*Half Broke was published in February 2020 by W.W. Norton & Company, who provided my ARC.
Ginger Gaffney’s experiences as a horse trainer extend back twenty years. As a gender non-conforming queer individual, Gaffney has always looked for something within silence, some type of community. In fact, she didn’t speak until she was six. As people spoke circles around her and she didn’t fit in, Gaffney found herself hiding under tables and studying body language. Thus, horses, creatures that tell everything through their bodies, connected her to a community that may not be human, but is important nonetheless.
It’s not until she received a phone call from a prison ranch that her community in New Mexico expanded. While there are no correctional officers nor a warden, the prison ranch still has strict rules about work, meal time, and punishment. Run by the people who have lived on the ranch longest, it’s an endless cycle of about 100 men and a dozen women trying to finish the time they owe the state.
While charity is often good, it can be abused. People with problem horses see the ranch as a great place to “donate” (more like off-load) untrained problem horses for the prisoners to work with. Add in that these prisoners are not trained to work with horses, and you get a wild, dog-like pack of horses that are kicking, biting, charging, and eating trash. Plus, two horses have been there for years without anyone touching them. They just run wild, but one of them recently smashed her face on a barn structure and the wound is infected. Gaffney’s services are desperately needed.
We’ve all heard stories about someone who thought they were content who decides to help others. In turn, they are helped. (“My rescue dog rescued me” comes to mind). Yes, Gaffney experiences something similar, but largely it was so subtle and slow that I could have almost missed it. As she teaches the inmates how to read horses, they teach her what it means to be part of a broken community, and she realizes what’s going on with a bang: “I’ve spent my whole life feeling like I was odd, queer, different. Alone. None of that is true now. None of it is. It never was. There will always be more of us, hundreds more.” Flashbacks to getting her first horse in order to save herself, struggling as she studied under top-notch trainers, and realizing she is gay all weave throughout the memoir to support Gaffney’s connections to the people on the prison ranch.
Gaffney not only knows horses, but she knows how to write about them, combining realistic physical descriptions with more creative ones. As someone who doesn’t seem to know how to fit in to a society of speaking people, the author values silence as a form of communication, that within silence she could see a language:
[The horse’s] legs were sentences that ended at each hoof. Her body needed the touch of the earth to be heard. I began to see every movement she made as a long paragraph, a story, a way to understand each other. I learned to listen with my eyes.
The more realistic descriptions of horse bodies, movement, and accessories were vivid, too, clearly expressing the motion of each horse — an all too important task in a book that purports that horses speak with their bodies.
Reflections on the lives on the prison ranch inmates turns Half Broke outward, preventing it from being a “me, me, me” memoir. Gaffney realizes that people who end up on the ranch are “like zombies: pale, silent, ghosts of themselves. . . . almost everyone I have met on this ranch struggles to find words, to speak, to share and communicate.” Investing in the well-being of horses that oddly have difficult personalities and backgrounds like the inmates themselves gives the horse team motivation to follow the program. The descriptions Gaffney shares about inmates learning to listen and use patience reminded me of my time teaching freshman composition in a correctional facility and hearing that the students no longer engaged in angry arguments quickly because they were instead analyzing the other person’s rhetoric and getting to the root of the arguer’s tactics.
That’s not to say this is a feel-good memoir, thankfully. I never got attached to a specific inmate, and the horses can be more memorable, but it was more that the emphasis was on getting through each problem as it appeared — a biting horse, an infected horse, an inmate who won’t listen, an accident near the septic tank. It didn’t matter to me which inmate or horse had the issue, but how the problem was conquered. Yet, disappointments and failure abound, and Gaffney is doing all of this training for free — the inmates simply called because they needed help, not considering they have zero income. We know from the author’s notes that she’s been working with the prison ranch for seven years now, making clear the way a community of traumatized people can lean on each other and make progress, little by little.
A wonderfully written book and a great counterpoint to the more funny Sheepish by Catherine Friend, this is another animal memoir I would highly recommend.