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Hired to Tame Horses, She Bonded With the People, Too

Well, yes.

Gaffney has a breathtaking and at times nearly otherworldly ability to read horses by closely studying their bodies, and then to capture what she sees with her prose. “The slightest movement — a flick of an ear, a shortening of breath — is how a horse will try to communicate,” she writes, describing what she calls “subtle language.” Perhaps even more remarkable is that she also can see the humans through the horses’ eyes: “Fear and its family members — anger, frustration, pain — are all carried in the residents’ steps, in their shoulders and necks, the way their backs round forward, forcing them to look out through the tips of their eyes, hiding in the shadows just beneath their eyebrows.” They are, she says, are “unknowingly communicating their pain to the horses.”

The vulnerability of the residents and their existence at the margins of society make for a conundrum in their portrayal. Gaffney says in an author’s note that some characters are composites. In journalism, there is a bright line between making a character less identifiable for reasons of safety or privacy — using just a first name, not using a name at all, removing identifying details — and the creation of composite characters from elements of real people. Memoir is not journalism, but since the mode of this book is one of intimate observation, the use of composite characters feels a little dismaying; if you read that author’s note and then follow along as Gaffney draws characters like Tony, Randy, Eliza and Joey with tremendous sensitivity and sympathy, it brings you up short to realize that in fact there may be no Joey, the defeated young man who forms a bond with the wounded horse, Luna, after she watches him rescue a litter of feral kittens. (We can assume — or can we? — that the horses, at least, are not composites.)

Gaffney surely feels an obligation to people who had no idea, when the horse trainer came to the ranch where they were serving a prison sentence, that their every angry outburst, every crying jag, every moment of breakthrough or failure might appear years later in a book. She may well have had to assure some people she would not write about them, or others that they would not be recognizable, in order to tell climactic stories — like when most of the livestock crew must leave the ranch, returning to prison or to a fugitive life on the street, after they violate the ranch rules prohibiting drugs and sex; or when the wounded Luna transforms into a deeply trusting creature.

A gift for documenting infinitesimal gradations of fear, anger or sheer sensory joy animates Gaffney’s scenes of the interactions of the residents and the horses, as well as some of the episodes in her own life she relates, like the workshop she attended 15 years earlier, taught by a world-famous trainer, at which she was the only woman. Assigned to work with a young filly who wasn’t yet ready for the saddle, Gaffney followed the famous trainer’s instructions, despite her own instincts, and both she and the horse ended up injured. “I wish I had fought harder for what I knew,” she writes. “Ginger, I tell myself, next time you will.”

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