‘Half Broke’ a tale of discovery within alternative prison

Ginger Gaffney’s memoir, “Half Broke,” resonates on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start.

I had to look twice at the dark cover when I spotted the advanced reading copy of the book on the W. W. Norton table at the Northern California Booksellers Association Discovery Show last October. Was that a horse’s head barely discernable? Yes, but why so hidden? Or was the title “Half Broke” meant to hide more than a horse?

W. Norton is a publisher to trust for quality reading. I especially look to them for poetry, but the eyes and wild mane and forelock of the half broke horse on the cover of this book would not let me leave it behind. Gaffney, a talented horse trainer living in New Mexico, is also one heck of a talented writer.

Four stories

“Half Broke” is really four stories. First, it is the story of an almost 50-year-old alternative prison on a 17-acre ranch near the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. It is run by the prisoners, who also operate the ranch. Second, it is the story of rehabilitation through experience – learning to run the ranch and participating in teams that rotate in programs such as food, automotive shop, woodshop and animal care.

Third, it is the story of the broken men and women who have been accepted into this prison to serve out their terms, especially those in the livestock team responsible for the handling of abandoned and broken horses, as well as the cats, dogs, chickens and ducks living on the ranch. Fourth, it is the story of Gaffney and the chance phone call from a desperate member of the livestock team asking if she would come to the prison ranch to help them find a way to handle their horses.

“Everything at the ranch, all the knowledge and skill it takes to keep the property in good order and the residents cared for and well-fed, is supervised by the residents who have lived here the longest. The elder residents are the officials in charge. It is a long chain of knowledge handed down, one person at a time, ensuring that the strong traditions and standards of the ranch will continue.”

But that chain of knowledge had been broken as far as the handling of the horses. The horses, ill-treated out of that ignorance, retaliated by running in packs, like dogs, attacking the residents who were supposed to be caring for them. An experienced horse trainer of 20 years, Gaffney found herself “in the middle of the most dangerous horse situation I had ever encountered.”

“Half Broke” is as much about the horses as it is about the half-broken people, including Gaffney, who populate this fascinating memoir. She remains working with the livestock team for a year and a half, learning as much about herself as she does about the residents.

Readers will cheer for those residents who succeed and mourn for those who do not. The same goes for the horses, whom we will know by name and temperament. What we can learn from animals will amaze the reader not familiar with horses, but what we can learn from each other is equally impressive.