A Thoroughbred rescued from a Virginia farm where horses lay dead or dying from neglect, disease, and starvation has rebounded in two years’ time to bring hope to the troubled and peace to the worried.

His kind, gentle spirit unchanged by hardship that could have soured another, the OTTB To Clem has gone from being one of 80 horses saved two years ago from the Peaceable Farms “rescue” operation in Virginia to recuperate and eventually star in a prisoner/racehorse therapy program.

Just recently, “Clem” started working with a trained psychologist who helps people suffering from a spectrum of mental health issues. “Clem has always been a standout horse,” says Anne Tucker, the co-founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s prisoner/racehorse program at James River. “From day one, the [inmates] who worked with him were devoted to that horse. He was always their favorite.”

And Tucker always “kept her eye” on Clem, waiting for the opportunity to help the once bereft horse answer to a new calling. Beginning last week with his first client, Clem became an official therapy horse, now ready to help people overcome disabling conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas faced by veterans, police officers, first responders, domestic abuse victims, and others.

Participating in Tucker’s newly launched equine-assisted therapy program Through the Gate at Bowles Knob Farm in Hanover County, Va., Tucker says that Clem encouraged a nursing student trying to overcome childhood abuse issues. Working with a licensed psychologist, Clem stood quietly as the young woman walked blindfolded alongside the thousand-pound animal.

“It was a beautiful, quiet night as I led Clem around so the client could experience the feel and the trust of being with him,” says Tucker, a licensed practitioner of the nationally recognized equine therapy program, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).

His old injury made him unrideable. But, this is a horse who truly deserved a calling.

In psychology work, horses like Clem help clients work through emotional issues through exercises requiring communication between horse and man. The growing field of mental health treatment has provided both an outlet for those suffering and an opportunity for horses who’ve run out of career paths.

As a young, spirited racehorse, To Clem ran four races at Penn National before retiring in April 2008. Years later, Clem sustained a catastrophic injury to his left hind leg in a freak accident while turned out in his paddock. Tucker says he had surgery for the severe cut to his deep digital flexor tendon, but the doctor gave him less than a 50 percent chance of surviving the injury, as it was deep and very contaminated.

Clem survived, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Two years ago, after landing at the Peaceable Farms Rescue in Orange County, Va., Clem’s life again hung in the balance. In what was the largest, most devastating case of animal abuse in the area, with more than 80 horses rescued by charities and private horsemen as the owner of the farm was arrested and charged with 27 counts related to animal abuse.

Because of his racing and Thoroughbred pedigree, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation accepted Clem into its racehorse/prisoner program. And now, after years spent helping prisoners learn new skills and break down emotional barriers, Clem, at age 13, has found his final calling.

“When he was at the prison, I saw gruff guys with chips on their shoulders melt when they worked with Clem. This horse truly changed lives,” Tucker says. “His old injury made him unrideable. But, this is a horse who truly deserved a calling. His soft, kind eye and the way he accepts people in his space makes him a real standout.”

A standout who can bring strength and hope to those who need it most is what To Clem has become after weathering so many of his own life storms.

-Photo credit: Debby Thomas. All photos courtesy of Anne Tucker.