By Bill Finley
John Evans didn't know what to expect when he agreed to go to work for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) as the equine program director at its farm at the Lowell Correctional Institute for Women in Ocala. He had been a steward, a trainer and a farm manager for Bridlewood Farm and Stoneway Farm, so, at the very least, this would be something different. Perhaps, maybe, less interesting, less rewarding.
But a friend, the late Dick Hancock, longtime executive vice president of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association, talked Evans into taking the job, telling him that the program needed help and someone with his myriad skills would be a perfect fit.
“Dick told me he had a job for me at a prison,” Evans said. “He wanted me to come and straighten things out.”
That was in 2005 and 18 years later, Evans retired last week.
“Why did I retire? Because I am 75. That's a good enough reason.”
He left a job that far exceeded his expectations. As soon as he got there, he knew that he had the chance to change the lives for the better for the more than 275 inmates that came through the program while he was there.
“Was this the most gratifying job that I had in racing? It was. There's no question about it,” said Evans, who, in 2016, received the first Thoroughbred Charities of America Award of Merit for his work with the TRF. “To see a lot of these girls go on to be successful, that's the best thing that I accomplished in my life.”
Yes, the TRF, the oldest and largest Thoroughbred rescue in the U.S., is about the horses. It has given a good home to thousands since its founding in 1983. The Lowell herd normally numbered about 50. But it's also about helping people who need help the most. The majority of the TRF's retirees can be found at prison facilities spread across the country, where inmates care for the horses. The interaction between the inmates and the horses has proven to be nothing short of miraculous. The recidivism rate is much lower than it is at non-TRF prisons and most of the inmates turn a corner, leading productive lives after they've been released.
“Hardly any of our inmates come back,” Evans said. “Normally, once they start coming to prison they keep coming back to prison. There were a lot of things I didn't expect when I got there so far as having a positive influence on other people. That was the best thing about this job.”
The Lowell program was the TRF's first at a women's prison and Evans believes that female inmates blossom in the program even more so than the men.
“A lot of them are mothers and this gave them something to nurture,” Evans said. “The horses really benefitted from that and the women really benefitted because they were locked up here without their children. I would say 65% of them had children. That was a big factor right there so far as them moving forward. Because of the horses, they had something to do and an importance in their lives that they hadn't had since got incarcerated. That was a big part of it.
“When I was in the horse business, I worked for a lot of wealthy people and you're just trying to produce for them. It makes a big difference when there isn't the pressure of having to win a race. This is more a matter of motivating people to better their lives. That was the really good part of about it.”
When it became known that Evans was going to retire, tributes came pouring in from some of the inmates who were under his supervision. They all spoke of how much better their lives had become because they had worked with Evans and the horses.
Here is a sampling:
“I don't even know where to begin, but I am going to go ahead and begin with this…Thank You! You and the horses played a HUGE part in me becoming who I am today. I am forever grateful for the time and work you put in teaching me and sharing all of your endless knowledge with me. When I came to prison, I was lost and broken. And having you and the farm and the horses not only healed me, but helped me find my way. The years you have spent at TRF Second Chance farm have made a huge impact on so many broken people's lives…I applaud you, you have done so much good for so many people, it's truly inspiring. So again, thank you…You helped me turn my life around and for that I am eternally grateful.” –Carmen Padilla
“Mr Evans, I never expected to learn so much in such a short amount of time! You are the best teacher and mentor I've ever had. You have taught me life lessons and lessons about how to care for those beautiful horses. You have a beautiful spirit and I wish you the best and hope to see you soon! –Angie Rubiolo
“Thank you to Mr. Evans for believing in me even before I believed in myself. I am so lucky to have known such an amazing man, teacher and mentor. I had zero confidence coming into this program, scared I wasn't good enough. You helped me build that confidence to the point I no longer needed validation for everything I did anymore. Your trust was the most important thing. For example, if I was unsure of a horse's treatment or diagnosis, or the right way to handle it, you would turn to me and say, 'Well, you tell me what do you think should be done.' By giving me this time to talk about the problem, I would have actually solved it. I am so grateful for his teachings not only with the horses but the teaching within ourselves. Definitely the two most important things he gave me back were my confidence and trust. Thank you for giving me my best two years of growing. I wish you the best retirement, relax and enjoy. You definitely have given the tools to so many women to learn and be successful in life. I will never forget you! –Corinda Colins
“A real cowboy knows about pain, love and shame but never cares about being famous…you are an amazing person and famous to anyone who knows you. Thanks for your time and teaching.” –Rebecca Farless
As Evans started to get older, the inmates returned the favor and started to take care of their supervisor.
“These girls, especially after I got older, they wouldn't let me do anything,” he said. “All they wanted to know was what I knew and could teach them.”
He's been off the job about a week, and admits that he misses it.
“I got up this morning wanting to go to work,” he said. “But I didn't have a job. My dogs were the same. They wanted to go to work too.”
His wife Marsha, a retired professor at the University of Central Florida, is certain that Evans will come to miss the job even more.
“What I know that he doesn't know is how much he will miss the interaction with the women and miss how that was his primary focus. We've been getting cards and notes from graduates of the program and they will knock your socks off.”
Another inmate, who gave her name only as J.J., agrees.
“You are one special angel that God placed in my path,” she wrote in her tribute to Evans.
“My husband,” Marsha Evans said, “has made a huge difference in a lot of lives. It's something to be proud of.”
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