COLLINSVILLE, Ill. (AP) -- Pete Luce was a bundle of nerves the first time he stood next to a towering former racehorse, knowing he could be seriously injured or killed with one kick.
Months later, Luce moves easily among the one-ton animals at Virginia's James River Correctional Center as part of a program that allows inmates to care for retired racehorses. And he hopes to parlay newfound skills into a job at a racetrack after he is released from prison, where he is finishing a 23-month term for drug possession.
"I go out in the pasture and I just call my horse's name, and he'll come right up to me," Luce, 35, said during a recent telephone interview.
Now Illinois officials are considering a similar program to help rehabilitate prisoners, build their confidence and, perhaps, teach them a marketable skill.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, a Greenville Republican, has introduced a House resolution encouraging the state Department of Corrections to adopt a Thoroughbred horse groomer training program. One of the potential sites, the Vandalia Correctional Center, is in his district and an hour's drive from Collinsville's Fairmount Park Racetrack.
"There's something about an animal, particularly a horse, that gives these guys a chance, maybe for the first time in their life, to have empathy," Stephens said.
Derek Schnapp, a spokesman for Illinois' Department of Corrections, said the agency is studying the matter and is "excited about the possibilities that this program could bring."
Proponents say such programs, already operating in several states, give animals and inmates alike second chances.
The horses, many facing possible slaughter at an out-of-country rendering plant if they aren't retired to breed, are carefully tended and sometimes rehabilitated until an adoptive home is found. Inmates who volunteer for the program learn marketable job skills they can use once they're freed.
Across the country, "there's no limit to the number of correctional facilities with land," said Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, a 27-year-old equine-rescue group eager to expand the programs. And "we're not running out of inmates to teach or racehorses to offer."
Pikulski's group has made great strides connecting horses with inmates since it began its first "Second Chances" farm 25 years ago at New York's Wallkill Correctional Facility. Similar programs have since expanded to Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and, as of earlier this month, Maryland.
Massachusetts is considering joining, and if Lanny Brooks has his way, Illinois won't be far behind.
Brooks, a 62-year-old horse trainer and owner who heads the Illinois Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, is trying to find good homes for five thoroughbreds that once made their living at Fairmount Park, outside St. Louis. He says Vandalia, just east on Interstate 70, is a logical choice.
The prison has about 1,500 inmates and more than 1,300 acres of former dairy farm, complete with barns and fences that could accommodate horses with only modest alterations.
"The public thinks we just race these horses, use them up and then they go down to La-La Land," said Brooks. "We're gonna make it known to the public as much as we can and as often as we can that we continue to take care of these racehorses that ran so well for us and made us money during their career."
Brooks said there'd be little or no cost to the state, which already is grappling with a budget deficit that has ballooned to at least $11.6 billion. He said his nonprofit Racehorse Alternative Choice Environment program would pay for hay, feed, veterinary care and other essentials.
Consulting with Pikulski's group, Brooks said, an equine expert would teach an employee at the Vandalia prison "everything there is to know about a horse from the ground up." That knowledge then would be imparted upon inmates who volunteer for the program.
"It's good for society, good for the horses, good for the inmates and good for the state. It's great PR," Brooks said.
Similar programs have operated elsewhere for years.
At some prisons in Kansas and Colorado, for example, inmates in a program involving the Bureau of Land Management have worked with hundreds of horses that once roamed free in the West, tending to them before they are adopted out. They do everything from cleaning stalls and trimming hooves, and some can even learn to become trainers.
Colorado's corrections department is recruiting more inmates to saddle-train the horses. Its College Horse Training Management Program allows inmates to waive parole and earn college credit by training horses for six months.
Brian Hardin, who supervises the program for the Colorado Department of Corrections said recidivism rate for prisoners-turned-horse trainers is half the national rate of 68 percent.
"The animals take the place of the family unit while they're locked up," Hardin has said of his inmates.
At Virginia's James River lockup, warden Layton Lester considers the program an unbridled "change agent," forcing an inmate once preoccupied with himself to understand "there is another life that depends on him."
"There's a lot of personal growth and cognitive growth because of that," Lester said. "That's probably the most important part."
Luce, who is expected to be released Monday, said he hopes to continue working with horses.
"I've always loved animals, but when I first got down there I was pretty intimidated ... but I've learned a lot of technique," he said. "They're really cool animals."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)