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A prison guard and his old horse making smiles out of manure

Kevin Wernik has started a nonprofit called the Follow the Apple Foundation that uses money made from selling bags of manure to raise money for charity.

Kevin Wernik and his horse Joey are best friends, Kevin pays for all of Joey's expenses, and the duo have started a non-profit that buys teddy bears for hospital patients, they are shown here at the Seahorse Farm in Cape May, New Jersey, Monday, March 19, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.
Kevin Wernik and his horse Joey are best friends, Kevin pays for all of Joey's expenses, and the duo have started a non-profit that buys teddy bears for hospital patients, they are shown here at the Seahorse Farm in Cape May, New Jersey, Monday, March 19, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN

The old fella lives barefoot by the beach, limping down the home stretch of a long life in the raggedy brown coat his parents gave him back in South Dakota.

One former owner said Joe N Trouble earned the "trouble" part, but mostly because he was "so darn curious." Curiosity nearly got him one day, when he jumped a fence and a pole almost piked his cavernous horse heart.

Most called him Joey: the brave ones who clung to his reins when he was a younger, faster horse, like his mother; all the folks who pointed him straight between the pines on lazy rides; and eventually, people such as Kevin Wernik, who just needed Joey to be there.

"When I first met him, I think some kind of bond formed, and when I thought he didn't have a home anymore, I thought I had to do something," Wernik said outside Joey's stall in Cape May.

Wernik, 43, has worked as a prison guard at Bayside State Prison for nearly 20 years, and when he first met Joey in 2009, he said, he was lonely, somewhat down, and a bit angry after a difficult breakup. Joey belonged to the Lightfoot family back then, the only horse in a small, mossy pasture on Route 47 in Maurice River Township, Cumberland County.

Wernik, of Del Haven, passed Joey on his daily commute, and that horse by the fence brought him a few peaceful seconds he carried into prison, where peace finds little purchase. The two strangers had something in common. Joey was born to be fast out in the Black Hills. Wernick was a track and cross-country star at Lower Cape May Regional High School. He ran a 4:35 mile "many moons ago."

He gave Joey an apple one night and got shocked by the electric fence, but he kept on bringing the apples and their bond grew with each bite.

"I'm telling you, I knew nothing about horses," he said.

One day in 2012, Joey wasn't at the fence, waiting for his apple. The Lightfoots had bad news.

"They told me they couldn't afford him anymore," Wernik said.

His decisions that day felt guided by fate, not common sense. He was going to buy a horse. Joey had been sent back to Tiffany Cox, a former owner who lived a few miles away. She also had bad news. Joey had been sold, and Wernik was left with nothing more than Cox's promise that she'd call if the deal fell through.

"My eyes were tearing up," he recalled.

Joey was worth more than money to him, but when Cox later called him, she said $500 would cut it.

One of the ways Wernik has tried to explain his bond with Joey is through the Follow the Apple Foundation, a nonprofit he started and funds by selling Joey's bagged manure at roadside stands. He donated the first $475 to various nonprofits and has enlisted colleagues from the prison to help hand out teddy bears at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in North Philly.

Wernik has sold 4,366 bags of manure so far at $2 to $3 apiece. Joey can fill a five-gallon bucket a day. None of the manure money goes to Joey's care. Wernik's prison job pays those bills. He and Joey have bounced from barn to barn because of costs.

Joey is living at the Sea Horse Farm now, where the owner has dubbed him "Mr. Patient" because he never squabbles over pecking orders with other horses. Wernik visits him every day, often before and after work. They take a lot of selfies.

"Some people get it, some don't," he said.

Wernik thinks his father, Bob, nailed it when he said, "You thought Joey needed you, but you needed Joey."

On a recent weekday morning, the sunbeams angling into Joey's stall made the dust sparkle all around his saggy back and the white star and stripe marking on his face. Joey still likes to roll in dirt. Across the barn, another horse was getting new shoes and neighed. Joey neighed, too, as if to say, "Hey, I hear you. You'll be fine."

Joey will be 30 in May. He doesn't wear shoes anymore because Wernik doesn't ride him.

"He's, like, retired, kind of," he said.

Joey's registration papers hold a few clues to his past. He was born on May 27, 1988, the son of Bear N Trouble, a stallion owned by a real "South Dakota buckaroo" from Rapid City, and Triple None, a mare that belonged to a rancher in Custer. Larry Fiala paid $7,500 for Triple None in New Mexico, one of about 400 hundred horses he has raised on his 160-acre ranch. Fiala didn't recall Joe N Trouble, but made a guess about his makeup because of who his "mama" was.

"Triple None had about a dozen colts, and most of them ran real fast," Fiala said by phone.

Joey is a quarter horse, "more of a fullback than a scatback," Fiala said, bred to race shorter distances popular in the Midwest and the South. It's unclear how Joey came to New Jersey, but a woman who bought him here in 2003 said he was the best thing that came out of a bad relationship. She asked that her name not be used because of that breakup, but said Joey will always be beloved.

"I knew he had some pretty good bloodlines," the woman said. "There was nothing much he was afraid of. He'd do everything you asked of him."

Joey, the woman said, used to compete in "Western Pleasure" competitions at 4-H fairs. Those competitions are more about style and manners than speed, and Joey excelled after nearly impaling himself on a fence.

"Joey didn't have a mean bone in his body," she said. "He was a very, very sweet boy."

When Cox bought Joey, he didn't stick around long. She sold him to a woman who wanted a horse to comfort her blind husband. That suited Joey just fine.

"Joey was good to him," Cox said.

When that man died, Joey went to the Lightfoots.

"I bought Joey for my wife. She was real sick," Gary Lightfoot said last week by the little green barn he'd built for Joey years ago. "She'd go out there and go pet him and it would help her. That's how it went. It was a real weird thing. Real nice horse."

When it came time for Wernik to take Joey, Cox wasn't nervous that he didn't know squat about horses.

"I knew Joey would teach him well," she said.

Wernik hasn't set up a way for people to donate yet besides buying manure, but sometimes the honor boxes are filled with more cash than they should be. He chalks that up to Joey, too.

"Joey can't jump and I don't know how to ride," he said. "We make a good team, I think."

When asked how long a horse such as Joey could live, Wernik said he knew. His eyes said it, too.

Quarter horses usually live to 30.

Wernik said he'll keep bringing his buddy apples. He'll dump buckets into bags to buy teddy bears and limp on with his best friend, long after Joey has crossed the finish line.

"Joey unlocked something inside of me, and that won't change," Wernik said. "We found our path together. We found our purpose."