Of Horses and Healing: A Conversation with Ginger Gaffney

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 and Utne Reader. She lives in Velarde, New Mexico.


When horse trainer Ginger Gaffney got the call in March 2013, she couldn’t believe it: the horses at a nearby prison-alternative ranch were trying to kill their caretakers, a small team of recovering addicts, none of whom had any experience with horses.

“I didn’t have a good feeling about addicts,” Gaffney says. “Judgement can be a blind spot. It was the horses that made them transform. Stripped their sorrow away.” Within a month, Gaffney says, “I wanted to spend all my time there. Being in an environment where 100 people are trying to be the best they can be is not an environment we get to spend a lot of time in. I fell right into it because it was working on me too.”

Half Broke is a story of transformation, redemption, and finding one’s center through close work with horses, where the only available language is the truth. Gaffney’s debut memoir also is shaping up to be my favorite memoir of 2020, for her poetic style of setting words to the way our bodies hold emotion.

Horses look for life in a body. Our outer shell is rigid, but on the inside we are like water, continually fluid. Animals feel the absence of that flow: the stagnation, the crippling death of no motion. Everything is movement to a horse. Everything has a current; the smallest ripple has so much to say.

At a recent book signing, Gaffney—a career horse trainer with quiet step and a mysterious gift for setting people at ease while taking up almost no space at all—read a section about one resident’s first attempt to mount and ride a horse.

As each resident becomes more and more skilled with the horses, Randy lags behind. Everything I teach him is up for reinterpretation. He’s a man floating in his own bowl, with minimal awareness of anyone around him. Randy holds onto a fierce denial of his fear around the horses. He is terrified of them. His arrogance and fake bravado repel the other members…no one trusts him.

The crowd is silent and engaged, each body leaning forward, needing to know if Randy will get up on this horse.

He’s a wreck waiting to happen. But he loves, loves, loves the horses. Two months ago, Randy put himself on a diet, proclaiming himself a vegetarian. He knows that his overweight body is an obstacle, a teetering, cumbersome mass that could keep him from being able to mount up and ride … The only horse I truly feel safe enough to let him work with is Moo. Moo, I know, will not flat-out kill him, which is the fear I hold for Randy whenever he works with the ranch horses.

The other thing about Half Broke is that the horses are characters too—an intentional choice, Gaffney says.

Randy is screaming. His face is flushed. His mouth is wide open and in the shape of a childhood howl. No one looks his way except Moo. Moo finds Randy absolutely captivating. He is mesmerized by Randy in a way I have rarely seen. Moo…loves to check out from reality. I call him my Dreamer. He likes being gone more than he likes being here. He has a higher calling.

“If I have a mission,” Gaffney told me when we met at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore, “it’s to share how our bodies have so much knowledge. The book is about how we learn to trust what our bodies have to say. This is what animals give us. My spirituality is animals and the land and the interactions we have in the present moment. I always say just get a horse or a dog: they’re going to get you there pretty quickly.”

We spoke about putting debut memoir into the world, writing in a physical language, and how she hopes her book might expand Western literature to be more inclusive.


Amy Reardon: In Half Broke, there’s a line that reads, “Eliza has found her voice in her body. Working the horses has changed her. She no longer pulls out her eyebrows, no longer twirls her hair in knots, her skin, her eyes, her mouth. Everything has a different texture. It looks like she’s had cosmetic surgery. She has come back to life.” One of the most magical things about the book is the transformation—in the residents, the horses, even the narrator. How did you land on that narrative spine?

Ginger Gaffney: Oh, that was easy because that’s how the transformations happened, on a physical level, and that’s what I watch. I work with horses for a living, so the body just has language all day long for me. I can’t help but write from that place.

AR: Can you talk about that idea, that the body has language all day long?

GG: It does. That was the first thing I noticed with the residents. Their bodies had a beaten-up language. They were either really sullen and had no life—kind of sunken in—or they were angry and defiant and defensive. They just took these shapes, and the horses, of course, saw all those shapes. Because they can. They’ll read it faster than anybody. So that’s where I started, working with the residents on the language of their bodies because they needed to change it in order for the horses to see someone different. One thing I did to enlighten them was, I brought five of my own horses over, which I did pretty regularly in the beginning because the other ranch horses were so dangerous. The residents were amazed. They weren’t terrified of my horses, so I could teach them how to be with horses. When they moved like I asked them to move and held their bodies like I asked them to hold their bodies, the horses responded really well. But if they got fast or loud, my horses would jerk back. I would say, “Go slow, be more gentle, open up your chest and make sure you’re breathing.” All the things that we do when we’re doing meditation. So that once we got in the pen, I showed them how to be in their body in a way to get the horses to move around them.

AR: How did that impact the voice in which you ultimately told the story?

GG: I think the book is just full of physical language. I did not think about creating a voice. It’s the voice that I speak in, and the voice the residents speak in, and the voice the horses speak in. I stayed as close to that as I could because I didn’t know how to write it any other way.

AR: So you got the residents working with your horses at first, but at some point you needed to get them working with the ranch horses, because that was the bad history you were trying to heal?

GG: We started all over. I had to work with the ranch horses myself for a little while, to have the relationship cleared up, cleaned up, to gentle them a little bit and get them to trust me. And then every day I’d work with Hawk, and then I’d say, “Okay, Tony, come in the round pen, now you work him.” If Hawk did anything too aggressive, I’d be right there. Sometimes I was holding the residents. I’d have to ask them if I could touch them, but I’d be walking right behind him. And if Tony started to do too much, I’d say, “No. Less, less, less, less. Quieter.” Just like a dance, I would move with him.

AR: You used your own body to show them how to use their bodies?

GG: Yeah. I was standing right behind them or in front of them or having them hold me, and I’d move around, trying to get the horses to move. That was the only way I could get it done. I could try to describe it, but the residents knew so little about horses that I had to be super visual. Certain people were working better with certain horses, so I would match them up and then that would be their horse for a while.

But the two mares, Luna and Estrella, really didn’t trust men, and so I ended up giving the women to them, and they did much better. Then I would have men that would come along that were just perfect for the mares because they were a little quieter and less dramatic with their body language. It was just a matter of picking the right horse for the right people. Sometimes with some of the men, it was good that the horses were defiant because the men were like, “How come you can do it, Ginger, and I can’t?” That made them realize they were doing something that wasn’t working.

AR: It was the horses that convinced them?

GG: Yeah.

AR: So often with humans, that negotiation is less clear, but with horses?

GG: It’s straightforward. So that was a motivator for them. The big motivation was when I had that incident with Hawk in the round pen because the residents weren’t taking me seriously at all. That was the second trip to the ranch, and they didn’t really want me there. They had two other guys in charge of the livestock team when all the injuries happened, and they were taken off the team. That’s when the two women were brought in, and they’re the ones that called me. The rest of the livestock team was all men at the time and they were not having it.

AR: It being?

GG: Me. They were not glad I was there.

AR: At first you were not welcome?

GG: No, no. Not much, no.

AR: How was that?

GG: Well, I knew. I could tell. Also, there was a little arrogance, like they really thought there was nothing wrong with what was going on, but I was like, There really is a lot that’s not right here. Hawk had already hurt some people, and they were all afraid of him. When they saw me spend the afternoon with Hawk in the round pen, a lot of the men shifted. They were like, “Wow, look what you just did.” They wanted to be able to work with him that way. They couldn’t put a halter on him—he was running them down all the time.

When we got to the point where they could work with the horses, that’s when everything changed. Big changes happen in people at Delancey Street (the prison-alternative ranch). It’s an “each one, teach one” system. So you come to the ranch, and somebody who’s been there for six months to a year is your teacher.

AR: Delancey Street is run completely by the residents, with no outside help at all?

GG: Right. There’s no paid staff, no psychologists, nobody. So the longer you’re there, you become a teacher or a leader for the new people. When you come on, you work four months, maybe six months, and you learn a specific skill, and then in four to six months they move you on to a new job description, so within like a year, if you last a year, you become the teacher for the new people, and that’s how they pass along their knowledge. They do that in the kitchen for cooking, they do it for the trucking business… They have a catering business, so they’re constantly teaching each other new skills. But the problem with the horses was they didn’t have an each one, teach one system in place. My job, when I finally realized what I was doing, was to get the team up and running so that they would have an ability to pass it on. And it’s been seven years. I still go back. They have it now, an each one, teach one system for the horses. I would doubt that it’ll ever go back to the way it was before. But they call me if they have a problem.

AR: When and how did you feel entitled to take up this space, to put your voice out into the world in a book?

GG: Well, I think that this book is a process of me doing that and being comfortable with that, because I’m not very comfortable with that. I’m the person in the back of the room. This book, I really wrote it so that I’d never forget what we did together, because I tend to always forget all the important things I’ve ever done. I think there’s always space to be more humble and have a lot of humility. I’m learning that you can have that and still have a voice. I still feel very humbled by it because I still don’t really think the story is about me as much as it is about what we did. Some of my graduates, some of the people that were at Delancey Street for a long time and are now out into the world, they’re coming and doing some of my readings with me.

AR: What’s that like?

GG: Oh, it’s so powerful. I’ll read, and then when it’s time to do a question and answer, we just have a conversation together. They’ll ask me a couple of questions, and I’ll ask them a couple of questions, and then we open it up to the audience, but when they talk, it pretty much steals the show, because they talk about their experience with the horses and what it’s done for their lives.

AR: A lot of writers have this moment when somebody gave them permission to write a book. Do you have a moment like that?

GG: Not being super confident person, especially being in a group of writers, is not a natural place for me to be. I’ve spent most of my life with horses. So when I first started writing these stories, I don’t know why I did it, but I started sending them out for publication. When they started getting picked up (quite a few of them got picked up), I really needed that. I don’t think every writer needs that. We weren’t at all encouraged to do that in our MFA program, but I’m so glad I did it because I think I realized I can do this.

Then the other moment was in a workshop with Pam Houston during my second or third semester at the Institute of American Indian Arts. We workshopped one of my stories, and she right away said, “Let’s have lunch.” And then at lunch, she said, “How many pages of this do you have? I want to be your thesis advisor.” That told me that I had something. You need people to help you. I did. I would have never finished it if I hadn’t had that kind of interest. I don’t think I would have thought of it as a book, because I was really writing so that I wouldn’t forget the stories. I just needed to tell them. And once I wrote one, the memories just started flashing, of all the things we did. Every time I went to the ranch, something major happened.

AR: Was there a time when you had to go back and start over or revise or do a major reckoning with the way that you structured the book?

GG: Yes, because I wasn’t writing the stories in sequence. I was just writing them from memory. I had to go back and put them in the order they happened. But the biggest deal was putting myself in the book; I did not put myself in the book until the very end.

AR: Was that the hardest part?

GG: Yeah, yeah. And nobody could really convince me that I needed to do it—I was that certain of it. Again it was this idea that the story wasn’t about me. I wouldn’t really own it myself. Finally, I was talking to my partner and she said, “Remember when you used to come back from the ranch and you were just so enthralled and so obsessed with being at the ranch and I would ask you, ‘What is it Ginger? What is it? Why is this so important to you?’” And she said, “Maybe you could figure out that, and that would be the way you can put yourself in the book.”

That’s when the door opened for me. She was right. All I wanted to do was be at that ranch. Why? My editor at Norton—Tom Mayer—was the most gentle about pulling it out of me. He’d just go into a line like, “This is lovely, can you talk about that more?”

AR: And you won some writing fellowships along the way?

GG: I did. The Corporeal Writing Fellowship in Portland. The chapter called “Walmart” came out of that workshop with Pam Houston and Lidia Yuknavitch. The question was: tell us one of your favorite places. There were 40 women in the room, and everybody was talking about all these beautiful places all over the world, and I was struggling, and then it came to me, it was the Walmart in Española, and everybody laughed, but I started crying and then I thought, What is that? I need to write on that, and I’m so glad I did.

AR: Did you write before this project?

GG: Yes. I consider myself more of a poet than a non-fiction writer. I’ve always written poetry. When I got out of college, I did a five-year internship with a small poetry press, and the people who ran that press were my mentors in writing early on. When I was leaving, it was me and another woman doing the internship, and she went off to go to grad school for writing, and I was thinking about that at the time. I remember hearing this voice in my head that said, No, you’ve got to go live some life before you can be a writer. You need something to write about. I did 25 years of working horses, working on ranches, and then this book popped up. All along, I’d been writing poetry—and getting some published, but mostly for me—and taking workshops in poetry over the years. But you know what Mary Oliver said, about how you shouldn’t do what you love for your day job, so you can save all your creativity for your writing? That’s not how I work. I have to live in order to write.

AR: In memoir writing there are a lot of decisions to make about how you are going to approach the story. I wondered if you studied memoir, if there were certain authors, certain works that had an impact and helped you make those decisions for your book?

GG: I studied the work of all the women that are writing about the West. There is a book called Riding the White Horse Home by Teresa Jordan, and I love that book. It’s more of a biography of her family. But I have to say Teresa Jordan, Pam Houston, Gretel Ehrlich. I am of that age that I read all of those women. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was always reading memoirs about women in the West. That was my favorite genre. So when I think about writing a book, I’m going to write a Western book with animals in it, and it’s going to have a sense of place, a real deep sense of place, and transformation through landscape. All of that comes from all the women I love as writers.

AR: How did you select the cast of characters you ultimately created for the book, after working with so many people?

GG: It was really just the people that I met when I first got there, and it was the scenes that drove that.

AR: The residents who stood out?

GG: Yeah, yeah. Like when we worked with Luna and Estrella, the two women were my main people, with four or five men. I stick with the scenes, who was there and who wasn’t there, and maybe left a few out that weren’t major players. But I was very conscious—because I also have the horses as characters. I didn’t want to overload the reader with so many people that they wouldn’t be able to remember the horses. Who they really are. They’re living beings, and I wanted them to have their say, their time on the page. There are not a lot of horse books, or animal books in general, where you get to see the animal as a living being, with personality. They have their own story.

AR: So while you had to create fictionalized composites for the people, you didn’t have to do that for the horses?

GG: Right. [Laughs] No, and the horses are real; I didn’t even change their names.

AR: Another thing I loved about the book is how we can see the healing taking place. Where do you hope connect most with your reader?

GG: The hope for me is that people will be able to see the people behind the addiction. The layers as they come off in the book. I was not a person that really liked drug addicts. I’d been robbed four or five times by drug addicts. I live in a community where all the houses have been broken into, so I had a judgmental attitude before. But being at the ranch totally changed me. I got to see the people behind the addiction. And I guess, if anything, I hope readers see that.

You have to be honest with horses. You don’t get away with anything. It was the horses that started teaching honesty and trust, and that’s when people started to transform, and that’s when it kind of hit me that what I was there to do. I had to let go of my own judgments and let the horses lead. Because I didn’t go in there believing that I was going to change anybody. I was going to go help these horses. But when the horses started making the changes in people, that’s when I started believing in it.

AR: Speaking of this kind of honesty, you do a lot of excavating of yourself. Can you talk about anything you learned about how to write from that place?

GG: Yeah. It sucks, you know. It’s hard. I’m not one of those people. I’m not Lidia Yuknavitch. I don’t dredge. It’s not easy to dredge. She doesn’t say it much, but she has a punching bag in her basement. Do you know that about Lidia?

AR: I didn’t.

GG: So when she’s writing, and it’s hard stuff, she goes down to her basement and goes after her bag. I don’t love dredging stuff up, but I’m so glad I did it. Now I can talk to my family more openly and a lot of my relationships have totally changed from this process of writing the book. I’m getting more confident in talking about myself in front of people. Letting them know me, the whole, the bigger, who I am. And that’s a blessing, but it’s not easy. And I’ll do it again. I won’t shy from it again because this taught me so much.

AR: Anything surprise you about the publishing process?

GG: Yeah, the whole thing. I can’t believe I got an agent, and that the agent believed in the book so much she wanted to send it to New York. I couldn’t believe she thought it was ready to go. Also, I was a little surprised at how much people really like the language in the book, and I’m really happy that maybe a little bit of me being a poet comes through in the book. I wasn’t sure because I did write it from this very physical place. A lot of the sentences are short, the actual sound of the way everything happened. I wrote from that kind of a voice, which is my real voice, but I was surprised in a literary way that was something that people liked about it.

AR: What would you like to be your contribution to the literature of the West?

GG: I want people to know this is the contemporary West. We’re more diverse than we allow ourselves to talk about. Here I am, a queer woman writing a horse book with a lot of physical language. I want people to feel safe out in rural spaces if they aren’t white, if they’re not straight. Western literature does not represent the full scale of us. Most of the cowboys I know are not white guys; they work full time jobs and have 20 cows. That’s real ranching in the West.


Amy Reardon

Amy Reardon’s work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, Glamour and The Coachella Review. She is at work on a novel.

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