Learning to Walk

Working with horses and residents at a prison-alternative ranch.

learning 1

A long time ago, the residents used to ride the horses. But as the accidents and injuries piled up, along with the mythic tales which accompanied them, the horses became much more than a liability. They were deadly.

Photo by Moyan Brenn

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I asked everyone to gather up and meet me over by the round pen. Earlier, we ran the horses out of the shop area, past the garden with the corn growing tall, and down through the 15 acres of pasture we keep for them in the middle of the property. Bucking and twisting, resisting and rearing, we eventually corralled them into the round pen—a recently built structure at the far end of the pastures. Today will be the first day we start working the horses. Twelve men and a few women assemble around me. Some are casually talking, while a few others are very quiet and watchful. There are still a number of them who struggle to hold their attention on any one thing too long. They gaze at the horses with a glazed and stagnant eye.

This ranch is their prison—all of them multiple offenders, felons. They refer to themselves, over and over again, as people who have done some very bad things. They live at the ranch now after hitting rock bottom; the ranch is here to save their lives. Period. Horses have always been part of the ranch. They live loosely with the residents on the property, which sits along the banks of the Rio Grande. By loosely, I mean they roam freely in the pastures, they gather in the automotive shop when it rains and snows, and in the woodshop when the flies get too bad. They forage through the ranch dumpsters for cookies, leftover baked goods, Wonder Bread. At night they are corralled into sizeable pens with shelter, water, and alfalfa hay. During the day they wander the entire property like giant gods who have dominion over all things: humans and horses coexisting in containment.

No one on the ranch knows much of anything about horses. They don’t know that Wonder Bread and Tastykakes are not good forage for an animal that has historically grazed on grasses, flowers, and tree bark for thousands of years. The horses run in packs like dogs chasing the residents when they bring the trash out from the cafeteria after meals. The residents gather in a tight circle next to the trash carriers. They carved wooden poles in their woodshop that they carry to fend off each attack. Residents have been bitten, had arms and wrists broken, been tripped and stepped on, and frightened out of their skin. Men and women, toughened by prison and living on the streets, run as fast as they can for safety when the horses begin their charge.

For me it was just another call. Another person or ranch asking me to help them with their horses. It’s my job, what I have done every day for the last 20 years. I hear many stories of how people are having trouble with their horses. I can hear the trouble in slow motion, see the footage shoot through my mind. There are a lot of things that go unsaid: the slightest movements, a flick of an ear, the corner of an eye, a shortening of breath—all of which when noticed could have averted the whole bad tale in the first place. But this call was different. Not once in my life had I heard of horses acting like this: scavenging, marauding war parties of horses. I didn’t think it could be true, and if it was I certainly needed to see it.

My first trip to the ranch was on a Sunday. The one day of the week the residents have off from a grueling work schedule. At the ranch, they have a livestock division. That means certain people are required to feed and care for the horses, ducks, dogs, and cats that live on the ranch. There are two heads of the livestock division and about twelve other members who split daily duties of caring for the animals. A long time ago, the residents used to ride the horses. But as the accidents and injuries piled up, along with the mythic tales that accompanied them, the horses became much more than a liability. They were deadly.

When I first came to the ranch, the livestock division was run by two women, Angie and Sarah. Angie was in her early 30s, a heroin addict for 15 years. She was in prison for a multitude of crimes, with the last term for robbing her mother’s house on the pueblo. Her mom turned her in, feeling certain that prison was the safest place for Angie to be. Sarah was 45; a mother of three, a meth and heroin addict, and a prostitute since she was 13. Sarah was emotionally volatile, a damaged woman trapped inside a strongly abused body. Angie and Sarah had caused a recent stir by claiming that the horses were not being treated properly by the other members of the livestock division, who were mostly all men.

That’s when I got the call. I am a small woman, and I don’t weigh more than 120 pounds. I can be quiet when I first meet people, and I don’t usually make a dramatic first impression. On this particular Sunday, I found myself in the middle of the most dangerous behavior I had ever encountered before. Everyone was there, sitting on the benches under the shelter of the small equipment barn that sits just a few yards away from the nighttime corrals. It was four in the afternoon, feeding time. Recently they had a few bad accidents during the feeding routine, arguments about whose fault it was, and the question as to how to fix the problems had forced them to seek professional help. I introduced myself to everyone, and they graciously introduced themselves back. Then, as if a curtain dropped, everyone fell silent. The horses were at the far end of the pasture, grazing peacefully in the late afternoon sun.

“OK,” I said, breaking the silence, “show me how you bring them in.”

Barrett, a young, strong man in his early thirties got up and went over to the hay barn door, which is a few feet away from the equipment shed. A few other men followed to stand behind him. He unlocked the door and started throwing flakes of alfalfa into the arms of the waiting men. They each grabbed the hay, tucked it tightly against their bodies, and took off at a full race toward the night corrals. They emptied the hay abruptly into the troughs, and then raced back to the shelter of the equipment barn. A few of the men had to make round trips to ensure each horse would be fed. Angie, Sarah, and the others were crammed into the shelter and shouting loudly as if participating in an important sporting event.

“Hurry up! Here they come! Get back in here!”

The screaming paralyzed me. And then there they were—the horses galloping, ears back, kicking up and thundering towards us. I was standing alongside the large cottonwood tree that shades the barn and night corrals. A herd of horses running in my direction never ceases to have a mesmerizing effect. Most of my days are filled with teaching horses how to love my world, but the real secret is how I love theirs. The shouting and screaming became louder, and a few of the men ran out and grabbed me, dragging me back inside the barn area. We were all enclosed together in an 8’ x 10’ overhanging shelter in front of the hay barn. The horses could see us, but they could not get to us. These were not horses, I thought, watching them bare their teeth at us as if we were the main meal for the night. Their dark, cold, angry eyes were unrecognizable to me.

We were their captives, run into our cell like lesser animals. I felt I had landed on another planet. Once we were solidly put away in safe subordination, the horses walked off casually into the corrals for their evening meal. The men snuck quietly out of the shelter after a few moments and shut the corral gates. We could now re-enter our world, but only because the giant beasts were content and contained for the night.

Some of the residents move with an artificial confidence, something they must try on in order to eventually make honest. Others have no life left in their bodies; they are soft and amorphous, like small sea creatures hanging on to any reef to which they can cling. Movement, and the lack thereof, is an emotional story. It tells all. Every day, the horses absorb the stories told from the roaming residents. Over the many years of this contained engagement between hurting humans and once-wild animals, a disaster had been created. Strong men and women beaten down by poverty, by family history, by the prison system all walk the ranch daily, doing chores and odd jobs, unknowingly constant in their communication with the horses.

Survival means to take full notice. With their ears and eyes, even while grazing head down, the horses see all, feel all. Horses survive by acknowledging risk and by asserting leadership. Flight, not fight, is how horses naturally resolve troubling situations. Leaders become leaders by being adept at keeping the herd out of harm’s way, by noticing peril and using their inherited gift of speed to reduce the danger. The movement and the emotions of the residents tell a repetitious story of hazard to these horses. Choppy, abrupt, artificially strong, and emotionally detached, the residents create and contribute to the ongoing silent disturbance.

Flight or fight: inside the tall adobe walls of this contained ranch, thousands of years of inherited instinct has been reversed. Not enough space to truly flee, where danger walks 90 men and women strong, fight is the new form of survival. The mirror has spoken.

The horses moved around the round pen, watchful with their ears but casual and aloof with their eyes. The men and women gathered around the top rail, leaning in on the horses, anxious to see what might happen next. What I saw in those horses worried me. Vigilant but dismissive, defensive and certain—they may have been corralled, but they were still in charge and they knew it. I gathered my ropes and a small bamboo pole six feet long and walked into the round pen. The men were casually talking, joking, and berating each other. Their world as small as a pinhole, narrowly aware of their surroundings. Without saying a word, I started to work. I chose the big bay named Hawk. Hawk, I was told, was the worst of the herd. He would lead the charge after lunchtime when the residents brought out the trash. Baring his teeth, flattening his ears, and reeling around with his hind legs to threaten to kick them away from his garbage, Hawk was well-versed in how to intimidate and trample.

Inside the round pen, my mind was on Hawk. When he walked, I walked. When he stopped, I stopped. He heard me. His ear and the corner of his eye were sternly on me. The other horses gathered in the middle of the pen while Hawk and I walked the perimeter. I picked up my bamboo pole in my left hand and started tapping it on the ground as I walked. Hawk’s ears flattened. Still walking away from me, he became more and more agitated. He swung his head and neck toward me like a lion; his dark, cold eye warning me to back away. The men fell to a hush, but I kept tapping. I won’t get back, I said in my mind. No, I will not back up. Tap. Tap. Tap. I knew what was coming; I had seen it before, but only rarely. Hawk was coming in to attack me, and I was armed only with a bamboo cane and a rope to save my life.

At first he charged me halfway, swinging his shoulders, neck, and head in my direction—teeth bared, ears flat. I stabbed the bamboo cane into the center of his chest and quickly slapped it hard against his momentum. He flashed himself backwards in surprise. I tapped against the ground just behind his back legs to let him know I wanted him to walk forward again. I spread my legs and crouched a little, readying myself for the next charge. I began to swing the rope coiled in my right hand a little, over and under, in time with the tapping of the ground. And then he turned and came at me with all he had. I smacked him across the forehead with my cane, then twice again quickly across his shoulders. He rose up off his front legs, rearing straight up into the sky and towering over me, refusing to retreat, pumping his front legs at my head. I had never before heard the sound that came out of me: a roar so fierce, so determined and clear, but I was trembling. I thrashed at his front legs with the bamboo, moving sideways but never backwards, holding my ground. Down he came, and on the way he swirled around swinging his rear end toward me, determined and aiming. My rope was eight feet long now, the lash of it stinging him over and over again across his back, his loin, his strong, powerful rear-end musculature. Still jumping left and right to remove myself from his view, I crashed against him with all of the small force I could muster. I swung my rope and smacked with my cane. He kicked out and twirled again in order to catch a glimpse of me and set me up in his line of fire. In a final effort, I lashed him evenly across the back of his hind legs and succeeded in giving him a good sting. He jumped forward, away from me, a tiny victory. Tap. Tap. Tap. He walked away from me, ears still pinned. I quickly turned away from him as he walked away from me. Pressure off: no harm, no foul. I climbed over the top rail of the round pen and walked away from the horses. The men gathered around me, like a huddle after a big game-winning basket, whooping and hooting in disbelief at what they had witnessed, their jaws dropping.

After a few minutes, I looked back toward the round pen, keeping an eye on Hawk. He was standing alone where I had left him, his head low with one leg cocked and resting. His ears were soft and placed lightly to the sides of his head. His whole body looked deflated, less rigid. His eyes were half shut, half asleep. His mouth hung loosely, with his bottom lip in a droop. The other horses sniffed and muzzled the short weeds and grasses in the middle of the pen. We opened the gate to let them out, and they walked out casually and calmly back to their pasture. Hawk stayed resting.

I climbed back over the top rail of the round pen and stood on the far side facing him. This is our new herd, I thought, you and me. “If you don’t know what number you are,” one of my teachers once told me, “then you are number two.” Generally speaking, I think humans could use a good dose of learning to be number two, but in this situation I didn’t have that luxury. I walked to the middle of the pen and picked up my pole, standing there quietly and waiting. Hawk’s head rose a little, his legs straightened. In the corner of his eye, there lay a question, a curiosity toward me. I took a step toward his hind end but kept my pole still. A light, clear click came from the edge of my tongue. His ears captured it and flickered back and forth. I took one more step forward, one more click. Hawk stepped forward and slowly went away from me; I followed behind at a safe distance. When he would slow his step, I would click and he would return to walking. When I would stop, he would stop. When I would go, he would go. His breath became deep and noticeable. He blew through his nostrils that comforting catching breath of horses who are satisfied and settled. His mouth and jaw rolled his tongue around, and the ease of it warmed me. I stopped, walked away again, and climbed out of the pen. I went over to the dusty old box that holds the halters and picked one out. I realized they hadn’t been used in a long time. I walked over to the gate, opened it wide, and placed the halter and lead line on Hawk. He followed behind me with his head low and his eyes soft. I took him out toward his other herd. When we reached the pasture, I slid the halter off Hawk. We stood silently as I groomed his neck, face, and chest with the palm of my hand. Then as I turned and left him, he bent his head down for the grasses and never looked up.

She was definitely crooked. Most of her weight listed off to the left. Her head cocked sideways, tilting the world away from center. Everything from her waist down looked like it was out of joint. Abuses to the soul run deep, long rivers of pain into the body. Sarah appeared to be always happy, always ready for things to change. Her enthusiasm seemed to irritate quite a few of the other residents, but it also commanded a quirky sense of leadership at the ranch. She was one of the oldest people in the livestock department. Before she began her career at her father’s strip club at the age of 13, Sarah lived in the country outside of Los Angeles on a small ranch. Her memory of her childhood with horses was coated in a dusty, pink haze from her 30 years of drug addiction. Her love for the ranch horses was real; she alone knew that these horses were in trouble, and she was the voice on the line when I got the first call.

I drove into the ranch on my second trip with a trailer full of horses I had trained. The residents met me at the main gate, not accustomed to seeing a woman drive such a big rig. We unloaded the horses, tied them to the trailer, with everyone in awe of their size, beauty, and excellent manners.

“Before we get started, I want everyone to line up facing down the road,” I said.

To a painter’s eye, it would have been a cacophony of form. Some round, some thin, slumping shoulders, and a few arrogantly carried chests. They carried their heads slightly turned, twisted, and fallen—the shapes of uncertainty couched in defiance.

“Today we are going to learn to walk.”

Laughter poured out from the crowd. I lined up next to Sarah, and I asked everyone to watch me carefully. I walked away from them, taking long, smooth strides, my head upright, eyes forward, arms loose. Then I turned and walked back, demonstrating the same flow.

“Let’s take turns. Sarah, you go first.”

Peeling off to the left, Sarah wobbled up the road and back as best she could.

“That was good; now, let me help you. Everyone, listen up.”

The group was getting restless and silly. The simple exercise seemed ridiculous to them.

“If you want these horses to respect you, you have to respect yourself,” I stated loudly. “How you walk, how you hold your posture, tells these horses whether to stomp you or follow you. It also tells them whether you’re trustworthy or a fake, and believe me, they know the difference.”

I went over to Sarah and gently put my hands on her head, neck, and shoulders and centered them. I pulled downward on her right arm until her right hand was level with her left. I stood in front of her scanning her whole body for balance.

I spoke up so everyone could hear, “Sarah, you love the horses, but you walk around them like a hobbled, weak woman. They see this, and because of it they will never respect you. We need to fix that, OK?”

With her head on center, she firmly conceded, “Yes!”

“I’ll show you one more time,” I said and walked down the road and back, confident but not artificial in my gait.

Sarah stepped out, emphasizing her attempt to correct everything to the right. It was a valiant effort.

“Each of you has to stay conscious of yourself and all your behavior and movement patterns when you are around the horses,” I told the group. “That kind of emotional and physical control is the only way these horses will ever take an interest in you. Basically, I am telling each of you that you are going to have to change on the inside and on the outside for this to work. You’re going to need a lot of practice. Who is next?”

Fred walked forward, “I’ll go.”

He walked down the road like he was mad as hell, pounding strides with his head held up, eyes forward, hands clenched into fists. He turned and stomped back. Fred weighed over 300 pounds, six feet tall, with broad intimidating shoulders. He admittedly had anger issues; this was the main reason for his stay at the ranch. Fred did not need to be here, because his current prison term was up. His wife told him after his last release from prison that he needed to come to the ranch and work on his anger issues before he would be welcomed back home. Some days he was extremely frustrated by his situation, and other days he was honest and crumbling. He was a giant seesaw of emotion.

As he walked back into the lineup, Fred announced, “These horses don’t mess with me. I’m not afraid of them.” Fred put his best badass on, shoulders slouched forward, arms doing the downward punch, popping up and down off his toes. “I know horses; I used to work with them off the track in Florida. These horses don’t scare me,” he repeated, freely pumping his toughness with his lips pinched and readying for a fight.

I looked down the line at the other residents who were shaking their heads quietly in denial of Fred’s boastful show.

“Oh,” I said, “well, good, then why don’t you head over to the trailer and untie Billie. She’s an ex-track horse. Second one to the left, with the four white socks. Untie her, and bring her over.”

Fred stopped cold, the beefy bravado melting away. “You want me to do what?” he said.

I repeated myself carefully as he looked at me in disbelief. He then did his best to put his hammering body back together and strutted off toward the trailer at a much slower clip. The residents in line were all sheepishly smiling as they turned to watch Fred head off. The horses were in line, each tied to the trailer with a chain of slip knots and a lock at the end of each one. Fred’s first challenge would be to slip his 300-pound angry body between my two biggest horses tied closely next to one another and untangle those knots while standing inches away from Billie’s mouth and four strong hooves, essentially sandwiching himself between the two horses on either side. He stopped at the edge of the trailer and pointed at Moo, my Morgan gelding who was tied at the far end of the trailer.

“This one?” he asked.

“No, the next one,” I quietly corrected, trying to hold back my desire to run over and help him out of his predicament.

“You want me to go in there, untie her, and do what?” His memory was slipping behind the fear now. He was shaking a little, his lips no longer tight but held slightly apart and panting. “There’s no way I can get in there, Miss Ginger, no way,” he finally confessed.

“Do you want some help?” I offered gently.

“Yes, that would be great.”

I walked over to the trailer with the other residents coming behind me in a semi-circle.

“Everybody likes to say that we cannot show our horses any fear, but I disagree. What they need most is honesty. If you are truly honest about how you feel, you will express that outwardly with your body and give it a chance to leave you. Open the door, Fred,” I said confidently, “you can do this.”

He stepped into the thin space between the two horses, muttering oh, shit and fuck this a number of times.

“Lay your hand on her rump, Fred, as you walk in there; let her feel you.”

Fred lifted his colorfully tattooed arm above Billie’s tall rump and placed it caringly on her shining brown coat.

“Now walk up to her head, allowing your hand to travel along her back as you go. Nice, Fred, good job,” I said with a quiet, calm voice.

I coached Fred up to the lead rope, where I had him unlock the slip knots, pull and release each one down the chain. Fred was quiet now, gaining confidence in the steamy space between the two large equine bodies.

“OK, back her out of there now. Take your lead rope, face her head, and walk into her chest. Ask her to back up. Don’t be too strong with her; she doesn’t appreciate that.”

I had chosen this horse for a reason. Fred did exactly what I said, and in a moment he was out on the road with all of us gathered around him.

“Good job, man. How awesome. Look, man, at how big she is! Way to go, dude!”

Everyone jumped in to praise Fred on this simple task, knowing how debilitated and freaked out he was. Fred handed me the rope and quickly bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, breathing heavy.

“I gotta sit down, man. I think I’m gonna faint.”

A few of the guys grabbed him under his shoulders and held him up. They helped him over to the edge of the road and, next to a small irrigation ditch, they sat his weakened body down.

This was the beginning of opening that fragile door that I had to unlock to give these residents an honest chance at getting along with and staying alive around the ranch horses. We spent the rest of that warm afternoon putting energy into the lifeless bodies of some of the residents and deconstructing the false pride carried around by the others. I constantly insisted on less and more: Less toughness, more honesty. More confidence, less apprehension. More focus, less staring at the ground. We untied my herd of horses, and everyone was soon walking around the pastures and roads, leading them without pulling on their ropes, gesturing with a body language horses could understand and respect. Watching the residents enjoy the companionship of horses for the first time was restorative, splintering the fear, doubt and confusion they had held for so long. The tyranny of the ranch horses emptied out for the time being, each resident gaining the confidence and insight needed to build and recover. Everyone was spread out wide, walking and stopping, backing up and turning, the horses following on a long, loose line. 


Ginger Gaffney is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is a chapter from her book in progress which chronicles her experience working with horses and the residents of a prison alternative ranch. A different chapter has been published in the July, 2016 online edition of Animal Magazine. Reprinted from Witness, a quarterly literary magazine of the Black Mountain Institute.