He was infested with parasites, 100 pounds underweight, he was really injured and looked like a small donkey,” Emery said. “He was hand-shy and wouldn’t let me touch him. Guys were scared to go out in the field when he was with the others.
“That became my favorite horse.”
Gradually, Emery and Energy Flow developed a mutual trust.
Gradually, Energy Flow regained his health.
On Thursday, he and his paddock buddy Jaystone competed for attention and cookies from visitors. Emery told how, after 90 days in a homeless shelter upon his release, he has worked his way up through a variety of jobs to become a department manager at a sporting goods store and hopes to find an even better job so he can afford his own house.
“That horse taught me how to be patient, how to take care of people, how to be responsible,” Emery said. “Because I didn’t care about anybody. I used to take anything, anytime, anywhere I wanted.
“But that horse showed me that you can’t bully everybody. He was bigger than I was. He gained my trust. I was able to bathe him and clean him up. As I was cleaning him up, I was being cleaned up, and didn’t even realize it.”
Dax Rodriguez’s experience with Story Bond began differently.
He had been warned by other inmates about the newcomer, but doubted their dire assessment until Story Bond nearly broke through his stall door trying to savage Rodriguez.
It took weeks, but Rodriguez finally had a breakthrough moment when he grabbed Story Bond’s halter and got nose to nose with the fiery horse. They sniffed each other out, then Story Bond suddenly started nodding his head.
In a sense, they broke each other. Story Bond was on the road to being socialized, and this horse made Rodriguez realize that he wanted to finish the certification program in earnest.
“I could practically walk him without a lead rope,” Rodriquez said.
After 17 years of incarceration and three more for a parole violation, Rodriguez is walking without a lead rope.
He moved upstate to Amsterdam to find cheaper living arrangements, and with the help of TRF vice president Diana Pikulski got a job at Stone Bridge Farm in Gansevoort.
One of his new assignments is to take care of newborn foals, who are “like kids with an individual mind, and you have to learn their habits and all kinds of stuff,” he said.
A horse doesn’t know nor care if you’ve been canonized for sainthood or killed a person; that’s for the legal system to sort out.
A man may not know if a horse won the Triple Crown or never ran a step and has no value as a stallion; they all need to be fed and bathed.
Humanity can be found in the unlikeliest places.
“It taught me a different level of compassion, which was something I didn’t have,” Dax Rodriguez said.