The Elite Program: Educating Caretakers Across the Country
The Elite Program, commonly known as Groom Elite, was founded by Susan O’Hara in 2001. O'Hara owned Thoroughbred racehorses and believed that her horses would perform better and have a better chance of retiring sound if their daily caretakers were provided with horsemanship training. Groom Elite trains racetrack grooms across the country in basic care and handling techniques. As of 2015, 1,965 individuals have been certified by Groom Elite.
C. Reid McLellan, Ph.D., has been the director of Groom Elite since August 2005. When asked how Groom Elite is unique, he says, “We are the only national certification program for racehorse grooms. Those who are certified in our program are more likely to be hired because their employers can be confident in their knowledge and skills.” Also, Groom Elite instructors become well acquainted with their students and can match them with job opportunities that fit their personalities.
In addition to their racetrack initiative, Groom Elite runs a program called Second Chances Groom Elite (SCGE). This program partners with correctional institutions and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to train inmates as grooms. John Carmichael from the South Carolina Department of Corrections and Kip Elser, a Candem, SC, trainer, worked together to bring Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation horses to Wateree Correctional facility in 2004.
When Elser saw Dr. McLellan teaching at Colonial Downs, he became interested in Groom Elite as a program for inmates. Wateree graduated its first class in 2006, and five additional Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation Second Chances correctional facilities have implemented Groom Elite as their vocational program. In the past 10 years, 264 inmates have completed the program and received Second Chance’s Groom Elite certification.
Correctional institutions involved with SCGE obtain horses from the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. In a three-way partnership, these retired Thoroughbreds live on correctional institution property and are cared for by Groom Elite students. These students learn racehorse and show horse grooming techniques, making them more marketable after their sentence is complete. In addition to increasing hireability of inmates, working with horses has a profound impact on the behavior of inmates and decreases their chances of reincarceration.
Dr. McLellan is closely involved with SCGE and regularly teaches in each of the programs. One particular story he shares illustrates the redeeming potential of SCGE: An inmate was struggling to work one of the retired racehorses in the round pen. With Dr. McLellan’s assistance, he earned the respect of his horse. As he led the horse back to his stall, a tear rolled down his cheek. He told Dr. McLellan, “I’ve hated being here. Every night, I go to sleep with a knot in my stomach because, no matter how bad this place is, I know I haven’t changed. I don’t know what will prevent me from coming back here. That all changed today when I walked out of the round pen with my horse.”
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation horses make perfect partners for SCGE participants. In Dr. McLellan’s words, “The retired horses are great teachers; they will not accept someone being too timid or a poor communicator.” Groom Elite strives to certify grooms who will be confident in their careers: “We are focused on it from the standpoint that they will be working with high powered athletes. The grooms need to realize that the horses will reach a higher potential if they are working under confident caretakers.”
As is all too common for charities like Groom Elite, funds are a constant challenge. Many states have been forced to cut funding. In order to continue their work, Groom Elite must have funds and qualified volunteers to teach their programs. Dr. McLellan extended his gratitude for TCA’s grant. He says, “I want everyone who donates to TCA to understand that every bit that they give helps keep us going.”
Dr. McLellan is motivated to continue his work with Groom Elite and SCGE because of the amazing personal changes that take place. For him, “It’s seeing a person have a realization. It’s seeing someone recognize a new part of themselves, a confidence that they didn’t know they had. It’s seeing people’s lives changed.”