-By Kristin Bednarski
When Thoroughbred horse trainer and former Louisville police officer Jay Wilkinson retired from the service, he did not picture himself volunteering for a job that would teach kids a whole new career.
But upon retiring, Wilkinson became involved with Boys Haven in Louisville. He used his experience as a trainer to create a unique after school program that helps foster kids learn about horses.
“I thought we could get them involved in the industry because it seemed like a really good fit,” said Wilkinson. “I presented the idea to the committee and it took a few months but we got it started. We built a barn, one thing led to another, and now we have 39 kids in the program.”
The six-month long program is open to applicants who have previously been unemployed or are not going to pursue post-secondary studies. The rationale behind it is post graduation students should have the training they need to get a job.
A typical day for students begins at 5:30 a.m. when they arrive at Churchill Downs to help groom, walk, and tack up horses in training. After chores are done around 10 a.m., the group heads back to the barn on Boys Haven’s campus for class and more hands-on work.
As students progress through the program, Wilkinson watches them change in many ways. They develop the skills they need to handle horses, and they get to watch their hard work pay off when the horses run. Students who work especially hard get to travel with the horses to out-of-state races, and when the horses win, they get a percentage of the earnings.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to see new places,” said Wilkinson. “And it is a reward to go and watch these horses race, and a motivational tool for us to get them to come out every day and develop that work ethic.”
The program currently has 17 horses for students to work with, eight of which are actively racing and are owned by individuals or partnerships. At the barn there are also five retired racehorses that were donated for the students to work with and ride. The students develop a unique relationship with the horses along the way, something Wilkinson feels they would not get from other programs.
“We catch them all the time talking to the horses,” said Wilkinson. “Steds Pirate is the nastiest, meanest horse I’ve seen in my life, and the kids gravitate toward him. I think it is because they see a lot of themselves in him.”
The equine program has gone above and beyond Wilkinson’s expectations. Several students have graduated and gone on to work in the industry, and several horses in the program have also had their share of success, including Antrim County who won the Aug. 2 Claiming Crown at Canterbury Park.
“This is the last stop for some of these kids. They have a short time to get their act together, and I don’t believe there is another program to get them ready like this one does.” said Wilkinson.
Wilkinson hopes to see the program grow in the next few years. With more donations and owners to contribute horses, the program could expand to neighboring cities, such as Lexington. But right now, Wilkinson takes in the program’s success one race at a time.
“Before, when I was watching one of my horses run, I would always concentrate on the horse,” said Wilkinson. “Now I’m watching the horse and the kids when the horse comes down the stretch. It’s so good to watch them and how excited they get.”