Breaking for Change

Author and horse trainer Ginger Gaffney's new book covers body language, betrayal and recovery at Delancey Street

(Leah Cantor)

"It's a strange place to feel really safe, surrounded by people who've spent so much of their lives in prison and struggling with addiction," says Ginger Gaffney, "but that's what Delancey Street did for me. It made me feel safe and like I belonged. Like I was the least weird thing on the planet."

It's not what one might expect to hear from a fine-boned, soft-spoken woman in her 50s—one who has no personal history of addiction and has a hard time imagining stealing so much as a lollipop from the grocery store.

It was the last outcome she expected when she got a call from a resident at the Delancey Street Ranch, a prison and addiction rehabilitation program located on Ohkay Owingeh land north of Española. The caller said she was seeking Gaffney's professional help. The program's horses were in trouble.

What Gaffney found when she arrived was one of the most disturbing scenarios she'd ever encountered: After years of isolation with a group of deeply troubled people, the horses had grown dangerous. The residents' approach to the animals ranged from fear to intimidation, and the horses had learned to respond in kind. They terrorized the ranch, charging and attacking residents as they went about their daily chores.

In Half Broke, Gaffney documents the events that took place over the course of the year and a half that followed, from March 2013 to September 2014, as she taught a small team of Delancey Street residents to work with the horses. The book, set for release in February by W. W. Norton & Company, recounts the profound transformations in both the people and the animals as they learned to communicate, trust and respect one another.

Gaffney received an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, and has worked as a professional horse trainer for 25 years. This is her first book.

Located on 17 acres in rural northern New Mexico, the Delancey Street Ranch is a "reeducational school" for people who have hit rock bottom, Herman Leporowsky tells SFR. It's one of six campuses around the country.

The residential units at Delancey Street Ranch look out on the peaceful setting of Swan Lake. The ranch caters weddings here during summer. (Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Leporowsky, who graduated from Delancey Street's Los Angeles campus 10 years ago, is one of a group of "elders" who collectively make decisions for the ranch and make sure the rules are followed. The ranch operates under the direction of its own residents with no hired staff, no security, no experts or doctors. All residents participate in screening applicants.

Most people come to Delancey Street as parolees or probationers. The average resident has been a hardcore drug addict for more than a decade, has been homeless, served several prison sentences, is functionally illiterate and has never successfully held a job, and is a second- or third-generation substance abuser, prostitute, felon or gang member.

Its programs are exclusively funded by donations and the pooled earnings of Delancey Street enterprises, which include Christmas tree lots and a moving company.

It might seem ill-advised to put large groups of men and women with criminal and addiction histories on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and leave them to their own devices. Certainly, some end up back on the streets or in prison after getting kicked out for breaking the rules.

But according to Mimi Silbert, the foundation president, self-reliance and mutual accountability are the core of its success. Silbert helped found Delancey Street in the '70s, and she's lived with the residents at the San Fransisco location for almost 50 years. She even raised her two sons there.

"To me it is the unity, the leaning on others, the being needed and giving and receiving at all times. The fact that they must hold themselves and each other accountable as a community helps people find their strengths," she tells SFR over the phone. "That's the whole point of Delancey Street—everybody pulls each other up."

The ranch operates as a vocational school where residents receive training in everything from ceramics to accounting to advanced craftsmanship in woodworking and upholstery.

Orlando Crespin can attest to this. He is one of the people Gaffney writes about in Half Broke, though as with all the characters, she changed his name and personal details.

"Delancey Street saved my life," he tells SFR. "I was at the end of a thread on the end of a rope ready to give up. And I had no choices left. I knew I needed to change, to do whatever it took to never ever go back."

What interested him most about the program was that the people who ran it were convicts and addicts like him who had overcome similar obstacles.

Crespin spent five years at the ranch completing a sentence for charges related to his alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction.

Speaking to SFR on his one day off, he says the horses played an important part in his recovery. They helped him conquer his anxiety, gain confidence and taught him how to communicate a calm sense of leadership. Now, it's been almost two years since he left, and Crespin works as a kitchen supervisor at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino.

"I still use a lot of the things I learned with the horses in everyday work," he says. "In the kitchen, for instance, instead of relying on brute force to get the job done, I remember that I can be gentle to some of these guys and they respond a lot better."

Around the time that Gaffney responded to the call from the ranch, the house she shares with her partner, Glenda, had been repeatedly burglarized by known drug users in her rural community north of Española. Gaffney admits that she might not have agreed to help if she hadn't suspected her stolen gear could have ended up at Delancey Street.

What she found instead was a community of people whose brokenness mirrored her own, whose fight for authenticity felt like home.

At its heart, Half Broke holds the stories of the remarkable people Gaffney met in that first year, their struggles and triumphs on their path to recovery. Woven between these stories, Gaffney shares recollections from her own childhood and adolescence.

When the residents stutter and mumble, struggling for confidence in expressing themselves, it reminds Gaffney of the extreme introversion that left her isolated and lonely in her youth.

The silence, she says, created a sense of otherness, which was later complicated by an experience of gender and sexuality that did not match cultural norms.

Gaffney also knows first-hand how horses can reanimate a body. Half Broke is also the story of how her first horse, Belle, grounded her sense of self in her own body and gave her a lifeline for reconnecting with the outside world.

SFR: Why does working with horses have such a profound impact on helping people in recovery?

Ginger Gaffney: I think the most important thing is that the horses will really mirror a person. You start working a horse, and the next thing you know they're behaving like you and reflecting that behavior back to you. This forces you to have a little bit of a reckoning with yourself, because the horses will not let you just get away with any kind of bullshit.

But when you get honest with yourself, they'll meet you where you are…The horses are not going to judge you or shame you. They're just really present for you…At the same time, the horses force you to reckon with your physicality, your body language, how you move.

The thing about long-term addiction is it disembodies people. They then no longer have much of a relationship with their body at all. And a lot of times what you're dealing with is trying to jump-start the body again and set off some different neurological patterning so the body-brain connection can work again. To hone things like balance, posture, fine motor skills, you really have to learn to pay attention.

But when you got to the ranch, it was kind of a unique situation. The horses were just as traumatized and volatile as the people.

The residents really had to change in themselves in order to get those horses to trust them and look at them as leaders. And so when they finally got a bridle on one of those horses that no one had been able to touch in over two years, it was just euphoric. They were so proud and I was so proud, too, that they did it, that it wasn't me. That they could own that. I think seeing the horse change after being wild and isolated for so long helped the residents believe that they could, too… With [one of the other horses], when we were finally able to start leading him around I just remember people keep saying, 'He trusts me! He trusts me!' And it was like they were saying, 'No one's ever trusted me before.'

Earning those horses' trust was so vital, and for some of the people there, it may have been the first time they'd ever experienced that feeling. Some were learning to trust themselves for the first time, too.

In the book you write that you had never personally known anyone who suffered from addiction before going to Delancey Street. Has this work shifted your assumptions?

I definitely had an attitude about them, you know? I didn't have a soft heart. I thought they were lazy, bad…

Living here in the Española Valley, you see it all around, the whole town is covered with addiction.

After I spent some time at Delancey and started to learn more, I started making an association with what it was like in the AIDS epidemic when all these really skinny, pale men and women were dying. Most of it was before our culture decided that we were going to try to support them and there was a lot of shaming going on and people blaming them. And I mean, Glenda and I were lucky to live through that. A lot of our friends died… Going through Española, I started to realize that what I was seeing had a very similar look to the AIDS epidemic. That kind of hit me, as something that woke me up was like, you know, we're doing the same thing with drug addicts. We are blaming and shaming them, and they're just dying, just like AIDS, and it's nobody's fault.

You’ve done work at Delancey Street for almost seven years, and you now work at another addiction recovery center. How do you cope with the reality that some of these people whom you care about so deeply will not make it?

The only thing that you can believe in if they go back to using and if you lose them, is that the drugs are not them. What I do now is just hold who I know they are and see the person behind the addiction as clearly as I can. I take pictures of that in my head, all the way to their skin color, nice and fresh, and their eyes so clear, that's how I remember them.

There are many moments throughout the book where you talk about feeling a sense of belonging at the ranch that you rarely felt elsewhere. But then something heartbreaking happens that makes you question that feeling. What made you feel at home at the ranch in the beginning, and what made you go back once that feeling was threatened?

It's the most honest environment I have ever spent any time in. And it's the most vulnerable and raw environment. Everybody there has so much to lose. And, you know, they're fighting so hard to have a life.

This is a beautiful place to be because nobody's judging anybody. Everybody's supporting each other and everyone is on a level playing field…The world we live in doesn't provide that…

When the lies and deception and all that happenedthe place that I felt so safe and like I belonged, it made it feel like it wasn't real. And so I just started to run away from it the way I had in the rest of my life—when I don't feel safe, I just run… But when the residents told me they were still getting up and getting on with their lives I thought, 'Jesus, you know, I don't have that skill. I don't know how to stay with something when it's painful'… I think it was that moment where I realized, this is the way it's gonna be when you put yourself into the world—it's going to break your heart and it's going to heal your heart and you're going to fall and you're going to get back up. So I had to get it, that I can't just keep running when I feel vulnerable. I have to be able to live inside the vulnerability… The residents really taught me that.

Many of your personal stories are about your early experiences of feeling at odds with your gender and sexuality, while others are about the extreme introversion and social isolation that made it easier for you to communicate with horses. How do these two things relate?

All those years of not talking… I think it had more to do with the combination of being born as an extreme introvert and a really empathic person, as well as being a very visual learner. So language was not like a good thing or something that I trusted, and so I just isolated. But I don't think I understood anything about gender at that age. I think feeling different in my gender and sexuality tied into it later… When I was a child, if I had had a choice to give up she and her, I'd have given that up. But now I realized how much we need the examples of she and her like me, that she and her can be more empowered by women like me who are not gender-defined. We need more examples to show young woman that it can be a pluralistic understanding.

It’s interesting that as someone whose life has been so defined by silence and the absence of language, you became a writer.

Well, it's interesting because books are silent words, they're words inside your head. And I had lots of that. But speaking is different…

…What we did together at the ranch, it's rare. Yeah, it's rare. And that's definitely why I started writing down the stories, because my habit would be to not value the biggest moments of my life because, again, it goes back to the isolation. I don't remember a lot of details of the past. Like everybody always remembers their lives, but I can't really tell you much.

And this particular one, I just didn't want to forget.

I was worried that if I didn't write it down, I wouldn't value it, and then I wouldn't remember it. I didn't want to do that again. I guess in a way I just needed to claim something for myself—not that I did something for them. It's that what we did, together, was amazing.

How do you think this book will fit into the current outpouring of queer literature?

Well, this thing I do with horses is really reserved for men, you know, and it's reserved for white people. It's the myth of the white cowboy…but I think the West is not the white cowboy. I think we are the West—we who are multi-ethnic and multi-gender, and I do think there's a ton of room for it. In fact, that's already happening. Most cowboys working ranches are not white men.

…There isn't a lot of literature yet that holds space for queer people in the West and in rural communities. If queer and gay and trans people can read this book and imagine living in the West and wanting to work with animals and with horses, that maybe they can feel like they could be welcomed…

I've been out in all my jobs, all the ranches and farms I've ever worked at. I never hid my sexuality. And, like in this small little community of Catholic, Hispanic folks, they all know. If you work hard, if you take care of your animals and you take care of your land, people will respect you in rural communities.

Excerpt from Half Broke

by Ginger Gaffney

"Paul, will you take me for a walk, please? I'll be the horse, and you're the trainer. How will you ask me to come along?" With his good hand, Paul squeezes hard around my palm and pulls me forward. I resist. My arm strings out in front of me. Paul's pulling and laughing. My legs are fence posts pounded in the ground three feet deep.

Being a fourth-generation prisoner, Paul's not accustomed to subtlety. He walks like a gangster, with his shoulders rolled forward from his thick neck. His hands are the size of plates. Arms as wide as my thighs. I watch his legs waddle up the road, like a body builder on steroids.

"Don't pull on me. Give me a signal, something that tells me you're getting ready to walk. You know, give me a gesture."

Paul leans forward from his waist, taking my hand in a lighter hold, and presents himself as a partner would, asking me to dance. His skin takes on the texture of a kiss. I follow his suggestion, and we walk up the road. As he walks, I can feel every hesitant, self-conscious step. It is strange to feel such doubt in a man who has had to be so strong to survive. I reflect back to him his own uncertainties by pausing momentarily. He stops and gestures again to move us forward. We move, melded together, back to the group.

I stand next to Paul, talking to the other members of livestock. Teaching them about the complexities of communication with horses. How they see, feel, smell everything. I still have Paul's hand. I can't let it go. Our palms wrap so softly, they hold themselves. Buoyant and free, like someone else's childhood.

"Now, Paul, take Billy's lead rope into your hand." He slips away from me as Rex gives Billy over. "Ask her to walk, the same way you asked me." Billy has her head low, resting and waiting for a signal. Paul grips the black lead rope and pulls it forward with one quick jerk. Billy's head swings up and resists. He laughs at himself again and looks over to me.

"I did too much, I know. I mean, that's…that's…what we've been doing, you know, making these horses do stuff instead of asking them. They're pissed at us. We've been too hard on them."

"Bullshit," Tony busts in. "They're fucking out-of-control monkey shitters. We don't need to treat them like babies."

"Don't start, Tony." Flor takes a stance that shows she has the power to kick him back to the maintenance crew if he doesn't shut up. "We're gonna learn a different way. You either get in or you're out." Tony loads his fists into his pockets and looks away.

"Will the ranch horses ever respect us, Miss Ginger?" Randy walks up
from behind, looking flush and rested.

"If you change, they'll change," I say and motion back to Paul to try again. This time, he pauses a moment to reflect. He scratches the cowlick on Billy's forehead; she drops her head. He leans his torso forward, pushes his leading hand out in front of her, and begins to take his first step. Billy slides along right next to him, down the road and back.

Excerpted from Half Broke: A Memoir by Ginger Gaffney. Copyright (c) 2020 by Ginger Gaffney. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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