In Ireland prisoners whisper into the ears of horses

Feeding, grooming, looking after horses for a better reintegration: in the heart of Ireland, Castlerea Prison has opened an equestrian center for its prisoners, the first in Europe.

Beneath the high gray walls of the Roscommon County Intermediate Security Prison, stables and horses allow inmates to learn practical skills as well as develop a certain compassion along with the animals.

By completing a course called “Horses of Hope” – a name coined by the prisoners themselves – prisoners receive an Irish-recognised horse care certificate.

“This could be a life-changing opportunity,” the prisoner, whose name will not be released at the request of Irish prison authorities, told AFP.

This 20-year-old prisoner, sentenced to several years for a violent crime, says he wants to “grab with both hands” this opportunity.

Warden David Dwyer speaks to an inmate in the stables of Castlerea Prison, Ireland, April 20, 2022. (AFP – Paul Faith)

“Eventually, if we succeed, maybe there will be work on the farm,” he says after the first three weeks of classes.

“It’s relaxing. You can’t just walk into a stable with a horse that doesn’t know you and expect everything to be fine. You have to earn their trust,” he explains.

– Work –

The program, carried out in cooperation with the prison services and the equestrian sector, lasts 12 weeks, during which student prisoners learn how to care for horses, manage a barn and basic animal care.

After similar experiments started in the US and Australia, studies have shown that prisoners who learn to care for horses in this framework may then, upon release, find employment in the equestrian world, according to the Irish government.

A prisoner feeds horses at Castlerea Prison, Ireland on April 20, 2022. (AFP - Paul Faith)
A prisoner feeds horses at Castlerea Prison, Ireland on April 20, 2022. (AFP – Paul Faith)

The launch of the program would not have been possible without Jonathan Irwin, who has been involved in horse racing for decades. He decided to create such training for Irish prisoners after visiting a similar system in the United States thirty years earlier.

It took 26 years for the program to take root in Ireland, he said. “I started writing to all the justice ministers, but most of them never answered me because they thought I was crazy,” he told AFP.

– Manage your life –

To make the program a success, the Irish equestrian community has raised over €100,000 to fund Horses of Hope, and now Jonathan Irwin is hoping the initiative will expand to include an expansion of the stable that can accommodate up to ten horses.

According to him, the program is already bearing fruit: “There is a great kinship between the horse and the prisoner, and the prisoner is much more relaxed.”

A prisoner feeds a horse at Castlerea Prison, Ireland on April 20, 2022. (AFP - Paul Faith)
A prisoner feeds a horse at Castlerea Prison, Ireland on April 20, 2022. (AFP – Paul Faith)

“It already matters,” he says. “A feeling of excitement, a feeling that something is happening and everything is different,” he rejoices.

Opening the center on Wednesday, Ireland’s Attorney General Helen McEntee said the initiative shows “Ireland must be a leader in this area”, especially because of the country’s dominance in the equestrian world.

“It is important that there are opportunities for reintegration so that people can admit that mistakes have been made and be able to get their lives back on track,” the minister added.

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