Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

*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.

20 comments

  1. Great review, Melanie. I was intrigued by the point about the narrator slowing down and having to really read and listen to the horses to understand them, and how this is also valued as a form of communication. I also wonder, based on these two memoirs you’ve read, if the memoirist’s personality seems to be shaped also by the natural temperaments of the animals they handle? I imagine that working with dogs or sheep could be different from working with dogs.

    Like

    • Ooooh, that’s a fantastic question. I think Gaffney was drawn to horses because they speak so clearly with body language and don’t utter a word. Horses can be difficult and determined and each have their own personalities. You have to tame a horse, and it seems like these were all qualities you could see in Gaffney (even the “taming” part, as she used to bounce to different sexual partners and didn’t want to settle down). Catherine Friend’s life seemed more chaotic and random, which does fit sheep. Sheep are curious and (weirdly) loyal friends to certain other sheep, and that oddly fits Friend, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never have much to do with animals so it is really at second hand I know the healing power they have with people, more so perhaps with people who have trouble communicating with other people. Does the memoir feel Gaffney wrote it, or do you think it was written for her? The other thing you don’t comment on is the ‘prison’ itself which a) sounds like it is run by the inmates, as a commmune maybe; and b) which sounds like an innovative way of allowing non-dangerous people to serve out there time.

    Like

    • Gaffney definitely wrote the memoir, starting it while she was in an MFA program and incorporating peer feedback. I think the thing with animals is we want to trust them, don’t feel like there is a reason not to (even if the animal seems vicious we seem to think we can just “fix it” in a way that we don’t feel about other humans). Thus, trying to make an animal like us is a goal, and being goal-oriented is a skill that correctional facilities try to instill in people.

      The prison is interesting, and I’d never heard of anything like it. It’s described as a ranch with loads of things to do. The horse group is only a small bunch. There are 100 men and about a dozen women on the ranch. There are no officers or warden or anything like that, so the inmates who have been on the ranch longest are in charge. Meals are eaten all together, so you do get a communal vibe. Actually, I didn’t even think what it’s like to house 100+ people, so this place must be enormous. It did seem innovative to me to have folks working and learning a skill right before they’re released. If someone messes up, the leaders would let the prison officials (located elsewhere) know, and the offender would be moved back to prison.

      Like

  3. I like the sound of this one, and it opens my eyes to a community I (embarrassingly) never really knew about/thought existed; people who are ‘silent’! Of course there are people like that in the world, but it’s never something you really think about until you’re faced with a story like this. I bet people who prefer silence like the author would feel much better reading this, knowing they weren’t the only ones…

    Like

    • Anne, I hadn’t thought about the way this book might validate someone. I kept thinking of it as “oddballs” finding a community, but specifically people who are silent? I hadn’t thought too much about it! I remember Maya Angelou wrote that afters he was assaulted that she became silent for a very long time. However, Gaffney, just didn’t speak until she was six, and then it was only to a few people and grew very slowly.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I don’t often read about animals but I like the way you say both inmates and horses here have difficult personalities and backgrounds, and are essentially helping themselves by helping each other (I know you said this was the author’s reaction, but I like to think they all would feel it to an extent!)- what an interesting community, and pleasingly beneficial to everyone involved.

    Like

    • Honestly, I think the inmates recognized that they were changing much more quickly than the author realized she was changing. I know that statistics show that when an inmate cares about something, such as college in prison or caring for an animal (my mom’s prison has a program in which inmates train service dogs), they start to obey the rules, improve their hygiene, and get into less trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, that’s really interesting. It makes sense that feeling invested in something can improve general outlook and other areas of life as well, and somehow that’s very comforting to think about people experiencing in difficult situations like incarceration. And so pleasantly symmetrical in a case like this also, where both the inmates and animals are seeing mutual benefits from interaction. I have heard of service dogs being trained in prisons, and really like the idea of that as well!

        Like

            • OK, she says that there is a coordinator for the dog training program, but that’s all she really knows about it. She works at a prison that is level 4 and higher (the higher the number, the higher the security). The prison across the road is a level 1 (people who are on their way out soon), and that is where the dog program is.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ah, okay! That makes sense. Training dogs seems like something that takes a lot of structure and dedication, which I’m sure is a good fit in prisons where the inmates have a decent amount of trust and would appreciate a project like that. Thanks for the info!

                Liked by 1 person

    • It does! There is no animal cruelty or death, Laila, so I think it would be safe for you. If anything, I think you might feel warm and fuzzy without feeling emotionally manipulated by an overly-sappy animal book.

      With the book Sheepish, there do tend to be animal deaths because it’s a pretty normal part of a farm that raises animals, so I would not recommend that one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds amazing. Only available here in hardback at the moment but I’ve popped it on my wish list. I love books about horses and this sounds really interesting and well done.

    Like

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s