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Book Review:
Rehab for prisoners ... and horses

Half Broke

Ginger Gaffney, 2020

Ginger Gaffney's exceptional memoir, Half Broke (2020) is about her experiences working with prisoners in the New Mexico prison system who (just prior to their release) live and work on a ranch for horses. Gaffney is a horse trainer, horse "whisperer", with an extraordinary understanding of how to work with horses. The prisoners on this ranch are mostly drug addicts with long histories of trauma in both their childhoods and adult lives. One of the prisoners called Gaffney after the prisoners lost control of the horses who had become violent and destructive, due to ignorant, punitive care provided by the prisoners. Horses are highly attuned to humans and the messages humans communicate through posture, gaze, walk and voice. Gaffney's work with these traumatized prisoners and mistreated horses is awe inspiring. Persons who work with horses need to become as attuned to the personalities and communications of horses, as horses are attuned to humans. This is a big task for anyone, much less for people who can hardly recognize anyone's needs other than their own, and may be clueless regarding their own needs. 


This is not a Mary Poppins story. Some of the prisoners make tremendous strides with the horses, and gains in self-esteem and self-efficacy which reflects their new skills and empathy for horses, only to crash and burn. Addiction is a powerful force as is self-loathing. For others, the experience was life changing, akin to a born-again experience. Gaffney is observant about the ways that trauma histories in both humans and horses are reflected in physical indicators (the body keeps the score), and about the ups and downs of recovery for both species. Gaffney has written a great book about trauma and recovery from trauma from an unusual perspective, i.e., an interspecies relationships and communication.  Gaffney's efforts to connect her own story of childhood and 'outsider' status to the experience of the prisoners is less successful; but her honesty regarding how she feels her way with the prisoners as they learn about horses, not working with a script or therapeutic program, and re her own unrealistic expectations is great. 

-- Dee Wilson

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