The last time I rode a horse was in 1986 — and the time before that was in 1970.
Clearly, I’ve managed perfectly well without an equine presence in my life for decades now. But that didn’t make me any less susceptible to “Half Broke,” Ginger Gaffney’s often extraordinary memoir about her volunteer work on a prison ranch in northern New Mexico where, for 18 months, she helped inmates recovering from drug addiction train and care for horses as a way of getting their own lives back on track.
From its first page, “Half Broke” grabs your attention. Gaffney, then a professional horse trainer in her 50s, received an anxious call in 2013 from the ranch asking for her help. “Not once in my life,” she writes on the first page, “had I heard of horses acting like this: scavenging, marauding, war parties of horses. I didn’t think it could be true, and if it was, I certainly needed to see it.”
That last phrase hints at an interesting twist in Gaffney’s character, which the book, in its flashbacks, expands upon. But its biggest revelations come with Gaffney’s canny readings of human body language, equine body language and the place where, with patience and heightened intuition, those languages meet and interact, “[o]ne animal to another.”
Upon arrival at the ranch, Gaffney discovers the situation is as bad as she’s been told: “Residents had been bitten, they’d been tripped and stepped on. … Men and women, toughened by prison and living on the streets, ran as fast as they could for safety when the horses began their charge.”
Gaffney throws herself into remedying this. Soon the ranch becomes more of an emotional center for her, seemingly, than her home life with her devoted partner, Glenda. The reasons for that, we learn, go back to her girlhood.
“Neither of my parents knew what to do about my extreme childhood shyness,” she writes, “an introversion that kept me from speaking until the age of six. I was a half-girl, half-boy — a genderless thing — in a world that seemed so intensely defined by gender.”
A high-school romance with a fellow horse-lover led to her being outed as a lesbian before she was ready for it. “I learned to hide, to become invisible again,” she recalls. “For many years I had no compass. My ability to perceive what was healthy and good for myself had fallen silent.”
Seeing a similar destructive dynamic at work in many of the ranch residents, she feels she can be of use to them. Certainly, she astonishes them with the fearless way she handles the horses. She also surprises the inmates with the way she’s able to coax them into establishing a nurturing bond with the herd. The horses — after years of neglect and, in one case, serious injury — are equally in need of attention.
“People say that horses mirror their owners,” Gaffney writes. “They blend themselves to the inside of a person: emotional camouflage.” As Gaffney sees it, the horses, over the years, have absorbed the troubled ranch residents’ anxieties in a manner that directly influences their behavior.
Gaffney’s focus on human/equine body language is fascinating, especially in the way it helps her discern the weaknesses riddling some of the hard cases she’s dealing with. One woman, pressured into becoming a prostitute at a relative’s strip club at age 13, is trying to overcome 30 years of addiction. Another resident is a fourth-generation drug dealer.
“It goes like this,” he nonchalantly tells Gaffney. “I’m in for one year, then parole. When I’m out, usually my brother and sister are in. Whoever is out keeps the business going.”
When one of the most difficult men she deals with aggressively confronts her, she writes, “I could meet his darkness. I have that in me, too.”
Still, there are aspects of the ranch that confound her. Its rules concerning personal contact are strict (“No touching”), and violators aren’t just sequestered but silenced. Unexpected breakthroughs are followed by unexpected setbacks. Some residents, like some of the horses, remain only “half-broke” — partway to recovery, with a long way to go before they’re whole. When Gaffney inadvertently gets tangled in a serious ranch-rule transgression, she’s thrown so off-balance that it’s plain she’s far from whole herself.
The book loses some focus in its last stretch as Gaffney again revisits her “lonely, reclusive childhood” and recalls one more horse from her young adulthood that helped her find her place in the world. Oddly, she doesn’t reveal why she apparently stopped going to the ranch after 18 months.
Still, for most of its length, “Half Broke” — with its painful candor and spare, incisive prose — is captivating.
“Half Broke” by Ginger Gaffney, W.W. Norton & Company, 247 pp., $25.95
Author appearance: Gaffney will speak about “Half Broke” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the Seattle Public Library’s Central branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; 206-386-4636 or spl.org.