“It is hard, dirty and a little on the dangerous side,” Lane says. “You just have to get in there and dig.”
Lane says Holmes has missed only two work days in three years; he shakes off the frustration of ornery horses and grueling work, looking toward future rewards. Holmes, who had once found trouble in Richmond, put down roots in rural Virginia, living in a rental house on Tucker’s farm.
One day, Tucker had an idea. The prison program wanted a teacher and, perhaps more than that, a symbol. She thought first of Holmes, though his instinct pushed him to decline a return to prison, even as a free man.
“I’ve just come out of these chains,” he says, “and now it’s like I’m going back into them.”
Then he thought about it. Walking those miles months earlier, he had felt alone and desperate. Now independent, he had a chance to teach other men a different way.
“I know how it felt when I didn’t have anybody,” he says.
Living a good life
The men surround Holmes on a Friday morning, watching him and Covert Action together again. As always, Holmes is careful with the old gelding, and Covert Action stands there relaxed.
“I bend myself a little bit more than I bend him,” Holmes says as he works.
Holmes returns to Barn 4 every few weeks, teaching the inmates and answering questions. He says the farm pays him $50 for a few hours’ work — far less than his business with Lane, which can earn him upward of $1,000 per day.
“Believe me,” he tells them, “I didn’t always make it look easy.”
Anthieus Dixon, 37, kneels for a close look. Kevin Jones, 46, holds the lead rope.
Holmes made it out of this barn, and now he’s back only by choice. The others like the way that sounds.
“I’m looking for a career change,” says Jones, whose sentence for grand larceny expires in December 2015.
A few yards from where Covert Action is being trimmed, a wall lists the names of 35 horses adopted as pleasure horses since the program began. Tucker says Covert Action is too valuable to the program to be adopted, so he spends his days as Greener Pastures’ mascot. His life is comfortable and secure, making appearances at nearby races billed as Secretariat’s grandson. Most times, though, he just roams these acres.
“To feel as though you’re a castaway,” warden Diggs says, “and then you can relate to their experience and then you see them adopted and cared for and get another chance — don’t you think that provides hope?”
The inmates watch as Holmes, who has erased his debt and now eventually hopes to buy a house, finishes with his old friend, easing Covert Action’s right front hoof to the floor. Holmes pats him and smiles as the gelding is led back to his stall.
“They’re living a good life,” Holmes says, and that’s all any of them — man or horse — can ask for.