Blackburn Grad Grateful For Second Chance With The Rood & Riddle 'Family' - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Blackburn Grad Grateful For Second Chance With The Rood & Riddle ‘Family’

Joshua Ison, graduate of the TRF’s Second Chances program at Blackburn Correctional Complex

For the first time in his life, Josh Ison loves coming to work in the morning. It's a blessing he never could have imagined during the early days of his four years behind bars.

“Sometimes I can't believe this happened for me,” Ison said reverently last week, leaning against a bale of straw in the quarantine barn at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. 

He looked down for a moment.

“It's different from anywhere else I've worked,” he continued. “They take care of me, no matter what, whatever I need. Like, when I got out, [my boss] came and got me and took me to get clothes and all that. I mean, who else is going to do all that?”

Ison, 40, is a graduate of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's Second Chances program at Blackburn Correctional Facility. The eight-month program utilizes a herd of more than 50 retired racehorses to help inmates build life skills while participating in a vocational training program. Inmates learn to work with the horses one-on-one in a round pen, to trim their feet, and to provide daily care, as well as taking lessons on equine anatomy and physiology in a classroom. 

“The TRF Second Chances program at Blackburn taught me patience with horses, and people,” Ison said. “You're locked up, you know, and there's all kinds of different people. But when you get down there, it's a whole different story. You're not locked up anymore. It's freedom.”

Considering his role on the facilities maintenance team at Rood & Riddle, Ison acknowledges that his time in the Blackburn program helped him become the kind of man he wants to be. Now, it's the support of his boss and his coworkers at Rood & Riddle that are helping him to continue that growth.

“Why do I like working at Rood & Riddle? It's a family,” Ison said. “We're all together. If anybody needs help, anybody that needs anything, it's gonna be done for them. That's what I like about it. And the horses, I love it. That's why I show up every day.”

Ison grew up in the southeastern part of Kentucky, coal country.

“I worked in coal mines all my life, and you don't miss work there,” Ison explained. “I've always been used to production, and this [job at Rood & Riddle] is nothing about production. That's hard for me to comprehend sometimes, because I get caught up, and I want to do everything right then. But you have to slow down and take your time with it, because every horse is different.

“It's all about patient care, making sure everything's taken care of with the horses. The horses are first, no matter what. After that, I take care of some maintenance things; I do everything.”

Ison did have some experience with horses as a child, when his family would go for trail rides and picnics on horseback, but he had never been involved with them up close, every day. That all changed when he was able to enter the program at Blackburn.

“My favorite horse was Big Time Spender,” he said. “That's the one I fooled with every day. We'd lunge them, you know, learning how to train them in the round pen. But mostly I just liked to curry him off, getting to know him, developing a relationship. I loved that horse.”

Big Time Spender is a 21-year-old bay gelding who raced 97 times in his career, compiling a record of eight wins, 10 seconds, and seven thirds. He earned $73,045 on the track, last racing in 2008.

Working with Big Time Spender on the lunge line is about “getting his respect,” Ison explained. “He's a good horse, though. He knows everything. You have to show him you're not scared of him. You just have to get a feel for each other. It's something you can't really explain, or I can't, anyway.”

Ison's hands-on equine skills are one of the reasons Rood & Riddle's Facilities Manager Erin Mathes decided to hire him after his release, but it also came down to his personality.

“Josh has a great sense of humor,” Mathes said. “He's a good guy; I think he'd do anything for anyone, but the big thing is he's really smart and funny. I actually enjoy working with him, and we work together quite a bit.”

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Ison had learned how to interview for the job thanks to Laurie Mays, the Equine Talent Pipeline Project Manager for the Kentucky Equine Education Project. Mays is the connection between Blackburn and Rood & Riddle.

“Rood & Riddle has definitely decided to become this kind of partner in the industry, because we are looking for people who want to work in it,” Mathes explained. “Josh is not my first Second Chances hire, but he is one of my first three.

“Josh came with the horse knowledge from the Blackburn project, but it's so different from the knowledge that we need him to have here. Those are horses that have been in the program for a long time, they're very broke, and here we see a lot of new horses every day, and you never know what you're going to get. It's something we are slowly building on with him, but Josh embraced every job here. He wanted to be involved as much as possible with anything and everything. 

“Josh came to us with a background in not just horses through the Blackburn project, but also in construction and landscaping — a little bit of everything. He wanted to do everything, so as facilities manager, I got him as involved as possible. 

“He comes across to me as an employee who wants to be challenged with different things every day. I know, with where he was, for the time he was in, it was a good thing for him to be continuously active and involved. With that, he gets to meet different people, and I think he's made some friends here, so he's part of a big team.”

Ison agreed that keeping himself busy has been the best way to keep moving forward since his release. Still, his favorite part of the job is being able to work with the youngest horses at the hospital.

“To go out in the pen and put my hands on them, to rub on them… I love it,” he said.

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