By Diana Pikulski
The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) farm at the Wallkill Correctional Facility recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. The perennial partnership sealed in 1983 paved the way for off-track Thoroughbreds as therapeutic learning partners for all people but most notably for men and women who have suffered PTSD, have substance abuse issues, anger management problems and many other issues that might land a person in prison. Pasture sound-only Thoroughbreds find sanctuary and a critically important career in the TRF’s renowned program. Older horses are respected and revered for their lives and contributions to the program. The program teaches advanced horse care as well as empathy, life-skills, communications skills and the importance of humane treatment of animals.
Farm Manager James Tremper retired in 2018 after 35 years. Filling his boots was not going to be easy. Kelsey Kober took on the challenge and she has found success in all aspects. Diana Pikulski caught up with Kober to talk about her first year on the job.
DP: Did you grow up in this area and around horses?
KK: I grew up here in the Hudson Valley and I started riding horses at age seven. That is when I started taking riding lessons.
DP: Are off-track Thoroughbreds new to you?
KK: Off-the-track Thoroughbreds are not new to me. My first exposure to them was at the farm where I rode as a kid in Gardiner, NY. In addition to having off-track Thoroughbreds, they broke and trained Thoroughbred racehorses. I used to love riding in the outdoor area and watching the racehorses being ponied and warmed-up for training.
DP: Did you have a background in corrections before coming on board at Wallkill?
KK: I am the third generation of my family to work in corrections. My nana worked 17 years for the department and my father currently has 31 years with the department. I started my career in corrections by volunteering for two and half years before joining the department. So, corrections has always been a part of my life.
DP: What is your favorite part of the day on the TRF farm?
KK: My favorite part of my day is being able to work and be around 51 beautiful horses day in and day out. I love to go to the top of the farm and look over the farm and see the mountains and the horses grazing so peacefully. I am truly blessed to be a part of such a wonderful program.
DP: Is there anything that surprises you about the relationship between the men and the horses?
KK: I am still surprised by the depth of the stabilizing effect that the horses have on the men. The horses are such gentle creatures and you see how they allow the men to let down their ‘wall’. It is interesting to see how some men are more able than others to let go of their emotional blocks. I love seeing how much the therapeutic aspect of the training can affect the men and the work they do with the horses on a daily basis.
DP: What changes have you made at the farm since coming on full time?
KK: I’ve made a few small changes to the program. I switched over to a local feed company, Poulin Grain, and we found a balanced grain that works with our climate in the Hudson Valley and it seems better suited for our horses. I received a wonderful donation of a new run-in-shed to be able to make another field available for four more horses to call home. I also have been working in conjunction with the TRF’s farm in Saratoga to promote adoptions. Last year four horses from Wallkill served as ambassadors in Saratoga and found adoptive families which was extremely exciting for me.
DP: Tell me about a typical day for the men at TRF Wallkill.
KK: A typical summer day at Wallkill starts with the men feeding all the horses and cleaning and refilling water troughs. We also do a small practical lesson every day which be wound treatment, or haltering and leading a horse. Then, we move on to either unloading hay or mowing the grass. This is in addition to the more regimented curriculum.
DP: The herd is aging. Is there a special lesson for the men in caring for the older horses?
KK: I have two men that work with what we call our old timers paddock. The two men that care for this field are usually men that have been in the program the longest or have horse experience. These horses are on special diets and they need to be watched carefully especially when eating. The men are able to learn the how the horses’ nutritional needs change as they age and the importance of adjusting our regiments to suit their needs.
DP: I know that all of the horses are special in their own way. But, is there one who you would like to bring to the attention of the Thoroughbred racing industry as representative of the specialness of the breed?
KK: All of the horses at Wallkill hold a special place in my heart. Each and every one of them has their own personality and quirks to them which makes it even more special. I have had the opportunity to connect with so many of my horses on the farm that is extremely hard to just pick one.
I would like to talk about Quick Call who turned 35 in February. He is still doing a fantastic job living his best life. He comes in everyday to eat and trots right out for a drink after eating. He is a big napper which sometimes makes us nervous.
Quick Call definitely gets some extra attention around Wallkill with being the oldest horse and doing so well in his racing career (earned $807,817 in 86 starts). I have told others in the past that I believe the reason he has done so well in his life is all the love and attention he receives. The farrier was in recently and expressed to me that Quick Call’s joints are still as if he was a 20 year old which I believe to be impressive.
For more information about the TRF, go to www.trfinc.org or call 518-226-0028. Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.