"Our goal for today is to experience empathy," a social worker says to protagonist Roman Coleman in one scene of The Mustang. The new film tells the tale of a broken beast of a man and an unbroken mustang who learn to tame each other in a wild horse training rehabilitation program at a rural Nevada prison. Bolstered by beautiful cinematography and an epic soundtrack, the film is a slow-burning meditation on rage, vulnerability and volatile masculinity.

Coleman, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, enters the program after years in solitary confinement, his morose silence like a layer of thin ice over a dangerous and impulsive current of anger. As we watch Coleman learn how to empathize first with the horse, then with his pregnant and estranged teenage daughter, and finally with his own violent past, the audience comes to empathize with him regardless of the terrible things he's done.

Ayla Jarvis completed the Delancey Street alternative sentencing program in Northern New Mexico.
Ayla Jarvis completed the Delancey Street alternative sentencing program in Northern New Mexico. | Courtesy Ayla Jarvis

A horse's sensitivity to emotion and body language can be redemptive in a relationship with a human whose distrust of self and others is the result of trauma, something residents at the Delancey Street ranch north of Santa Fe experience first-hand. For people in New Mexico who are charged with drug-related crimes, the Delancey Street alternative sentencing program can be life-changing.

"Empathy—that's a really big thing," says Ginger Gaffney, who has volunteered as a horse trainer and mentor at the Delancey Street ranch for over six years. "Drug addiction and trauma make you pretty self-consumed. If there's one thing we hope the residents get out of the program, that's it."

Gaffney first arrived to find the ranch in a state of chaos, the residents tyrannized by of a band of horses gone rogue. Left in the hands of a group of troubled individuals, the animals had become feral and aggressive.

"Communication with horses is all about body language," Gaffney tells SFR. "[The residents'] bodies were speaking a language of brokenness and trauma more than anything. They approached the horses with postures of fear and defiance, and the horses were responding with some of the most amazingly disturbing habits that I'd ever seen horses have."

To bring harmony back to the ranch, she first had to coach residents to hold themselves and move with a sense of calm confidence. This is still the first thing she teaches newcomers. "First, I teach them how to walk."

Gaffney captures the physicality at the heart of this process in a collection of powerful narrative essays that will be published in her new book, Half Broke, due out in January.

"When you've been there long enough to see people leave, it's like watching a metamorphosis happen," says Gaffney. "Horses are so honest; they teach you how to be honest too. How to present yourself in an honest way. For people who've struggled with a lifetime of addiction and don't know how to interact with others except in angry or frustrated ways, this lesson is invaluable."

Ayla Jarvis was 25 when she entered the Delancey Street program, was addicted to heroin, and had spent years in and out of prison. She grew up in Santa Fe in a family ravaged by intergenerational drug use. Jarvis spent five years at the ranch, first as a resident and then as a manager. Now seven years sober, she works as a professional farrier and wedding planner in Albuquerque.

Compared to the expectations of residents at Delancey Street, she says, prison was easy. "In prison you don't have to be responsible or accountable for anything. Once you've given up on yourself, it's so easy to get comfortable with that kind of complacency." At the ranch she had to work hard and face her traumas. Looking back, she says if she hadn't entered the program, she would have probably ended up dead or in and out of prison for life.

"When I first arrived at the ranch I hated myself and everything and everyone around me," she says. "I'd spent so many years as an addict that nothing in the world mattered to me. I didn't know how to care anymore. I didn't even care if I died tomorrow."

Jarvis tells SFR the horses taught her how to care, trust, be honest with herself and others, and embody self-confidence. Eventually she was able to translate the lessons she learned with the horses into her interactions with people—and this, she says, was what kept her sober after she left the program.

"Since I've left Delancey Street, I've been very successful in everything I've done, and I can't help attribute most of that to the horses and the fact that I learned how to communicate effectively with my body. Now I know how to read people, I know how to call bullshit and I know how to be upfront with my own intentions," she says.

As a felon, Jarvis still faces many obstacles—she can't take out a loan or rent an apartment on her own. She focused on learning professional skills that would facilitate self-employment, because few people will hire someone with a criminal record like hers.

"The way the justice system is set up now is not as effective as it could be if there were more programs like Delancey Street," she says, "where people have to be responsible for themselves, their words and their actions, and where emotional intelligence is nurtured and rewarded."

The Mustang is showing through April 11 at the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque, 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 982-1338. For specific showtimes, visit ccasantafe.org.