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Half Broke

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At the start of this remarkable story of recovery, healing, and redemption, Ginger Gaffney answers a call to help retrain the troubled horses at an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico, a facility run entirely by the prisoners. The horses are scavenging through the dumpsters, kicking and running down the residents when they bring the trash out after meals. One horse is severely injured.

The horses and residents arrive at the ranch broken in one way or many: the horses are defensive and terrified, while the residents, some battling drug and alcohol addictions, are emotionally and physically shattered. With deep insight into how animals and humans communicate through posture, body language, and honesty of spirit, Gaffney walks us through her struggle to train the untrainable.

Gaffney peels away the layers of her own story—a solitary childhood, painful introversion, and a transformative connection with her first horse, a filly named Belle—and she, too, learns to trust people as much as she trusts horses. As her year-long odyssey builds toward a dramatic conclusion, the group experiences triumphs and failures, brave recoveries and relapses, as well as betrayals and moving stories of trust and belonging.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published February 4, 2020

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Ginger Gaffney

2 books23 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 143 reviews
June 30, 2020
I read this book when we were still free. It was at the beginning of this Plague Year, and I was feeling light-headed and not altogether myself. A couple of days later I went down with coronavirus. So I'd sort of forgotten I needed to review this book it was so long ago and in a different country and we were still free. Now we are in phase 2 of the Plague Year. Who knows what phase 3 will be and what it will bring?

The author, Ginger Gaffney is better at writing about horses than people. Actually she's really better writing about herself in relation to horses than anything else. There is a lot of detail about horses and how Gaffney trains them, rides them, ropes them, rescues them and interacts with them in every way. If that sounds like you really get to know the horses as individuals, you do, to some extent, but it is really what Gaffney does with the horses and works around problems they have. These problems are partly because the horses would really prefer to do what they want to do, not what people want them to do and so they must be 'trained'. Or broken.

The people are broken anyway. Addicts who have spent more time in thrall to drugs and living in prisons than being free. They broke themselves. Unfortunately they are mostly fairly sketchily drawn and I can't say that I could really identify with any of them and be able to think of what they might do in any situation not described. A well-drawn character is a person that if you had dinner with them, you could predict what they might order and what you'd talk about. As with the horses, Gaffney is better at writing what she does with the people and how she tries to solve their problems.

I wish I was more interested in the author, but all I know about her is she had a hard childhood for internal reasons rather than a bad family home, that she had a hard time coming out as a lesbian, and is a small woman with a deep understanding of horses. She comes across as a hard, cold naturally introverted woman locked inside herself. This isn't the hardness of those without empathy or who are selfish, very far from that, more that of people who feel themselves damaged and don't trust easily. She gives little away of herself so that I can't tell you what we'd talk about over dinner if it wasn't horses, I just don't know her at all.

But if she writes another book, I'd read it, she's a good and interesting writer.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,694 reviews14.1k followers
February 22, 2020
An alternative prison ranch in New Mexico, where non violent prisoners can apply, and serve out the rest of their sentences. Never knew there was such a thing, place. This is part memoir, part horsemanship, and if one loves horses this will fit the bill nicely.

Ginger is called to the ranch to help with a renegade group of horses that won't let anyone near. Arriving at the ranch, she feels a connection, to the prisoners and their lives and of course to the horses. Her love of horses once helped her and she feels needed at the ranch. We enter the lives and rythems of both the prisoners and the workings of the ranch.

Forgiveness, redemption and finding one selves as well as self esteem are some of the themes explored. I very much enjoyed all aspects of this book. Ginger writes the story well, both hers and those she comes to know at the ranch. Of course, I fell in love with a few horses along the way.

ARC from Netgalley.
Profile Image for Athena (OneReadingNurse).
668 reviews91 followers
October 20, 2020
Review copy provided in exchange for an honest review. I sat on this review for a long, long time because i just...idk. I am a horse person who spent a few years riding professionally in various environments and I don't know what I was expecting here. All the descriptions say the author is a "top ranked trainer," although I can't find her associated with a professional organization or anything even on her website, no listed or google-able awards, rankings, earnings. Classical horsemanship is her specialty and she has a training DVD out but those ads still mention no particular background, affiliations, etc...

She refers throughout the book to childhood traumas, but only a few events vaguely throughout the book like she apparently didn't speak as a young child because her family was too busy? Another hint at Catholicism inferred that the family didn't provide accurate or informative anatomical discussions, and seemed to shun her eventual coming out, but I was confused as to what actually happened that caused the author's social barriers. These parts were written abstractly. She even compared her skinned knees at cheerleading to one of the inmates having to play mom to her younger sister, so I was getting mixed messages

Then the horse training parts happened quickly, I think they were merged for the purpose of it not being a 1000 page book but it created mostly anecdotes for me to see these dangerous horses coming around to the addicts in one lesson at times, although her methods make total sense. I'm not debating that, I'd send a horse to her but still think I want to see accolades listed as far as the book's marketing. Life and horse anecdotes yes, but, I wasn't feeling it as a horse person. Interesting story though about equine therapy.
Profile Image for Afton Montgomery.
110 reviews18 followers
November 13, 2019
Sitting in a panel on literature of the West where too many white men were talking too loudly and watching Ginger slowly lean forward and growl into her mic, “I hate cowboys,” will absolutely be a highlight of my year. Her memoir Half Broke touches so intently on what it is to be human and what is animal in us. While she works as a horse trainer on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico, she is really living into her notion that honesty and accountability are far more present in the ways that we move through the world than anything we could ever say out loud. She is there to show the creatures inhabiting the land to be mirrors for any and all human behavior— in devastating and in utterly redemptive ways. I thank her a million times over for writing down what she’s taught and what what she’s learned. Every single person who touches the earth we live on needs more of Ginger’s voice in their head.
Profile Image for Robyn.
1,708 reviews117 followers
December 26, 2020
A very short book about the redemption of lives that, at first glance, don't seem worth living either for horses or people. Told metaphorically through the taming and breaking of horses, Ginger Gaffney finds healing, recovery, and redemption for herself and others at a New Mexico ranch alternative prison program. Broken horse meets broken man and together become a single unit better than before.

Interesting, but fails to bring on that deep emotional AHHHH I think the author was shooting for, but it is only 272 pages, so totally doable.

3 stars

Happy Reading!
December 27, 2019
Compelling read about surrendering control, asking for cooperation, and learning to listen.
How we can heal ourselves when we can learn to do these things.
All through the vehicle of horse training, and building confidence for people who have not had much of a chance in life. Beautiful, empathetic story driven by fascinating work with fascinating people in a fascinating place.
March 17, 2022
Touching. I read this book in two sittings. If you love anyone who has struggled with addition, this story will resonate. The cycle of hope, disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak play out again and again. I cried a few times in recognition of how a relapse ripples outward. How fortunate that Ginger, the ranch, the horses, and the residents found each other.
Profile Image for Stephanie Crowe.
263 reviews10 followers
October 4, 2019
Powerful memoir! Raw and honest I was captivated by the pain expressed by Ginger and her livestock team. But there was purpose ,hope and progress and this made for an inspiring read. I loved it and couldn’t put it down!
Profile Image for Kayla.
100 reviews3 followers
January 22, 2020
Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for allowing me to read this ARC!
Ginger Gaffney’s Half Broke will likely be filed under nonfiction as It deals with the rehabilitation of both humans and animals on a New Mexico ranch. I would like to suggest it have be given the sub-categorization of poetry, because within these pages is the poetry that can be found in the shine of a horse’s coat or the movements of its muscles under the skin, as well as the poetry of lost, broken, and wounded things. (Interestingly, Gaffney wrote the chapters, in some cases, as essays, but they felt to smooth, creative, and flowing for that format, at least to this reader).

The author is summoned to a ranch run by inmates and former inmates because they have a problem with horses that have become mostly feral and incredibly dangerous, so dangerous that the author considers abandoning them. She writes, “I must be careful with my body; it’s how I make my living. … No one has offered to pay me. … Should I really keep coming?” Soon, however, she is won over by the broken people on the ranch trying to mend themselves as well as the broken horses who have been “punished” with “the pain” of those who have come there. Soon the question of why she should come is replaced by a need to be there. She makes the reader need to be there, too!

Blending her own story – of silence, of finding herself, of loss – in with the story of the lost and the traumatized people who call the ranch home, Gaffney traces a personal homecoming alongside the triumphs and tragedies of those on the ranch and the horses that heal and are healed by them. I’ve read many books that look at disadvantaged groups or addicts and this one distinguishes itself through moving language, an almost physical/visceral knowledge of its subjects, and a compassion that never veers into the preachy. It is to be hoped that Gaffney’s work will inspire more programs like this one to help more addicts/criminals to find their way back to themselves and to society.
Profile Image for Fay.
412 reviews
February 28, 2022
When Ginger Gaffney refers to the title, Half Broke, she speaks not only as a horse trainer but of herself. In my later years now, I look back to my youth and the dreams I had of having a horse. Like many young girls, I remember drawing pictures of horses as I dreamed of ownership. I also remember riding the ponies in circles at the county fair. Ms. Gaffney was able to satisfy her dreams in owning several horses at the time she writes and traveling the country as a trainer of horses. She found in time that she communicated with the horses she owned and trained better than she did many of the people surrounding her. She was called to a unique opportunity in the wilds of New Mexico where there was a prison for who mostly were recovering addicts. They were placed on this ranch where they had all the responsibilities required to run the ranch. Even the management of the facility. One opportunity select prisoners were assigned to was "livestock" care. This book focuses on those assigned to livestock, being only horses. The horses came in various stages of brokenness in terms of rideability, and there I will leave you in the capable hands of Ms. Gaffney. Enjoy!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ken Oder.
Author 11 books128 followers
March 8, 2020
Gaffney's story in this non-fiction memoir is unique. She is a horse trainer hired by an alternative prison, a horse ranch, where inmates are sent for rehab from addiction and lives of crime in part based on a theory of equine therapy. The horses have sensed the weaknesses and infirmities of the prisoners and exploited them. Normally prey animals, they have become predators, regularly attacking the inmates. Gaffney's job is to tame these wild creatures and recapture the original purpose of the ranch, the equine therapy for the inmates.
The book is at its best describing the thoughts and feelings of the horses. Gaffney is a horse whisperer extraordinaire. The thoughts and feelings of the inmates and of Gaffney herself are less compelling. They seem oversimplified and unrealistic even though based on real experiences and the writing style left me cold in places, but the story is nevertheless interesting and the tales of her connections with the horses hold your interest to the end.
Profile Image for Meagan Houle.
566 reviews10 followers
July 8, 2020
This isn't a warm and fuzzy read, exactly, nor does it feel like something that was meant to be shiny and inspiring. It is a story of imperfect redemption, in which some people make it and others don't. It is a story of horses and their power to heal even as they buckle under the weight of their own trauma. It is a story of how those whom society has cast out can find new purpose and accomplish incredible things. And it is a story of the unsure trainer who is thrust in the middle of a situation she barely understands, in well over her head, doing immeasurable good regardless.
So, not chicken soup for the soul, perhaps, but soul medicine, the sort of remedy that doesn't taste so sweet going down, but that you know will leave you better than you were.
Profile Image for Emily Amaral.
1 review1 follower
October 18, 2020
I wasn’t impressed by the writing, or the way the author portrays her fixing her way into situations. By the 15th page she’d essentially tamed the wildest horse. She goes out of her way to emphasize her diminutive stature (TAKE THAT, MEN!) multiple times. And while she does not come of as infallible, she does seem a bit shallow with platitudes towards the residents.

Predictably, the horses help the convicted to improve their lives. While I don’t deny that horses provide innumerable benefits to those that work with them, there is some fluff about this being magical.

The book jacket and synopsis make sure to state she is a “top rated” horse trainer, but she’s got poor online presence and I couldn’t find any credentials (I.e., USPC).

The chapters on her relationships felt out of place.

The residents were one-dimensional and forgettable.

Almost a DNF but I stuck it out.

5 reviews
April 2, 2021
I just finished a book for the first time in nearly two years. I don't know why I stopped reading books, but I'm really glad I chose this memoir to get back into it.

Ginger Gaffney, a horse trainer in New Mexico, possesses a unique understanding of human beings, born of isolation, self questioning, and keen insight.

Ginger began riding as an adult, discovered a rare talent for deep communication with horses, and used that talent to help the inmates of a prison ranch attempt to put their broken lives back together. The memoir is tough, honest, punctuated with failure, yet full of hope and strength. The imagery -- rivers, deserts and mountains of northern New Mexico -- is vast and intimate. And the horses, most as damaged and beaten down as the inmates who care for them, are each rendered as individuals, demonstrative of their own understanding and circumstances.

At a difficult time when I especially needed to, this book helped me better understand people, real and troubled people.
Profile Image for Glee.
624 reviews16 followers
January 12, 2021
A beautiful, and beautifully written, memoir about a horse trainer who volunteers to help in a residential prison ranch. Both the people and the horses are "half-broken". Ginger Gaffney tells her story with great honesty, and details the painful steps that she and her small band of prisoners and horses take together. Not everything goes well, but none are unchanged.

Can't recommend enough. I need emojis here.....
Profile Image for Sara Hollar.
286 reviews18 followers
January 28, 2022
DNF. I listened on audio and I actually loved it at the beginning. I loved hearing how the residents of the prison ranch were healing through their time with the horses. But the author interjects herself WAY too much into this story. This story isn't about her, but she takes it and twists her "good deed" of volunteering at the ranch into focusing on her pain and her experience and her feelings. I was cringing so much near the end.

I listened to all but the last hour, so I gave it a good shot!
Profile Image for Melanie Page.
Author 4 books83 followers
April 2, 2020
*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 I would highly recommend.

This review was originally published at Grab the Lapels.
Profile Image for Tami.
396 reviews
November 3, 2021
I didn’t want this story to end. I was amazed about the power of Ginger’s ability to build strong animals and people through her horse training capabilities. And fascinating to learn about such a rehabilitative place for prisoners to go to.
74 reviews
March 26, 2022
Sometimes tragic and sometimes uplifting. Very realistic story that was engaging and easy to read.
Profile Image for Aviva Vincent .
76 reviews
September 9, 2020
Perfectly written. With the focus on the horses, Ginger tells the candid narrative of her experience without tokenizing the people involved. She uses horse-speak for the reader with horse-sense. Loved everything about this. Including the pieces of her self she leaves throughout the luges like breadcrumbs.
Profile Image for Caroline Hedges.
329 reviews4 followers
September 30, 2019
This book appealed to me because I love horses and have been volunteering at an Equine therapeutic center for a number of years and have seen the transformational work horses and people make with each other. Ginger Gaffney lays bare her fears and opens up about feeling different at a time and place before Pride and the LGBT community helped people feel good about who they were.
My real interest was in the prison ranch and what they were doing there. The correlation between broken horses and broken people was clear and I respect Sarah and Flor, the leaders of the livestock team at the ranch for reaching out for help. Gaffney helped tame the wild horses and in turn tamed the wild prisoners who were all battling with their own demons. She instinctively knew that to help one she had to help the other too. Here were people and horses that had been so damaged by life that their only instinct was to hurt, but Gaffney showed them that by persistence, patience and kindness she could make them see the good in others, themselves and life again.
This isn't just a book for horse lovers, this is a book for anyone fighting demons, interested in human/animal connections and someone who loves a good ending.
Profile Image for Nicole Dake.
12 reviews
February 1, 2020
A calming read, focused on the ephemeral bond between horse and human. The author easily and sometimes poignantly connects how our past traumas influence not only our mental state, but also our physical presentation.
Profile Image for Enchanted Prose.
267 reviews14 followers
January 31, 2020
Broken horses, Broken people – how they can save each other (northern New Mexico, March 2013 – September 2014; 1990s flashbacks): The historic relationship between horses and people goes back centuries. Yet it’s only been since the 1950s that a therapeutic bond – Equine Therapy – has been seriously applied to physical and mental health rehabilitation and healing.

In Ginger Gaffney’s remarkable memoir, the “horse-human” relationship goes much further psychologically. It’s a “last shot” lifeline for a select group of prisoners on a “livestock team” at an “prison-alternative” 17-acre ranch north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Horse therapy in this “river valley dealing with the blight of poverty and drug addiction much longer than the rest of the states” offers a “sliver of hope” for some convicts stuck in a pernicious cycle in and out of prisons.

Half Broke is a beautiful read, with an empowering message of inspiration and hope that some castaways can find a way out from their inner demons, as impossible as that may seem. Making the memoir a call to prison activists urging reform of our broken criminal justice system.

The author has changed the names of the people in this story out of respect for their privacy. It’s likely, though, she hasn’t for the “giant gods” – “traumatized” wild horses so mistreated and misunderstood they terrorize, having become “dangerous” creatures no one could touch. When they do, horses and people get hurt.

That’s what inspired the prison ranch story. In March 2013, Gaffney received a frantic call from the DS Ranch that one of their wild horses, Luna, was beaten so badly she could lose her eyesight. The caller, Sarah, and Luna, are part of the ranch’s innovative horse-people “gentling” program.

This is no ordinary Western ranch. It’s managers, the “elders,” unconventional ranch owners (no authorities, only prisoners). Residents are not typical ranch hands. Nothing ordinary is happening in these pages. And, candidly, Gaffney tells us she’s not ordinary either, profoundly connecting this enormously talented horse-trainer with 25 years experience to dysfunctional souls and wild horses.

Horses feel “every little touch.” You too will feel the sensitive and perceptive touch of the author’s toolbox of skills to gentle horses and people society has given up on.

Miracles can happen, but not for all. When things go wrong – and plenty does – the prose rises to a suspenseful rhythm and pace, evoking the edge at which “recovery can be slipped away.” Including the author’s.

This searing tale has everything to do with trust, starting with Gaffney who deeply trusts the power of horses to save people. When a significant breach occurs, it shatters Gaffney’s trust in the team. She’s fragile, just like them. Occasional flashbacks to the author’s childhood and coming-of-age years enlightens.

For the first six years of Gaffney’s life, she barely spoke a word. “Extreme shyness” shaped enduring feelings of loneliness and isolation. An unintended benefit of those silent years resulted in Gaffney becoming a keen observer of people’s non-verbal body language and movements, enabling her to quickly assess visual clues as to the emotions these behaviors are communicating. Relating to them personally, she doesn’t act condescending towards the prisoners. She treats them as equals, expecting a lot. She does so for 1½ years, never getting paid. Money isn’t her objective. This becomes her mission, her calling. In turn, everyone is respectful to and grateful for Gaffney’s perseverance at a place “she’s never seen anything like.”

Gaffney’s personal story starts first with sizing up people, then horses. A pro at understanding what the “complex communication systems” of horses are telling us.

Most of the novel is structured in 2013/2014 ranch chapters, a month a time. A step-by-step approach similar to the mantra of taking things one day at a time. Except here it’s literally, gravely, “one step at a time.” One measured, mentored step at a time.

“Fascination with horses came from a place inside me I have never understood,” says the author. We see how this plays out in those few flashback-to-the-90s chapters; few because this memoir isn’t meant to be about her, though she’s at the center of it. We do, though, learn some key things about the author’s emotions: she’s an extremely private person, who didn’t feel she belonged anywhere until horses came into her life. “We all come from somewhere, but that doesn’t mean we belong.” The honesty of horses is what she profoundly cherishes, trusting these majestic animals far more than people. We see how much that matters when the author’s first horse, Belle, rescues her.

At the ranch Gaffney feels she belongs. Eventually, she feels most at home there. While she has a supportive partner, Glenda, she describes her sexuality as another reason she’s felt like an outsider. Not at the ranch, where everyone is an outsider.

For someone whose been quite uncomfortable around people, with a horse Gaffney shows an exceptional touch with those in a “sunken place.” She gets their “broken parts” – “their lack of attention span, their wounded bodies, their anger, the dullness in their eyes” – saying they “look like me.” Or, how she used to look, be.

Her human team consists, over time, of three of about 10 women at the ranch: Flor, Sarah, Eliza. Of the 90 or so men, there’s Tony, Randy, Marcus, Rex, Paul, Omar. The horse team includes sisters Luna and Estrella, Hawk, Billy, Moo, Joker, Izzy, Willie. They represent a number of breeds, such as Painted Horse, Morgan Gelding, Lusitano.

All the people/horse names means there’s a lot of characters with individual traits. Horses loom large. A breathtaking challenge for this horse-trainer/psychologist who must keep track of all, to protect, and earn and keep the fragile trust.

Trust is fundamental. Not easy for prisoners lacking role-models, who’ve been let down over and over; people who then let themselves down to a point of feeling there’s no return.

Trust is not easy for Ginger Gaffney either, who “learned to hide, to become invisible.” But now she must be visible. More so, as she has to put herself out there, in harm’s way. Once she evaluates and treats Luna’s emergency, and assesses the team, she leaps in:

“If you want these horses to respect you, you’ll have to respect yourself … How you walk, how you hold your posture, this will tell the horses whether to stomp you or follow you. It also tells them if you are trustworthy or fake.”

There’s more going on at this ranch than horse-training: vocational skills training to fix cars and other mechanical objects, plumbing, ceramics, cooking. Life skills for earning a living when prisoners complete their sentences and are ready to venture out.

Should you Google the DS Ranch, you’ll come up empty. The author has obscured the ranch’s name too, presumably to protect its space. If you keep at it, you may make an eye-opening discovery that this unusual ranch exists elsewhere around the country; and that there are other alternative prison programs managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conceived as an approach for handling some of the heart-tugging controversy over what to do, if anything, about mustangs running wild on Federal lands in the West.

“I’ve always felt that riding horses was like riding a wave. The wave rolls you along. You don’t kick the wave, or beat it, or even think you can control it. Every wave is unique,” says the author. Though horse therapy programs are fanned out across the country, the people and horses in this vivid, stunning memoir are unique.

Lorraine (EnchantedProse.com)
Profile Image for Patty.
2,300 reviews100 followers
April 22, 2021
”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.”

I would have never picked this book up on my own. I was not one of those young girls who fall in love with horses as they are growing up. I am afraid of horses – they are bigger and heavier than I am.

That said, I am so thrilled that my book group decided to read this because the choice made me read this and it is wonderful. Gaffney is an amazing woman who has figured out what she wants and needs from life and seems to be achieving these things. She has help, her partner understands her well and she has had the teachers she needed at the right times.

What I just can’t imagine is writing this memoir. Not only is Gaffney a busy person, trying to support herself, but her honesty is remarkable. She admits mistakes and understands that the people she encounters through her work are extremely human. (I am looking at what I am writing, and I am using a lot of superlatives. They are warranted IMHO.)

It will be a long time before I forget Gaffney and her way with horses. I hope she writes more.
Profile Image for Julie Stielstra.
Author 5 books18 followers
February 29, 2020
When you have been around horses long enough, you begin to see and feel and understand things about them and their relationships with humans that other people simply can't. I can't watch a Western movie without judging how well the actors ride (Redford, Duvall, Mortenson - they can sit a horse!). There are times when I've read novels in which horses feature prominently, and think: this writer "gets" horses (Madison Smartt Bell, Mary Doria Russell, Dick Francis at his and Mary's best), and sure enough, they have been around them in a serious way. And so, by god, has Ginger Gaffney. She "gets" how they look, how they move, what they like, how they snuffle and snort and bare their teeth and lash out. And she can write about it - beautifully, vividly. What makes "Half Broke" special and rising way above most the of zillions of "how this [horse, rescue dog, stray cat...] saved my life" memoirs infesting the book shelves these days, is how she, as a introverted, silent person so uneasy with people that she barely spoke until the age of 6, takes what she has studied and internalized about horses and interacting with them and uses it to learn to relate to a group of damaged, bottomed-out drug addicts and criminals on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico.

Gaffney, an experienced horse trainer by vocation, is called in to the ranch because the half dozen or so horses who have been "donated" to the ranch are basically feral. Unschooled, unbroke, violent, uncontrollable, they represent the "most dangerous horse situation [she has] ever encountered." And she has zero experience or training for working with the ranch residents: some cocky and defiant, others caved in on themselves, traumatized, manipulative, or hostile. Over the course of a year or so, Gaffney has to figure out how to get these two herds to settle, to relate, and to not kill themselves or each other.

One by one, horse by horse, person by person, she confronts, soothes, observes, teaches, and worries. Before the residents can handle the horses, she has to teach the humans how to walk: upright, head back, loose relaxed strides... they barely comprehend what she means. But it is crucial: it's the body language, the projection of confidence that horses, creatures of movement and flight and tension, rely on absolutely for the development of trust and understanding.

It is hard work. There are setbacks: residents we have come to root for and care about fail and it's heartbreaking. But as a recovering addict friend reminds her: "You do know not everyone makes it out, right?" There are moments of grace, moments of fear, moments of challenge, moments of triumph. There are also moments of some overwritten navel-gazing that, while they explain some of Gaffney's own back story and troubles, are not as compelling. There's a terrific chapter about a clinic with "a famous trainer" who pressures Gaffney into ignoring her own (extremely sensitive and astute) instincts regarding a willful, terrified filly that results in injury to both Gaffney and the horse - she learns she need to listen to the horse and herself, not necessarily the "famous trainer" and his swaggering male acolytes.

And the cover illustration is absolutely gorgeous. What more could you want?

Profile Image for Judy Beetem.
359 reviews
February 14, 2020
Ginger Gaffney has written a poignant, thought-provoking accounting of her time on a ranch in New Mexico. Ginger is a horse trainer who specializes in horses who are the most difficult to train - those with damaged psyches as well as damaged bodies. This ranch is like no other - it is a ranch where felons apply to work, to learn a trade, and to take care of the animals. In addition, they learn social skills and other things they need to fit back into a society that has spit them out again and again. Ginger was called because the horses have been running in a pack, rather than a herd, and biting, kicking and trying to hurt anything that gets close to them. Ginger works with the horses to regain their trust and heal them, and with the residents who need to heal and learn to trust themselves and each other. Ginger, herself, has led a rough life and finds herself learning much from the horses and people too.

I was drawn to the cover of this book - a beautiful line drawing of a horse, half-in-shadow which is a great representation of Gaffney's tale. She flashes back to the events that got her involved with horses and the life that led her to mistrust herself as well as other humans. It is through working with horses, especially those who are as damaged as she, that Ginger finds a life that she loves. Her descriptions of the horses and people she encounters are so vivid they brought me to tears on many occassions. She's real and truthful without being overly sentimental. Horse-lovers will enjoy this book as will anyone who enjoys an interesting, enlightening read.
254 reviews4 followers
March 16, 2020
inger Gaffney lives in Mexico and has been training horses and educating owners for twenty years. One day she receives a call from a prison ranch desperate for help with a herd of problem horses. Most of the residents are multiple offenders transferring from the prison system after gaining approval to complete their time at the ranch. The whole operation is run by the residents and for some of them the ranch is their last chance. Horses have been running in packs like dogs, chasing and sometimes injuring the residents. Scared by life and the prison system the residents have unconsciously passed their pain to the horses. Working with the ranch may be her biggest challenge yet.
I felt involved when I was reading and shared the disappointment etc when things didn’t go as expected.
It is clear she has handled some pretty dangerous situations even for an experienced horse person. Ginger has her own issues eg she mentions feeling like a stray dog when meeting new people and is able to relate to the men, women and horses on the ranch by drawing on her own experiences.
I am a horse lover/owner who 110% recommends this others (not limited to) with similar interests. There are many things Ginger mentions which are relevant to more than just the horse world. I think everyone can learn something from this one.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for a free digital copy of the advance uncorrected proof in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Corie.
251 reviews
April 26, 2020
Typically I'm not a huge fan of memoir. The writing isn't usually of a very high quality and the narrative structure can be a big ... garbled unless the editing team is fantastic.

I'm also not usually a fan of memoirs that focus on horses since I'm very opinionated and unforgiving when it comes to the language used to describe a horse's movements, behavior, and personality.

Despite my preconceived notions re: horses + memoirs, I thoroughly enjoyed Half Broke. The writing wasn't stellar and the structure was a little jumpy but the story was moving and inspiring. Having spent 4 years in my early twenties working at therapeutic riding programs that specialized in at-risk youth, this story really hit home for me. The changes in the prisoners and the horses on the ranch are described in such moving detail that I found myself fighting tears on multiple occasions throughout this book.

Ginger's personal story was written into the narrative with an intense vulnerability and those contributions gave the tale of DS Ranch and its residents (both horse + human) a raw power.

I do wish that there had been a heavier focus on her approach to training horses but maybe she'll save that for her next book. For now, I'm going to do some YouTube'ing so I can learn more about Ginger Gaffney.
Profile Image for Cori.
414 reviews7 followers
April 5, 2021
Gaffney’s memoir is one of the more unique and fascinating ones I’ve read of late. Her narration of people, the horses, and the New Mexico landscape are gorgeous and fully realized through her simple but descriptive prose and generates a fully developed sense of place. Half Broke is apt name for this story as it promises opportunity for second chances as well as the taming of horses. She also explores survival, recovery, and healing through the idea of fractures of the spirit, skin, and heart. Her story poignantly implies that we often encounter crossroads where things can improve or worsen. We may move toward failure or success. It also warns that at the halfway point, we are still not guaranteed an easy journey forward. Most importantly, she introduces us to the residents and operations of an alternative prison ranch. Gaffney humanizes a group of people who are often determined as less than and not worthy of our society. She highlights how the cycles of intergenerational poverty, trauma, and abuse have broken the spirit of these humans who are now striving to not let the past define their future. Gaffney also lets us get to know her through key experiences from her past, but these never dominate; instead, they serve to illustrate how she navigates her own experiences at the ranch that leave her alternately confused and frustrated or exhilarated and hopeful.
Profile Image for O Prism.
136 reviews
November 15, 2019
A most moving memoir from Ms. Ginger Gaffney. I enjoyed this read very much, as I’ve worked with horses off and on for decades, including therapy horses, and worked with female inmates, some on a prison work release program. Ms. Gaffney offers a brutally honest look at the ranch and it’s residents and how they relate (or not) to the horses and the program. As the residents gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, so does Ms. Gaffney. Her writing is beautiful and poetic; at times she is as skittish as the residents and the horses, yet she emerges strong and courageous, with a deeper knowledge of self. I could relate to her struggles as well as the residents and their equine charges. A touching and passionate look within, at the human condition, our self-esteem, how some people can be delicate and frail and broken over past events as well as the wonderful horses (some having been abused before their arrival at the ranch), and both triumphs and failures of the human spirit, and the human-animal bond. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it. Thank you to Netgalley, Ms. Gaffney, and the publishers for an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion. #halfbroke #gingergaffney #netgalley
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