Monday, May. 20, 2024

Stable Recovery Helps Men Fighting Addiction

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Several years ago, Frank Taylor recognized there was a brewing labor crisis in the Thoroughbred industry. Along with his brothers Duncan, Ben and Mark, Frank owns and manages the family’s Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky, and they had always been able to find plenty of help to care for the nearly 500 horses on their 1,100-acre property. But increasingly, Taylor Made and other farms in the area were struggling to find sufficient staff. 

Around the same time, Taylor became familiar with the work of a Lexington-based organization called Shepherd’s House, a long-term recovery program in Kentucky for those battling addiction. The program’s mission was to help men commit to a sober life by combining full-time employment with a structured environment. With some family members and other close associates actively navigating the process of recovery, the mission immediately resonated with Frank, and the seed of an idea began to form. 

He connected with Christian Countzler, a Shepherd’s House graduate and passionate advocate for helping men in recovery find jobs, and he presented his plan—to establish the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship. Men in early stages of recovery would come to Taylor Made and, over the course of a 90-day program, learn basic horsemanship skills from some of the best in the industry. Once these men successfully graduated from the School of Horsemanship, staff would help set them up with meaningful employment at Taylor Made or other facilities in and around Lexington, Kentucky. The program officially launched in March 2021. 

“It didn’t really take long for me to see the impact that the horses had on these men early in recovery to where I just started thinking and dreaming,” says Countzler, 45, who had limited experience with horses before working with Frank. “If you could build a housing model around the School of Horsemanship, and devise a program of recovery in tandem, you could really help a lot of people.” 

“There are lots of other programs that use animals, but there is something about a horse,” says Christian Countzler, Stable Recovery CEO. Photos Courtesy Of Stable Recovery

Frank agreed, and with his financial support, Stable Recovery was born in June 2022. Stable Recovery offers men a structured, supportive, peer-driven residential recovery community, through which they can not only gain employment-related skills but develop self-worth and self-confidence. The program opened its Phase I location, Hummingbird House, in Lexington, while Preston House, its Phase II location, sits right on the property at Taylor Made. 

“It has grown really quickly,” says Countzler, who is now Stable Recovery’s CEO. “The impact we have on men and sustaining recovery is real.” 

Countzler believes evidence-based practices are efficient at getting people sober, but in his work with other treatment programs, he doesn’t feel participants always learn additional skills critical to sustaining their sobriety. Countzler wanted to design a different type of experience—one that would provide structure and discipline, and instill accountability and responsibility, in its graduates. 

“Those are traits that a lot of people in addiction have never had,” explains Countzler. “A lot come from broken homes, some from poverty, some have little or no education, so trying to teach a grown man these very basic values—it’s tough, but it’s worth it, and we’ve seen a lot of success come from that. 

“Our program is the hardest program around when it comes to discipline, and accountability, and those other qualities,” he adds. “Our average age is 35 years old, and those guys are set in their ways. They are so used to going to treatment, and going to jail, and getting kicked out on the streets; they don’t know how to live. We push our guys really hard to do what they’ve never done before.” 

A Meaningful Routine

In many ways, the ethos of the Thoroughbred industry is in perfect alignment with that of someone in recovery; there is work to be done every single day. Creating a routine and giving men a purpose to get up and get out the door each morning goes a long way toward creating the structure needed for sustaining sobriety. 

“Every day, that horse has to be fed, groomed or handled in some way,” explains Ashton Becker, 35, who is also in recovery and serves as program director for Stable Recovery. “When the guys show up in the morning, that horse is looking to them for guidance, or feed. They are as excited to see them as the men are to see the horse. That really does something to a man.” 

Stable Recovery offers men like program graduate Mitch McKay a structured, supportive, peer-driven residential recovery community, through which they can gain employment-related skills and develop self-worth and self-confidence.

Countzler agreed that there’s something about working with horses in particular that affects those in the program. 

“I can’t really describe what it is about the horses, specifically,” says Countzler. “Honestly, it looks like a man that has lost everything in his life, especially himself, then, the first time he walks into a barn, [he] has contact with a horse that accepts him for who he is—who is going to love him back, just like he loves it. 

“Some of these guys have been locked up for multiple years, and they are hard, tough guys,” he continues. “They walk into a barn, and it softens them immediately. They lose that edge they came in with, the chip on their shoulder. I can’t do that; a therapist can’t do that. There are lots of other programs that use animals, but there is something about a horse. It can literally crawl into the center of a man’s heart pretty quickly.” 

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When men first arrive at Stable Recovery, they live at the Phase I house in Lexington, closer to supportive resources like doctors, dentists and therapists. Later, they will transition to the Phase II house at Taylor Made, where they are allowed more freedom but still have the support of a community. But if it hadn’t already been made clear from their intake phone call, men quickly learn that Stable Recovery is not a program where they will be allowed to “lay around and hope things get better.” 

“We tell them, ‘You’re going to work really hard, first and foremost, on your recovery, and second of all, on the farm,’ ” says Countzler. “You need to be desperate, and you need to be willing to change your life in the ways that sobriety asks you to.” 

The Hummingbird House alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. every day, and residents arrive at Taylor Made by 6. There, they are joined by residents from the Phase II house to participate in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. (Stable Recovery adheres to the 12-step recovery model.) By 7 a.m., everyone heads off to either begin the day’s work at Taylor Made or disperses to several other prestigious facilities in the greater Lexington area—WinStar, Brook Ledge, Spy Coast, Godolphin, Rood & Riddle, and Hallway Feeds. Those in their first 90 days will participate in the School of Horsemanship, learning basic horsemanship skills. Most evenings, the men gather again for community meetings, special education sessions, or to simply enjoy the camaraderie of a group walking the same journey together. 

“The really beautiful thing about the Thoroughbred horse industry is they don’t care if you’re a felon, they don’t care what your background is, as long as you get up every day and give them a good day’s work,” says Countzler. “There’s a chance to improve your situation. 

“Most of these guys have zero self-esteem, and if we can add something that builds self-esteem like a meaningful job, you can’t put a price on that,” he adds. “This is real stuff that builds character in a man, and character goes a long way in recovery.” 

A Message From God

Josh Franks still remembers the day in 2010 when he first saw footage of the famous race horse, Zenyatta. Although not a horseman, the mare’s spirit captured his heart, and watching her race often brought him to tears. But later, when he joined Stable Recovery, he would come to believe that his almost prescient, visceral reaction to this Thoroughbred was a message from God. 

“She would raise the hairs on my arms,” says Franks, 37, of his response to watching Zenyatta run. “I think God knew then what he could deliver to me that would get my attention.” 

Addiction had cast a long shadow over Franks and his family. His father, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with alcohol; his mother, Pamela Franks, became addicted to prescription medications. When Josh was still quite young, Pamela moved with her three children from California back to where she had grown up in Boone County, Kentucky. But due to her own struggles, she couldn’t offer her children much support. The family lived in poverty, subsisting on government aid. Josh and his two older brothers were left with no adult figure to model a healthy lifestyle, or to help them navigate their way in the world. By the age of 11, Josh was hooked on drugs. 

Josh Franks (walking) has groomed horses who have competed at major racetracks across Kentucky, including Keeneland.

“I always kind of felt different, and it was my way of fitting in and dealing with life,” says Josh. “I didn’t understand that back then, of course.” 

When he got older, Josh dropped out of high school, and later spent a decade in prison. It was while incarcerated that Josh “developed a relationship with God,” and where he first saw footage of Zenyatta. In speaking with other men in holding, he learned that some of them had worked with Thoroughbreds on farms in and around Lexington, and he thought that “sounded cool.” But at the time, he couldn’t see a path that would possibly lead him there. 

In 2021, Josh finally fully committed to getting sober, and he entered an intensive, in-person treatment program called Recovery Works in Georgetown, Kentucky. It was while there he learned about Stable Recovery, and he says he knew God was sending him another message. Josh was among the first group of Stable Recovery participants to complete the School of Horsemanship; today, he works as its program coordinator. 

“When I got here, I was amazed,” says Josh. “I felt like I’d made it to the NFL.” 

Among the men at Stable Recovery, Josh found the family he so desperately needed. By then, his own parents had died, and at times when other participants’ families would come to visit, he acutely felt their absence. But the participants and program staff together supported him; he also took solace in the horses themselves, and through them, felt a connection to his mother. 

“Horses were her favorite animal,” says Josh. “For some reason, the horses came to me really naturally. I understood the horse. The horses became my friends.

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“Quickly, my support system became the staff here,” Josh continues. “The farm did so much for my recovery as well, because all the vets and managers trusted my work. When I would tell them that this horse is off a bit here, or this is what is going on—that built my confidence and motivated me in my recovery. I never had anyone in my life who took my word for something, and that meant a lot to me.” 

For a period of 10 months, Josh worked as foreman for Will Walden Racing (Walden’s entire team are men in recovery), but after a two-day relapse, he decided to return to Taylor Made to focus again on his sobriety. 

“I quickly realized I needed a support system around me,” says Josh. “I wasn’t strong enough yet. Now, I’m going on 14 months sober, and I run the School of Horsemanship.” 

In this work, Josh interacts with men from across the country; these men, like him, once felt they had not much to live for. 

“I try to engage a guy, get his confidence going, get his motivation going, then we’ll place him somewhere in the industry,” says Josh. “When you overcome these fears—of picking a hoof, of grooming a horse, of leading this big mare out to the field—it really does something for recovery, conquering fears. And right now, we’re hitting baby season; that’s something special itself.” 

Josh says thanks to Taylor Made and Stable Recovery, his life has completely changed. He’s had tattoos removed, enrolled in college, paid off all his debts to the court system, and even bought his own car. 

“I’ve finally found a hand in life that I can play, and that was the horses,” says Josh. “I’ve won a stakes race with Will Walden’s team. I’ve ran horses at [Kentucky racetracks] Churchill Downs, Turfway, Keeneland. Then, delivering these babies on this farm. I’ve had a ton of support from this industry, which means a lot for a guy like me. The horse—and the management here— never asks me where I’ve come from, or what I’ve done. It’s been, ‘How can we help you?’ and that means a lot.” 

Expanding The Program

From the beginning, Countzler has been adamant that men first entering Stable Recovery don’t pay for its services. 

“I didn’t have a dime when I needed help, and someone helped me,” says Countzler. “So we don’t charge anything to get in, but once you start getting paid, we charge a weekly program fee, which barely covers our rent and bills.” 

Stable Recovery graduate Billy Major now works full time for Taylor Made Farm.

Most of Stable Recovery’s funding comes from private donations (particularly from those in the Thoroughbred industry), as well as a few fundraising activities, including a gala held during Keeneland’s spring meet and a golf scramble in October. This year, Stable Recovery also was the recipient of a $300,000 grant from the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission—a strong vote of confidence in the program’s efficacy. 

Currently, 30 men are in Stable Recovery, with a maximum program capacity of 34. Looking forward, Countzler is hoping to both refine and expand Stable Recovery to serve more men in need of its programming. Although the original vision was to implement Stable Recovery houses in other major Thoroughbred centers, like Ocala, Florida, or Saratoga, New York, he now acknowledges there is much more work to be done in and around Lexington. To this end, the program will be opening its first house at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, in March 2024.

“That is what expansion is going to look like right now,” says Countzler. “The need is everywhere, especially around horse farms and tracks. What I would really like to do is provide some sort of help there—to have a presence at major tracks, at least as a kind of triage. A place where someone could talk to that could lead them to a Stable Recovery, wherever that may be.” 


A this article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Untacked. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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