Man working in the horse stables

When Lexington, Kentucky resident Christian Countzler graduated from his long-term treatment facility for substance abuse, he realized he wanted to help keep others sober. He learned that the equine industry, like many other sectors, needs more workers. It clicked that working with horses could provide a means for people like him, whose troubled past and struggles with sobriety left them vulnerable to recidivism and relapse.

Last summer, he incorporated Stable Recovery, a program designed to help men stay sober and learn practical life skills to help them find meaningful work.

Structure and Discipline

But learning to handle horses does much more. In addition to the therapeutic benefits of horses, it requires structure and discipline to care for them.

“Many of these guys have been homeless or incarcerated most of their lives,” Countzler said. “From the first day, you can see a change. It gives them purpose. I found for myself, if I didn’t find something for purpose, my recovery was in jeopardy.”

The daily routine gives the men a set schedule and the duty for caring for something beyond themselves. They learn how to feed, water and groom the horses.

“On days that are tough, getting out of bed is easier because they have this purpose: the horse,” Countzler said.

Taylor Made Hosts

Stable Recovery participants learn at The School of Horsemanship at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The men learn from “the best horsemen in the world in the horse capital of the world,” Countzler said. “We are really helping people. They’re getting better. I tell people I have an unfair advantage when it comes to recovery because this farm lets us come out to train and learn.”

Staying Sober

Countzler said that of the 34 graduates, 32 are still sober and employed, some as long as 10 months, which is as long as the program has been in operation.

The National Institutes of Health report that more than 80% of state prison and local jail inmates have used an illegal drug, about 55% in the month before their arrest. The dual issues of a criminal record and former drug addiction are barriers to employment. Countzler said that’s why participants in Stable Recovery learn in-demand skills and not just sobriety.

Countzler said that he had struggled with sobriety for 20 years. He tried multiple programs, and nothing seemed to work until he applied the knowledge he gained in the military: accountability, discipline, structure and responsibility.

“You have to mold your life around those four things to stand a chance at staying sober,” he said. “There are lots of places where people get sober. While they’re there, they stay sober. But the second they get out, they relapse. We teach how to stay sober, along with employment skills. We give them a chance on Day 1 to make decisions. In other places, they’re in a bubble. They haven’t learned the skills they need to cope with life.”

Ready to Change

The doors aren’t locked and participants are not required to do anything; however, by the time a man arrives at Stable Recovery, he has already been through several programs or incarceration and wants to change. Unlike some programs, Stable Recovery charges $150 weekly once the men begin making money. It’s a small amount towards helping run the program, but more importantly, it teaches them life skills. Beyond these funds, Stable Recovery relies on fundraisers. It doesn’t bill insurance or Medicaid.

One of the issues with relying on insurance programs is that it limits the length of treatment, Countzler said. At Stable Recovery, participants may stay as long as they need. The program has drawn participants from as far as California and New York, despite the difficult work required. Participants get up at 5 a.m. and may be up as late as 10 p.m. in a group meeting.

More Support

In addition to learning horsemanship, they also must join a 12-step program of their choice. Countzler said he ensures they receive referrals for any issues involving their mental health, physical health and dental health.

Taylor Made Farm designated two training barns for Stable Recovery participants. The men work and live at the farm. After participants complete the program, Taylor Made can choice to hire them as workers. Countzler also partners with several other horse farms.

Hard Works Counts

Working as a groom may not seem like much of a future, but hiring agents typically respect the hard work and discipline required for this kind of labor.

“You can talk to all the top trainers and executives in the equine industry and almost across the board, every single one started right where our guys started,” Countzler said. “They don’t discriminate if a guy has felony.”

He hopes to some day expand the program to other areas of the country that have plenty of horse farms.

“Addiction is everywhere and the need to help these men is great,” Countzler said. “People are dying in records of numbers every year. If we can make an impact in helping a man not kill himself with drugs and to become a productive member of society, it helps on many levels.”

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Lancaster Farming’s Mid-Atlantic Horse tells the stories of horses and their people. Big and small horses; fast, slow, harness, carriage and farm horses; wild horses, donkeys, mules, mustangs and more. Mid-Atlantic Horse covers the wide world of the genus Equus. And for every horse story, there are many more about the people who live so closely with their horses.