Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney documents the first year and a half the author spent working with fifty residents and the horses they care for at a prison re-sentencing facility.
The men and women from the livestock team are sitting on tables and benches placed under the shelter of a small tack room, positioned a few yards away from the nighttime corrals. It is four in the afternoon, feeding time. Recently they have experienced bad accidents during the feeding routine. Arguments about whose fault it was and the question of how to fix the problems are on their minds. I introduce myself to everyone, as each member of the team rises to shake my hand and tell me their name. They begin to talk. The most recent accident, with Paul, keeps coming up. Paul was trampled by Hawk two days ago. His left wrist is wrapped in a support bandage, and he limps along dragging his right leg.
“How can we keep them from running us over? I mean, they don’t listen,” Paul explains. Paul is a tall man, with a thick neck and broad shoulders. “They run right through us, like we aren’t even here,” he tells me. His ear lobes have wide open holes at their end. I see straight through them like I’m looking through tiny windows.
“And this is always at dinnertime, or other times, too?” I ask.
“Always at dinner and anytime there’s food.”
A tall, thin man rises off the bench to shake my hand. His name is Rex. He grins as he unbuttons his collared shirt to show me a perfect hoof-shaped bruise on his chest.
“Scout knocked me good yesterday during the morning feed,” he tells me as he gestures out into the pasture to a brown-and-white spotted horse standing away from the rest of the herd. “I was dropping the hay into his trough when he spun around and got me.” Rex is taller than Paul, six- foot- three at least. Lean and lanky, he towers over me with his shirt unbuttoned, looking down at me with his hazel green eyes.
I hesitate. “I want to see how it goes,” I tell the group. “Let’s bring them in and feed.”
A young man named Marcus rises from the bench. He has the body of a guy who spends too much time in the gym. His muscles bulge under his tight T-shirt and make his upper torso move like a large stone. He looks a little angry, yet he speaks carefully. I wonder if my presence makes him nervous. I get the feeling that not everyone on livestock is happy to have my help.
“Let’s get ’em, guys.”
The other men rise off the bench at his command. Marcus walks over, unlatches the hay barn door, swings it open, and starts throwing small portions of alfalfa hay into the arms of the waiting men. The horses stand at the far end of the pasture, heads down and quietly chewing. With the sound of the latch and the barn door swinging open, they snap their heads from the ground, readying themselves to race in our direction. Each man grabs two cuts of alfalfa, tucks them tight against his body, and launches into a run toward the night corrals. They toss the hay into the feed troughs and tear back to the shelter of the tack-room shed, intent and out of breath. A few of the men make a second trip back to the corrals to ensure that each horse has enough hay for the night. Flor, Sarah, and the others cram themselves into the front of the hay barn, shouting like they are participating in an important sporting event.
“Hurry up. Here they come. Get in here!”
The residents’ screaming paralyzes me. And then, here they come—the horses galloping, ears back, kicking up and thundering toward us. I am standing alongside the large cottonwood tree that shades the barn and night corrals. A herd of horses racing across a field has a mesmerizing effect. Most of my days are filled with teaching horses how to feel comfortable in the world of humans. But my secret truth is that I love their world more. All they need is their bodies. As they gallop toward us I see their legs churn under the wide girths of their rib cages.
The shouting and screaming grows louder, and a few of the men run out and grab me, dragging me back inside the hay barn. Marcus slams the gate behind us. We are all tucked into an eight-foot-wide space in front of the hay. The horses roar up to the wooden gate at a gallop, a band of snaked bodies, twisting and kicking dirt into the air. They level their heads and necks down to the height of their shoulders, flat and thin, ready to strike.
It sounds like a hiss, but it’s more like spit. Hawk opens his mouth and his teeth jut forward at us. He snaps his jaw shut and curls back his lips. The force of it shoots a mist of saliva all over our faces. He can see us—they all can—but they cannot get to us. Their dark hollow eyes are unrecognizable to me. Watching them bare their teeth at us like predators, as if we were their meal, makes me think: these are not horses.
We are their captives, herded into our cell like lesser animals. They stand in front of the gate swinging their necks back and forth, ears flat back. Clumped together, we step back from the gate and wait, not saying a word. I feel the touch of our bodies pinned against one another. The intimacy of our fear, the smell of adrenaline and sweat steams up from our cluster.
Once we are thoroughly dominated, the horses walk into their corrals for their evening meal. We wait in silence, listening for the horses to settle. Five or ten minutes pass. We can hear the horses chewing on their alfalfa. A few of the men sneak out of our shelter. Hunkered low and moving like thieves, they run to the corrals and shut the gates. I hear the latches slap tight. Now we can reenter our world; the giant beasts are content and contained for the night.
People say that horses mirror their owners. To protect themselves, they become you. They blend themselves to the inside of a person: emotional camouflage. The ranch horses have seen a lot of damaged people over the years. They carry their life stories on their faces, in their postures, and within their unique styles of movement. This physical expression is a language the horses are well equipped to understand. Fear and its family members—anger, frustration, pain—are all carried in the residents’ steps, in their shoulders and necks, the way their backs round forward, forcing them to look out through the tips of their eyes, hiding in the shadows just beneath their eyebrows.
Some of the residents move with an artificial confidence, their arms gesturing wildly as they shout orders at their work crew. Others have no life left in their bodies. They are soft and amorphous, like small sea creatures clinging to a reef. Movement, and the lack thereof, is an emotional story. It tells all. Over the many years this contained engagement between hurting humans and these once-wild animals has created a disaster. Strong men and women beaten down by poverty, by family history, by the prison system, all walk the ranch daily, unknowingly communicating their pain to the horses.
With their ears and eyes, even while grazing head down, the horses see all, feel all. Horses survive by acknowledging risk and by assigning leadership. Flight, not fight, is how horses naturally resolve troubling situations. Leaders become leaders by keeping the herd out of harm’s way, by noticing peril and using their inherited gift of speed to reduce the danger posed. Flight or fight. Inside the tall adobe walls of this contained ranch, thousands of years of inherited instinct have been reversed. Lacking the space to truly flee, living among one hundred men and women who broadcast danger with every movement, the horses have chosen to fight.
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Ginger Gaffney is a top-ranked horse trainer. She received an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and her work has been published in Tin House, The Utne Reader, Witness, Quarterly West, and other publications. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico.